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Mark Allen Interview: A look back at working with Phil Maffetone and what it means for today’s triathlete.

By April 29, 2015August 18th, 2020Exercise

It was my great privilege to have closely worked with one of the greatest triathletes of all time, Mark Allen. His resume included six Hawaii Ironman championships, ten Nice International Championships, and from 1988 to 1990, he won 20 straight professional races. Our coaching and athletic partnership was a perfect match, one that was truly holistic. It involved detailed assessments of such factors as diet and nutrition, muscle balance, foot function, gait analysis, and fat burning. The continual monitoring of Mark’s training progress with the MAF (maximum aerobic function) Test using the 180 heart-rate formula was a key part of his ongoing success in triathlon.

While both Mark and I have stepped away from the spotlight of the triathlon scene to a large extent, though I continue to write about the sport in books and articles, and Mark does personalized online coaching, an entirely new generation of triathletes are probably unfamiliar with how Mark prepared his body for the Ironman and other distances, and the concept of how we worked together.

Many also wonder why we haven’t see another pro male triathlete of Mark Allen’s caliber dominate the Hawaii Ironman—he won six consecutive races, and was 37 years old in 1995 when he claimed his final title in Kona. Skeptics moan and groan that the competition among pros is much tougher these days. Then why haven’t we seen marathon times dropping in Hawaii? Mark’s 2:40:04, which included the bike-to-run transition, is still the fastest marathon split. Now the splits don’t include the transition. So it was actually 2:39 or faster.

While I’ve been busy in recent years writing music, books, and with other projects, I’m still involved in sports. 2013 is my second full season working with triathlete Angela Naeth. Mark Allen is also involved in Angela’s day-to-day coaching, which I am part of too, along with helping her build health and fitness. Her string of wins over this time is nothing short of impressive, and we’re only just beginning!

Allow me to cite a passage from Dr. Timothy Noakes, a living legend in exercise physiology and research circles, who wrote the Afterword to my most recent book, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing: “I asked Allen why so few followed Maffetone’s proven methods. He replied simply: ‘Young athletes always think that to be successful, they must do it their own way. They are too proud to listen.’ What Allen suggested might be why none had ever come close to matching his own athletic record.”

I’d like to share with you Mark’s thoughts on triathlon and endurance training. The following interview was conducted in early 2011 by Timothy Carlson, who has been writing professionally about triathlon for over 30 years.

Timothy Carlson: On why Maffetone’s methods are important today, given that he apparently does not currently coach world class triathletes:

Mark Allen: What does that matter that he does not coach elite athletes at this moment? What he utilized to train people in the past is still the best approach and it will stay that way until someone finds something better that proves to work over and over again. Other approaches in the past decade give short-term results, but I am after long term race results within a program that does not totally fry athletes. People are always looking for the newest thing, the latest, greatest thing. But if you look behind the scenes, you will find so many people are injured doing it. So is that a good approach?

TC: Is Maffetone is relevant today?

MA: Phil is relevant because the guy is a genius at what he does. He knows how to keep somebody’s body working at peak performance better than anybody I have experienced in this sport. He will have you training right and eating right and keeping all the energy systems at peak performance and in the right balance.

TC: On comparing the Maffetone method with other recently developed coaching strategies.

MA: I have had success with many athletes I coach. I have looked ad nauseum on forums where people are debating questions like—Are power meters better than HRMs? Is pace running better? Is lactate a better tool than VO2 max tests? I looked at all of them and I always came back to the core elements that Phil taught. He taught me how to use a heart rate monitor, which gives a real window to what goes on physiologically. I tried it over and over and it always worked. I also tried other methods and found they did not work as well for me. They can have elements that fine tune but they do not replace Phil’s ideas. Even though what he developed is now going on 30 years, it is still as relevant as it was 30 years ago. And if you think about it, human physiology has been the same for thousands of years. So why all of a sudden does this make it nothing new? This is 30-year old technology not thousands of years old. So in the grand scheme of things, it is still brand new.

TC: On what is different about Maffetone’s approach.

MA: He looks at the whole picture while most coaches and trainers look at isolated elements even with, for example, speed work. You need it and he prescribed it for me but it is not the only thing you need, just to use one simple example. Certainly there have been many schools of thought about the best method to train triathletes that have been put in play now. I look at all of them and I still do not think any of them are as good as the basis he uses to determine optimal aerobic heart rate training.

TC: Why is Maffetone misunderstood?

MA: I also think there is a certain amount of misunderstanding to his training philosophies. When you have a partial understanding about training your aerobic system and people say ‘How can you race well if all you do is train at the slow and steady stuff?’ First off, it is not about training slow. Second, he recognizes that you have to do speed work. That is part of what he tells you to do. People often miss that part of it. They are arguing against an incomplete picture. That is a classic example of what happens when people look at an isolated number and fail to see the whole picture. What Phil did was to see the whole picture.

TC: On what happens to those who kept training at maximum heart rates.

MA: Some people always trained at too high a heart rate and never fully reached their potential. Chances are that they would, like Jim Fixx, have a heart attack because they overstressed their body all the time.

TC: Is Maffetone an original or just a borrower?

MA: Honestly I do not know the history of heart rate training. His heart rate training principles were revolutionary for me for sure in the 1980s. I came from a swim background and at that time people were just starting to grasp base building. I came from a background where all American runners trained fast, fast, fast. Many runners including Frank Shorter would do speed work every week of the year. Now, most of them cannot run at all. Their bodies have broken down.

TC: On why many people try the Maffetone regimen and say it does not work.

MA: Most people who would try this do not have the patience stick with it. After two weeks they get sick of base fitness and go back and train the way they had before. They say, ‘Oh, it does not work for me.’ They have not let it work. And people who’ve tried this type of training and find it does not work I have found there are two main reasons: One, they have not done strength training, an element that has to be incorporated and done in the right way. They do not get as much strength and speed work in training as they need. So without those elements the system does not work for some people.

TC: How important is Maffetone’s emphasis on balancing training and family life, on adapting the training and racing load to life stress?

MA: One of the important things Phil emphasizes is that gains in fitness are also related to the ability to absorb the training. The success of training occurs within an overall ball of wax of limiting and balancing the stress in your life. It has to be manageable with all high heart rate training or you never get faster. So when I coach someone I delve into their personal life. If they have too much deadline stress with jobs and other stresses going on, it puts their hormonal systems out of whack and they are never able to develop a proper aerobic base. If they have gone two months and they do not get any faster, I say let me ask you some questions. I go through a laundry list of common stresses and find people have 4, 5 or 6 of 10 going on. Once you say OK, here are the red flags, I ask them: Which can you change? Start to get extra sleep, cut back on the intensity and training volume. Reduce overall stress on the body. All of a sudden they come around and realize: Whoa! This actually works!

TC: On Maffetone’s MAF 180 Formula

MA: That is a valid question to be asked. I get it a lot. If you have a maximum heart rate higher than expected for age, is the 180-minus age way out of whack? Say if you are 40 and your max heart rate is not 180 but it is 220, that does not mean you have a naturally high maximum heart rate. That means that you do not have a healthy developed aerobic system. And you have not developed your aerobic assets properly. If you train somebody aerobically who has only developed an anaerobic system, it means they have to slow way, way down to do it. But eventually the maximum heart rate will come down and they will run faster at a lower heart rate.

TC: Allen cites an example.

MA: My dad’s wife’s resting heart rate was 75 and her maximum heart rate was way over 200. She would get up to 180 just walking fast. Naturally a person with a high heart rate might try something and lack the patience to carry it through. In my mother-in-law’s case, she was not planning to be racing and so she followed the training zones and developed her aerobic system and her resting heart rate dropped to 50 and her maximum heart rate went way down. That is a classic example of what happens when people look at an isolated number and fail to see the whole picture.