A conversation with Matt Dixon

In the past two years, a number of talented and already successful pro triathletes have sought out the services of a British-born coach living in San Francisco named Matt Dixon. What links triathlon cycling sensation Andrew Yoder, sixth place Ironman Hawaii finisher Rachel Joyce, fifth place IMH finisher Linsey Corbin, Ironman winner and former Ironman women’s bike split record holder Tyler Stewart and Ironman Hawaii runner-up Chris Lieto? A belief that the man who urges them to strive for what he calls a “purple patch” state of mind and body can bring them to the next level.

Dixon is 36 years old former British Olympic trials swimmer – he didn’t make it –whose short-lived triathlon career fell victim to overtraining burnout and chronic fatigue. Dixon has combined a degree in clinical and exercise physiology, a close study of famed sports training experts and consultation with some of the sports greats with his personal experiences of overtraining to form a philosophy that seems to be working to help ambitious triathletes reach their potential.

Dixon’s calls his company Purplepatch Fitness, and his athletes’ most impressive results include Chris Lieto’s outstanding second place finish at Kona last year followed by his three Ironman 70.3 wins this season, and Linsey Corbin’s breakthrough Ironman win this summer.

Slowtwitch: You describe your fitness target “a purple patch moment.” Just what is it?

Matt Dixon: The phrase itself is commonly applied to sports in Commonwealth countries. It’s hard to translate into American usage. The closest thing is to be on a hot streak or in the zone. But it’s more than being physically fit. It’s a period of time when everything comes together, when everything just fall into place and you are perfectly aligned emotionally and physically. Of course there is a large physical component in it. But it only comes when everything is in psychological balance as well. To boil it down into one word, you would say flow.

ST: You started sport as a swimmer and went pretty far. You spent many miles looking at the black line in the pool?

Matt: As a swimmer I spent too many miles looking at the black line. At my best I was a finalist in the 1992 and 1996 British Olympic trials. I swam the breast stroke and the 400 IM as well.

ST: What did swimming teach you?

Matt: Swimming taught me a massive amount of dedication, patience and the value of teamwork. It’s a tough sport and I was absolutely world class at training and, CHUCKLES, I certainly didn’t reach my potential racing. I never raced as well as I trained.

ST: You share that strength and flaw with Dave Scott.

Matt: But not the results!

ST: What led you to triathlon?

Matt: Once I finished swimming, I moved to coach masters swimming and studied clinical and exercise physiology at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in 1998-99. There I did a triathlon as a bet and did very well. The next year, I took part in several longer races and turned pro in 2000. Soon, I came to concentrate on the half Ironman and Ironman. My best performance was to win the half Vineman in 2004.

ST: So did your hard training but disappointing race results carry over to triathlon?

Matt: I certainly carried my fantastic swim work ethic to triathlon. I’m a great example of how to do a professional career incorrectly. I could blame the coaches I had, but I’d rather take personal responsibility. Especially with my background in physiology, I should have known better. And I wish I had. I needed to have more confidence in myself. I was overtrained and had a few good results but the last two years of my pro career I was fighting a losing battle with overtraining and ended my pro career before it began. I had chronic fatigue and had a complete hormonal shutdown and emotional and psychological fatigue to the point I was unable to exercise and had to recover by quitting training.

Whatever it was, it was the absolute opposite of a purple patch state. Luckily it was this experience, coupled with my educational background, that made me take a step back and look at training in general, and begin to build a philosophy.
ST: When you think about the Big Four, what do you make of the fact that much of their success came from enormous volume of work done by Scott Tinley Dave Scott, Scott Molina and Mark Allen?

Matt: They were the pioneers of our sport and we owe them tremendous respect. They shaped the culture of the sport and shaped the mystique of the Ironman and pushed the limits of endurance sport. They were all individually tremendous athletes. Their capacity and culture for work was huge obviously.

ST: Yet your current philosophy seems to go counter to their trend-setting workout ethic and volume that made them great?

Matt: People like Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, Dave Scott and Scott Molina taught us a lot. They achieved tremendous things and led the sport, but we can never know, no one can know, if a different training approach would have produced even better results. I have seen many, many examples of athletes who have come to me holding a similar training philosophy who have improved with a different approach, so I can only look at my athletes and see the health, fitness and performance gains they achieve.

With greatest respect, I think the culture the Big Four created ultimately may not have been the best way to train. Any sport has to evolve - and I think the whole sport is beginning to evolve the way we go about training. I think they might agree the sport evolves and we should take some of the good of what they did and improve on it. As coaches I believe they do that themselves. I also strongly believe what they did was not all mindless volume. I think their training was very specific. I think they also included recovery.

ST: What is the secret to a strong career in long course racing?

Matt: Consistency is everything. This one thing has so much to do with Chris Lieto’s performance the last two years. I had him focus not on how much to do but to be consistent and not be injured. We started working together in October 2008 and since then this approach has created a platform to build success.

ST: Some have said that long course triathlon performance is 98 to 99 percent aerobic effort. Do you agree?

Matt: I actually think cardiovascular fitness is, of course, critical to performance. This being said, the question is the ROUTE to get to that fitness. I think it holds too much focus for many people, that drives then to accumulate SO much volume (in pursuit of CV fitness) that - YES - they are fit, but they are also very tired, and unable to perform. Yes, aerobic fitness is important, but certainly not 98%. It is one KEY variable, but so are functional strength, mobility, power and speed.

ST: How would you describe your approach?

Matt: I believe in order to maximize your potential you have to be a total athlete. You need to be metabolically healthy, functionally strong specifically to the sport, you have to have great mobility, and you have to have tremendous cardiovascular fitness.

ST: So what would you call it?

Matt: Funnily enough, I keep being referred to as the coach that does high intensity-low volume. I think that is a little unfair. I think I have a balanced approach, but the dominant thoughts in the triathlon culture are SO skewed toward mindless volume that it makes my approach look minimal. I have to admit, I quite like that.

ST: You have an advantage in that many athletes like Chris Lieto, Linsey Corbin, Andrew Yoder and Andrea Joyce have come to you with a foundation of competitive success. What do you give them that’s new?

Matt: Several of the athletes have just come to me in the last 18 months to 2 years. All of them are well known pro athletes who have had some great results. They are all very fit. But under that umbrella of great race results many were metabolically unhealthy. They were fit -- and tired. They were training their hearts out and extremely dedicated but were not getting results. In many ways, that is a tough thing to coach, as I not only had to provide a training plan, but I also had to alter their belief system around training and racing. The balance I have are the other athletes who have all come through the ranks as a Purple Patch athlete, Tyler Stewart (IM CDA champion 09, top 10 Hawaii 09, former holder of fastest women’s Ironman bike leg) and Meredith Kessler (2nd IM St George and IM CDA 2010 in first pro year). The development of an amateur to pro is different, but as enjoyable as the challenge or evolving a whole ingrained approach to training.

ST: What was wrong with the pros who came to you?

Matt: I didn’t think they were structurally very strong hormonally. I think that they did not have the prerequisites of positive metabolic health. They got sick a lot. When we did blood work, they had lower testosterone than what you’d want. They were slightly anemic, they had a low red blood cell count. They were deficient in certain minerals. And that is not something you cannot fix by taking a lot of supplements. You might be able to mask some of those symptoms. But ultimately the question is “What is the root cause? “If your car is rusty, you can paint it over but the rust is still there.

Another thing hampering them was frequent injuries. Many of them had very tight muscles and that led to overuse injuries. Overuse injuries are simply too much work relative to what the body can handle. If you do a marathon on a dare, the way you are feeling afterward is overuse injury.

The common theme behind all of them was thinking simply: How much training do I have to do? Every athlete who has come to me is an established pro. All hold dear how many miles to swim bike and run.

ST: How do you break them of this?

Matt: The first step in our education is to change the approach. To me piling on the miles is a simplistic emotional response to build confidence. Thinking more is better. That must change to get to what we are trying to achieve.

ST: What did you change with Chris Lieto?

Matt: From October 2008 to 2009 we got Chris Lieto to build recovery into his workouts. When you look at many training programs of the top pros in the sport right now, there is a tremendous amount of work in there – but not enough days of true recovery -- periods of time when you do not put any stress on the metabolic system at all. What we did was build in recovery first and built a training program around it

ST: How do you go about that?

Matt: Within each training cycle, let’s say we have a block of training of two weeks then within those two weeks schedule several days with either no activity or very, very short light activity. Number two, during the season we build him up with blocks of recovery where he did little of no training several days in a row to allow the body to heal. We would not squeeze in activity by compromising sleep or rest.

ST: A few years ago, Chris Lieto looked like a super whippet to me. He did not have one ounce of extra fat or muscle.

Matt: Triathletes believe low weight is KING... but in fact, you need to be powerful. So many triathletes are afraid to carry what they think is too much additional weight. So they put their bodies into stressful situations and the body adapts by retaining fat. I call it the starvation syndrome. To put it in a simplistic way, I tell them to lose weight they need to eat more and exercise less.

ST: What are some of the key things you did with Chris Lieto?

Matt: The first thing I should say is that I am not his first coach and he came to me as true professional. There were other coaches before he came to me and they deserve some credit for his evolution as an athlete, emotionally and physically. Lance Watson and Greg Welch coached him before, and Wendy Ingraham also. He has been surrounded by good people.

ST: What was Chris’s situation when he came to you?

Matt: When he came to me he was 36 moving on 37. He had been a professional triathlete for many years and had quite a lot of success. When I looked at him the first thing Chris and I talked about – I had known and raced against Chris where I saw him from behind (although I always led him out of the swim.) The first thing I realized with Chris was that he was very fit but very tired and he got injured a lot. And I felt like he obvious needed to improve his run. I also felt he was not strong enough on the bike.

ST: That was a revolutionary concept!

Matt: Chris is a better rider now than two years ago. Part of it is that triathlon should be a unified effort at three sports. The tendency, the natural emotional response when you get someone like Chris is to just work on the run. You might think: If he just had a run, he would have a shot to win. But when I looked at performances and power I thought he could change things tactically in racing which would help him become a better rider, tax him less, And with his improved efficiency on the bike, within two years I felt he could further improve his run due to mobility, strength and speed and improved biomechanics.

ST: As he is nearer the end of his career than the beginning, how much time do you have?

Matt: When Chris came to me October of 2008 I said “Look we can do good stuff. But it can’t be a one year deal. By the end of 2009, we will make you better but you will be even better the year after. So we were going to create a three-year plan and we did not only look at the next season. I felt as if it would take two years to turn him into a runner. And I thought he could get immediate improvement in his run in combination with changing his riding and tactics in the way he approached the Ironman and half Ironman races.

ST: So what did that mean?

Matt: Practically we cut the volume of training down by 30 percent. And we had him focus on speed, strength and mobility and integrated recovery into the program.

ST: How much work did you do on his biomechanics?

Matt: We did a tremendous amount of work on technique, a lot of video analysis, A lot of that was focused on his upper body. He was very tight with his upper body and not very loose. That cut his performance and endurance down. I think with the amount of cycling and running he had done, he was not very mobile and that reduced his range of motion.

ST: He also ran with Olympians like Ryan Hall in the mountains.

Matt: We were lucky enough to put him in an environment for a significant training block at Mammoth, California where he could be running with true runners.

ST: What was different in your workouts with Chris?

Matt: We put him through a lot drills. We did a lot of neuromuscular work and overspeed firing work. The whole idea was to program his body to run like a runner. So if you take a step back, the key for him was to improve not through any more fitness. He was already fit. Our task was to make him faster and we had to keep him healthy.

ST: What made the difference last year for Chris in Hawaii?

Matt: Chris’s performance last year in Hawaii was special because he had the courage to change. It was important and showed his commitment to really do what he had to do to win this race. It was an extremely brave decision to take all he thought was true in training and change it. You don’t own the right of the coach to change the athlete’s path without tremendous communication and reasoning why.

ST: So you are not a my-way-or-the-highway coach?

Matt: One thing I am definitely open to was to set the path not by saying this is best way because I say so, but rather to explain why. What has happened with Chris’s performance last year was tremendous. I was very happy for him. The one thing we wanted to do, how well he did coming in 2nd last year.

ST: Was that the best that Chris can do in Hawaii?

Matt: We both feel he can be a better athlete in 2010. Look at Chris halfway through 2010 and he is a better athlete than he was in October 2009 in every way. That’s because he is smarter, better prepared and a better runner and better athlete than last year. That does not mean he will win. But he has a shot, a chance to win this year.

ST: Any change in tactics?

Matt: Tactically, there is not just one dangerous man to beat. There are 10 or more guys I also think can win. I am sure Chris is a better athlete. I am also sure Crowie is a better athlete as well. That is the beauty of Hawaii. Chris had luck on his side last year. He executed a great race and I am happy with the way he went in. He got close and it was an exciting duel. This year in 2010 there are many more guys just as hungry, just as improved as well.

Chris’s goal is very simple. He wants to win Hawaii, The only reason I am free to say that is because Chris puts it out there. Obviously Chris has had that goal a long time, so his goals are more short-term now coming towards to the end of his career.

Whatever happens with Chris, he can also be really satisfied that he is having the best year of his career this year, so he will exit his career on a strong run. Proof? He has won three half Ironmans this year.
He came be really satisfied but of course my goal given for him to for the last two years everything is built around one race. Every decision was all based only went to Vineman 70.3 this week our mission was aimed towards Hawaii and to support a great race there.

ST: Just how are you improving his cycling?

Matt: The path to make his cycling even better is to combined more intensity with more recovery and less total volume and a few other things with specific tests. The other thing to improve cycling performance was the way we went about his tactics in the race, how he approached the race.

ST: Would that include a more even paced cycling leg in addition to a more even paced run?

Matt: It is no mistake that when marathon world records are broken – they are always done with even to negative splits. And you can learn a lot to say learn from other sports, I look at previous years and find it does not make sense to have a 6 minute lead at turn around and 4 minutes in front at the end.

ST: What else can you do for his run?

Matt: Other things he needs to do are get more turnover and faster pacing on the run. Also, Chris is a bigger guy and I think the one thing we were unlucky with was that Kona happened to have one of hottest runs in last few years. The conditions on the bike worked in his favor, but the run was very hot. To be honest he did not deal with heat as well as he can. We can improve the way he goes about his run. I do not think we have seen his best run at Kona by any means.

ST: Will he control his race more this year at Kona?

Matt: We ran last year’s marathon very specifically. He did not run scared last year. He ran exactly on the pace we wanted him to run. But I think the heat got to him, as it did to many of the other top competitors. Only one survived -- and that was the guy who won. If you look at results, everyone was 6-10 minutes slower than should have been on the run. Crowie had to go to the well to catch Chris. Some of it came down to the way Chris rode the bike, followed by a very hard run all around.

ST: What more might Crowie bring to Kona this year?

Matt: You’d be crazy not to think that Crowie will be working hard on his bike this year. I think Craig is developed over the last there four or five years and has turned into fantastic Ironman athlete -- one of best in the world and the best Ironman at the moment. This did not happen by accident. It took many years for him to develop. As always, he goes about training a very smart way. He keeps his cards close to his chest and keeps his head down. He is absolutely one of the smartest competitors.

Crowie is the most professional Ironman and he has nothing but my respect. Last year he came from behind at Boise and took Chris down. No one else in the world could do that and he did it again in Hawaii.

As comes back one of the last words I said to Chris before Hawaii was “let’s put together a race plan. You race your race. You race someone and if they are able to beat you and if you get beaten on that plan, hat’s off to them.” At the end of the day, hat’s off to Craig. Chris did not beat himself. Crowie beat Chris. All you can do is to step back and take your hat off to him. And then plan to come back better and stronger and faster.