When San Francisco adopted its strict shelter-in-place policy, 6.7 million residents in seven adjacent counties accepted the challenge to fight the coronavirus pandemic with the strictest isolation strategy. On the front lines were triathletes belonging to Matthew Dixon’s Purple Patch Fitness organization who found ways to adapt to the stringent hygienic restrictions while maintaining their devotion to sport and its positive values of physical and emotional health.
Slowtwitch: What is it like to be a triathlete at the forefront of the isolating shelter-in-place strategy against the coronavirus pandemic?
Matt Dixon: It’s been interesting and I think we are experiencing what many parts of the country and world will experience in the days and weeks to come. It is surreal – we are in a phase of confusion, a little fear and panic. But all is not despair. Very quickly you can see that humans are very adaptable - we go to making the best of it. Today in San Francisco the people are isolated all in their homes. We are just coming to terms to what will probably be a many months experience.
ST: What is the first thing to do?
Matt: Our key point is to find order and structure. As we navigate this globally it is a very destabilizing experience. It is critical to create structure and grounding within this new environment. There is a need to keep training and maintaining fitness to the degree you can do it – and this goes for maintaining a positive attitude in your daily life outside of sport.
ST: How do you go about that?
Matt: I offer you an example that is not tri related but is a lesson for us all. Our son Baxter, who is seven years old, is not going to school. The worst thing for him would be to just randomly go about his day. We create structure - breakfast at the same time, then do online school work, recess and a break. Then take music and arts courses. Amidst the chaos we give him a formula for his day. This proves to be grounding for him, the family and accelerates the chance to adapt to a new situation.
ST: How does this relate to your athletes?
Matt: This concept extends to our athletes. I think it is hugely important, as people must we work at home and fight stress. It is critical to maintain a schedule and a cycle of training. This isn’t just for physical health, but also our mental health.
ST: What else?
Matt: The second thing is: while all athletes normally have races and goals and PRs to motivate, when we are removed from these competitive outlets, it is imperative they shift the lens to maintain a place of fitness and sport in their lives. So while we may not be chasing PRs and races, now we must train for physical and mental health. We want our athletes to seek resilience and happiness in a crazy time, and get to why we all do this sport in the first place.
ST: So you take lessons from your sport to survive life in the time of pandemic?
Matt: When things change like this, it is important to use lessons and aspects of your athletic life. In training for events we must learn and apply a host of key traits to achieve high performance. These include adaptability, physical and mental resilience, and many more. We have a concept at Purple Patch that we label being ‘change-able.’ And we must now apply that concept of changeable to these new sets of circumstances. We should realize we can spend energy thinking about all the things removed from us - or we can control the controllables.
ST: Does this time of upheaval offer some surprising blessings?
Matt: The irony is that there is a tiny, tiny glimmer of opportunity for many, even in a pure triathlon lens. In so many athletes’ racing seasons, both coach and athletes often feel rushed and crammed. That often leads to injuries and underperformance. So athletes might look at months ahead of us as a gift of patience development. Pools are closing and you might not be able to swim. But you can run on a treadmill and work on posture and form and all that goes along with it. You can still pursue long terms goals - and this comes to how Purple Patch fitness is going about it.
ST: How can you transcend the need to avoid human contact?
Matt: It is critical that all athletes and people avoid absolute isolation. And this is how we are doing it. A few main things: 1. I have been helping to develop live video meetings and we can offer our athletes online challenges in platforms such as Zwift, online virtual races and challenges, and video bike classes coached by members of our coaching team. 2. We are calling together all of our experts of fields we have relationships with and offer live Q&As for Purple Patch athletes and to athletes outside of our membership. With my background and history in sport, we can bring together a lot of content and it is a critical time to support athletes with education of all aspects, whether nutrition, sleep, leadership, health or more. Our whole coaching team is stepping up and hosting daily video ‘office hours’ and educational sessions. 3. We are driving to a real social component — even down to video ‘happy hours’ on Friday afternoons, meet-ups for training and online connectivity via our private social groups.
ST: How many Purple Patch fitness members do you have?
Matt: We have a very large group that extends across the US, but also onto every continent outside of Antarctica — over 90 countries represent the Purple Patch flag, so we are well versed at supporting a global community and crossing time zones to include everyone. The company started in 2008 and has developed organically over the years. Among our prominent pros, I coach Sam Appleton, Chelsea Sodaro. Sarah Piampiano, Kevin Collington and more. We also work with a lot of very well-known tech founders, CEOs and execs. We have truly transcended strictly triathlon, and view ourselves as much as a human performance company now. This is helpful during this time, as racing takes a back seat, but we still must support and help people thrive within an unstable and changing situation.
ST: What have been some tipping points you have experienced in the swiftly increasing seriousness of this pandemic?
Matt: About one week ago in San Francisco we experienced a sudden change in mood. People collectively started go to grocery stores buying up supplies and started hoarding food. Very quickly it went from “It is happening to THEM” to “It is happening to US.” And, “It is right HERE!” Very quickly we started practicing social distancing, cleaning hands 30 times a day and avoiding large groups. In every business people changed their behavior. Within 72 hours the city was shut down. It became very real. And very quickly the rest of the country followed suit.
ST: Have you seen anything similar to this in your experience?
Matt: There are elements similar to 9/11, but then you still were removed from it. The only analogy I can think of; I grew up in London and my dad told us about his experiences in World War 2. That was the absolute seismic change, similar to what is happening today. As an individual you had little control of your environment. There was nothing to do but adapt in your new environment and there was a collective responsibility to become determined to help in any way you can. You can’t resist it or change it so you must adapt. The quicker people adapt the better for everyone. It is truly a worldwide attitude we must all adopt.
ST: Do you have an example of this impulse to work together?
Matt: One quick story. Just yesterday I was on a group video call between myself in San Francisco and groups in Tampa Florida, Colorado and San Diego. Everyone was on the call to discuss and plan a strategy. We talked about swimming pools closing and how we might have people swim and do various activities and how small groups can get together. During that call, I felt many of those people were not where we were a week ago. I realized the situation we are in. Many parts of the country are where we were a week ago. No reason to doubt the rest of the country will soon be where we were a short while ago.
ST: How will things go in the near future? And how will things evolve in the big picture?
Matt: The first thing is all pools will be closed and cities will be heading for lockdown. The mood is changing by the hour. Yet we will realize the sport, the search for fitness and training will survive. This will be a wakeup call for many people. Triathlon is a sport to enjoy the outside. It also should be healthy for most people doing it.
ST: Will this offer a chance to meditate on the meaning of our pursuit of fitness?
Matt: I would love for people to revisit the why. The why is not just about racing and the finish line and PRs. It is also about health, connecting to others. It should also lead to better performance in the workplace and becoming the best version of yourself with friends and family. That is central. That does not have to change. And that aspect of our sport is more important.
ST: How can this experience improve us?
Matt: Now every habit we form and every struggle every athlete has to go through creates the strategies and coping techniques. The habits of eating and sleeping well which help them navigate this situation will stay with them to improve their family and work lives going forward.
ST: What is crucial to avoid?
Matt: The worst thing that someone could do as triathlete would be to turn your back on the sport or turn their back on any form of training or turn their back on their relationships with their coaches. They just need to evolve that relationship and draw on that psychological and physical resilience that is needed to confront this crisis. They can draw on that strength in the future.
ST: Do you adjust fees?
Matt: The short answer that Purple Patch has always been based on a trust in our relationship with our athletes. We deal with economic hardship on a case by case basis. We try to support any athlete under financial strain. We have a whole bunch of athletes who do not need help and would never ask. But some do and we support them.
ST: Is there a new level of hygiene called for now?
Matt: We follow the advice of trustworthy authorities like the CDC and the NIH. As triathletes, we are people who would sleep and eat healthily anyway and realize it is even more important to maintain those habits.
ST: Has this crisis impacted any long-term investments you have made in Purple Patch facilities?
Matt: We were just about to launch our premium 10,000 square foot facility. It is 100 percent on lockdown and will be for the coming months. This puts a big strain on us financially. But we will be OK.
ST: Who owns your new facility?
Matt: Myself and my wife Kelli. It is self-funded and located in San Francisco.
ST: Does this state of emergency make you more careful about activities you once took for granted?
Matt: While our people can run outside and with 6 feet gap or solo we urge them to do much of their riding on a trainer. Why? Whether you want to ride gravel, or mountain biking or road biking – the idea is to seek a quiet place, a safe place if there is no health reason not to do it. But it is imperative to minimize risk for yourself and everyone else.
ST: Has this made you feel sad?
Matt: It is a natural human emotion to be frustrated or sad or mad etcetera. But after that process, I only allowed myself a little bit of angst. The one thing we have and coaches have is a role to play. I am lucky I have a purpose and the same is true of all our the coaches We have a purpose to help people navigate this, so very quickly I transitioned to focus on what we need to do to support our athletes here and globally. We have Purple Patch members on every continent - over 90 countries. One of the things we are doing which I think is important is not to do stuff just for Purple Patch. We started up a whole schedule of support and offer videos and live sessions of coaches to attend.
ST: What can outsiders do to join in?
Matt: People can sign up for the Purple Patch newsletter at purplepatchfitness.com or follow us on social media:
@purplepatchfitness on Instagram
@purplepatch on Twitter
We will update. We will offer education seminars. On Wednesday, 4 pm PDT, we are hosting a free Zoom Webinar for people affected by Covid-19 who can ask questions on all aspects of the situation. This is brand new and we are building it from the ground up.