In his new book The Well-Built Triathlete: Turning Potential Into Performance, elite coach Matt Dixon shares his approach for what it takes to create a well-rounded athlete who continues to improve year after year. “At every level, there is no one set recipe,” Dixon says. “I talk about the framework and that’s why it’s so important—it’s not a mathematics recipe, it’s much more fluid than that. If you can apply logical approaches to the sport, reduce emotion in your decision making, you’re going to be successful and consistent.” You can preview the book in Triathlete’s June issue or at Velopress.com.
Triathlete.com: How did you decide on your focus for the book?
Matt Dixon: The one thing I wanted to avoid was doing something that’s done before. I wanted to avoid it becoming a training manual. Someone should be able to use it as a tool, but we didn’t want to have super specific 12-week plan for the Olympic distance, because training is more complex than that. My vision for the book was to help athletes create a really firm knowledge base of the way that I tend to go about training. I want any reader to become his or her own smarter athlete. I like athletes to understand why they’re doing stuff and apply it their training.
Triathlete.com: You talk about the importance of having a high “athletic IQ”—how do you help athletes develop that?
Dixon: It becomes a part of the process and the part of learning. I expect and hope that all of my athletes continue to develop this element and I think it’s a style of coaching. I’m not a dictator, I’m not one who says “this way or the highway”—I want my athletes to understand why they’re doing what I’m prescribing. There has to be a tremendous amount of trust, and I have to demand from the athlete that they are part of the process.
This is the important part of anyone finding a coach that is suitable for them. Some athletes can’t successfully operate in an environment like that—some need a dictator, but that’s not me. That’s why when any aspiring pro athlete comes to me, I always have them talk to two or three other coaches. To be honest, I’ve turned down very, very good athletes—people who are on the podium in world championship events—because I didn’t think I was the most effective coach for them. I don’t think all coaches do that, to be honest, and it’s a disservice to the athlete.
Triathlete.com: You said one of the most common questions you get asked is “how many hours do I need to train?” to achieve specific goals. How do you answer that?
Dixon: I typically deliberately answer it in a facetious way: “I don’t know.” But of course that would be rude without an explanation. The truth is, this is a very difficult sport. In order for you to be successful on an ongoing basis, you have to accumulate many, many hours of training, but those will be over weeks, months and years. In other words, this isn’t a short-term sport for people who are truly looking to evolve their performance.
If you look at pro athletes, it occurs over time. You could look at Heather Wurtele (who is not my athlete), and she’s running well under 1:20 off the bike [in a half-Ironman]. That is something that’s happened over several years. She’s made a multi-year commitment to the process. The reason I answer that I don’t know is because it depends on your background, what your life is like, the time you have to commit, your physical ability to absorb load. Progression comes with longevity. It doesn’t all happen in the first six months, or it shouldn’t. If you get the right person and right relationship, it will evolve over multiple years, such as Meredith Kessler—I’ve coached her for six to seven years, from being an 11:30 Ironman to now an 9:00 Ironman, and I’ve only considered her world-class for the last two years.
Triathlete.com: You say a lot of triathletes tend to focus less on the swim because of the percentage of race time it accounts for. Andy Potts even joked on Twitter the other day that it’s all about the bike and run. Why place more emphasis on the swim?
Dixon: I felt like it was important not to talk about swimming, but talk about it as a part of the sport in general, its relationship and its effect on the subsequent distances after it. There’s a technical element that needed debunking with the common techniques applied to swimming, which has triathletes swimming pretty but very slow. Andy Potts is a great example. If you come from a collegiate-level swimming background like Andy does, the amount of focus that is required for him in the swim is minimal relative to the rest of triathletes because he just needs a little bit in his bank account of resilience that he’s developed over 15–20 years before triathlon. But most triathletes don’t have that luxury.
If you’re looking to maximize your performance, there are all sorts of benefits to focusing on swimming for at least part of each year of training. The benefits are that it’s an easy place to build cardio fitness with low stress on the body. Also, you can train at a higher intensity more frequently with less cost. And the third element that is often forgotten: There is no better environment to learn your own internal pacing clock and perceived effort. Andy Potts has fine-tuned internal clock. The pool is a fixed environment, with a pace clock, and by embracing swimming properly, you develop this great internal clock and that serves well for cycling and running.
Triathlete.com: What do you see as two of the most common things that athletes do to prevent performance gains?
Dixon: When I think about the most critical things that prevent progression, one of those is not fueling properly following workouts. The second thing is not having a large enough divergence between hard days and easy days—they do too much moderate activity.
It’s important to understand that there’s a lot of voodoo and confusion in nutrition. It’s sort of like frontier land in my mind, and I say this without being a dietitian but having access to a lot of them and a background in exercise physiology. There are some things I’m pretty darn sure of: Athletes need to differentiate calories during and after training and calories the rest of the day. The needs and demands are different. If the rest of the day is breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks, we’re creating a good platform of health—we want all macronutrients, vitamins and minerals and to replenish anything that’s depleted. Immediately following exercise, the reason we take in calories is not for a platform of health, it’s to provide calories to facilitate recovery, and it’s to provide enough calories to diminish the level of unnecessary stress that can come from athletically starving yourself.
Triathlete.com: One of the potentially polarizing topics in the book is about getting away from using too many devices and tools—what’s your stance on when to use what?
Dixon: Interestingly, nearly all of my more elite athletes use power meters. It’s a fantastic tool. In the same way that they use GPS watches—it’s a great tool, great feedback.
But I feel like with the development of these tools, there is so much focus that is being given to them that the athletes have become so myopic that they correlate work output as speed, and that’s not always the case. Because they’re riding at 200 watts, that will automatically correlate to “x-y-z” speed. So rather than the tools providing metrics to give us feedback, we become slaves to them.
People like power meters because they provide benchmarks and feedback, but there’s an art to riding your bicycle. Nearly every triathlete, all the way up to the pro level, can sit on the bike with poor posture, not think about pedal stroke, not understand how to navigate terrain properly, or how to corner and descend, but all of their focus is around what their power production is. The interesting thing is, on a bike ride, on some courses you’ll spend 90 percent of your time in the aero position metering out your work. By specifically training their physiology, once they’ve gotten to a certain level, they might save five minutes over the course of an Ironman. But if they spend time navigating corners, transitioning smoothly in and out of the saddles, using gears, that 10 percent of riding your bike well will give you much better yield of time.