Mark Allen, 6x Ironman World Champion
Mark Allen is often referred to as one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time. His records are legendary. Six Ironman World Championships, and all ten attempts at the International Triathlon in France, with multi-year winning streaks that go into the double digits.
Mark Allen did all this when triathlon coaches, and the gear, nutrition and race strategies that are commonplace today were still in their infancy. He credits much of his success to the integration of mind and body, or in his words, Fit Soul, Fit Body. This sounds obvious now that mindfulness is widely accepted for its benefits in life and sports, but Mark Allen was close to 30 years ahead of the mainstream trend.
We sat down at his kitchen table in Santa Cruz near his daily surf break. Since retiring from competition at 37 in 1995, Mark Allen has become a coach, father, author and speaker. Technology has advanced dramatically over the past decades, but our genetics haven’t. Mark Allen unpacks this and simplifies topics like nutrition, sleep, training, and preparing your mind for competition, work and life.
Our conversation with Mark Allen has been edited for brevity.
Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
David Swain: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Mark Allen: My standard. It’s a tortilla. I slather some humus on it, throw some avocado on top of that, throw some arugula on top of that, and then throw two fried eggs on top of that, and put a little salsa on top of that, a little salt, and I’m good to go.
What did you have for breakfast the morning of your last Ironman?
Mark Allen: Breakfast race morning is very unspectacular. You’re just trying to get some calories in. I usually had something that was similar to Ensure, a meal replacement drink that would give me a few hundred calories. I’d usually have a piece of toast with a little butter or avocado on it. Throw some salt because usually the morning is the last time you get anything salty for over eight hours. Out on the race course, it’s all sports drink and it’s usually sweet. You don’t want to have that taste profile going in first thing. Anyway, it was mostly liquid because it’s very hard to get solid calories to digest race morning. You’re nervous. There’s anxiety. There’s tension. There’s fear. There’s anticipation.
FROM ‘MEDIOCRE’ TO UNBEATABLE
I’m curious about your athletic life as a kid. Were there any indications of what was to come?
No, in fact, it was the opposite. I was a swimmer growing up. I saw the 1968 Summer Olympics on TV. It was the first Olympics that I’d ever seen. It was in Mexico City. I was just memorized by the distance swimmers. I thought, how can they go back and forth and back and forth because at that point in my life I was about 10. For me to go one length of a 25-yard pool, it was an absolute maximum effort. I had to stop at the other end and just catch my breath and usually just get out because that was a long way. They’re going 800, 1500. I was boggled by it.
Shortly after I saw the Olympics in the summer, there was an advertisement in the local newspaper. I grew up Palo Alto before it was Silicon Valley. It was for the local swim team; they were having tryouts. My mom goes, “Why don’t you just go and try out. You loved what you saw on the Olympics.” I went and plopped in the pool. I was actually able to go about 100 yards without stopping. Anyways, that was the beginning. I swam all the way from the time I was 10 through college.
I was very outstandingly mediocre. I never won any big races. I never qualified for Olympic Trials. I certainly didn’t make it to the Olympics. Not in a million years did I think I had the potential to be one of the best at anything to do with sports. I loved sports. I loved swimming. I loved that process of getting more fit and just doing that work over and over. I wouldn’t say that I’m a natural racer, however.
Not in a million years did I think I had the potential to be one of the best at anything to do with sports.
Obviously, I went to swim meets. I did a lot of competitions over the years, but when I was younger, I didn’t have the right mind for it. The problem for me was that as soon as somebody would get just a little advantage, I just thought, oh, the race is over. They’re faster. I’m slower. I’d do the quick assessment of the guys on the blocks before the gun went off. Nine out of ten times, I was the smallest guy up there. Of course, intimidation factor is big already. I didn’t have a way of just putting all of that aside and giving the best that I had.
Two years after I stopped competing in swimming. I’d been out of college for two years at this point. I was 24 and saw the Ironman on television. It was the first time I’d seen that event. Again, it was one of those memorizing things where it’s like, how can do they do that? How can they possibly do that? It was on Wide World of Sports and Jim McKay was.
He said, “It’s a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, a marathon.” I thought, man, I wonder how many days it takes them to do that. Then he said, “It’s one day. It’s one event. It’s one sport.” Again, I was mesmerized. About a month later I thought, I have to go there and just see if I can do that crazy thing. If I could cross that finish line, that would be so amazing.
Anyway, to get back to the mindset thing. I did a race in the beginning of the summer — a short distance triathlon in San Diego — just to get some experience racing, swimming, cycling, running. I came off the bike in fourth place. Right away, this guy passed me. About a mile into the run, I went into fifth. My swimmer tape immediately started to play saying, oh, he’s stronger and faster. Then something just said, hey, it doesn’t have to be like that. I just got my mind to be quiet and everything relaxed. All of a sudden, he stopped pulling away. The next thing I knew, I was passing him back. I ended up finishing in fourth place.
The guys who beat me were three of the best at the time, so everybody was like, wow, who’s this guy Mark Allen? Dave Scott, Scott Molina, Scott Tinley got one, two, three. You got fourth place. That’s amazing, but the most amazing part was that I had finally cut that mental tape that says, if you’re behind, the day is done. It was a very small shift that had a huge impact on me and my racing as I developed over the years.
How much running and cycling had you done up to this first race?
Oh, I rode my bike to school. That was about it. I didn’t have any background in that. Being a swimmer for 12 years, not being outstanding in the least, even though I didn’t swim fast, it built that aerobic cardiovascular engine.
I’m just not built to be a great swimmer. I don’t have giant shoulders. I don’t have super flexibility. My feet aren’t like flippers. My knees don’t bend backwards. All the things you need to be Michael Phelps. Cycling and running, my toolbox is pretty much put together to be more natural for me to do those two sports. Right away, with the cardiovascular conditioning and just that work ethic I had from swimming, it was easy for me to start to make some pretty good progress in those two sports.
Did you have role models that you were looking up to?
When I got into triathlon, I looked at the guys who were faster than me. They were my role models because I was like this wide-eyed 24-year-old and just amazed at how they could go as fast as they did. Dave Scott was one of the main guys. He was the guy setting the trend in the early ‘80s at Ironman distance.
I ended up training with a bunch of the guys who were the best because somehow San Diego was attracting a lot of the top talent in the sport. We all started training together. None of us had coaches because nobody knew how to coach this new sport. We became friends. It was funny because here were people who I idolize but were also friends. If I could just slowly get closer and closer to them in the workouts, it was exciting for me.
Then again, I also didn’t take anything for granted. I saw as a swimmer that you can work really hard, but it takes more than just hard work to do well. Right from that first race, I really tried to work on my inner landscape. That became a key to my racing because when things were not going the way that I’d hope in the races, somehow, I was usually able to at least get the best I could out of whatever situation was going on. That was a skill I had to learn, but it served me well as I went through my career.
How old were you during your first Ironman?
I did one at the end of that first summer. I was 24. I was floating just looking around going, wow, this is amazing. Then a gun goes off. People are just swimming over me, and kicking me, and pushing me under water. I’m thinking, this really sucks. This is terrible. I thought, well, what did I get myself into here? I thought, I can’t wait until this thing’s over.
Finally, about halfway through the swim I was able to get some open water and got into a rhythm. Got on the feet of this guy that was doing a pretty steady pace. I thought, just draft off this guy; take it easy. You’re only going to do this thing once. Once you get out of the water, at least you’ll be able to see what’s going on.
I came out of the water on the feet of this guy and looked up. As you went under the clock, it had a number next to the time that showed what position you were in. The number next to my time was number two. I’m like, what? I’m on the leader of the race? I thought who the heck am I following here? It was Dave Scott who at that time, he was the guy to beat.
All the sudden I go from thinking, this sucks to thinking, this is amazing. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be right on the feet of the guy that everybody was targeting. We ended up staying together for over half of the bike ride. At one point, my derailleur broke. Dave rode off. My race was done. I didn’t cross the line that year, so that one-time dream of finishing was gone. I’d been with the best guy in the world for four hours of racing. I thought maybe I can be pretty good at this sport.
That dream of winning Ironman took many tries, self-reflection and overcoming obstacles?
Yeah, the first six Ironmans that I did were either conservatively paced and I finished strong or I really went for it and completely blew up. Either way, I couldn’t find that midpoint where you’re giving it everything you have but not so much that you’re going to completely explode on the marathon. I could be in the lead two-thirds of the way through the marathon, but I just wasn’t able to hold it and come away with victory. After six years of trying, being second twice, being third, being fifth twice, you start to wonder is this dream of winning actually a reality.
How many times are you going to go back to the drawing board and try to redesign something and come up with something better when nothing seems to be giving you that last piece that’s missing? I just didn’t know what that last piece really was. Part of it was my training. As an athlete, you have a certain number of things that you do that you know work, but if they’re not working fully to get you what you’re after, you have to put in something that maybe you’ve never done before. It’s like if you’ve never done it, maybe you don’t even know what the heck that is.
In 1989, I was thinking, am I going to go back for number seven or am I just going to go to the other races where I know that I have shown I can win? I can beat Dave Scott. I can be the champ. I had to have one of those talks with myself to say it is not ultimately about whether I win it. I just want to go back and have a strong race where I give it everything that I have, but I pace it right. I don’t get too excited too early. I hold off and have a strong run all the way through the finish.
If I win, great. If Dave Scott wins or somebody else, that’s fine. Ultimately, there’s only going to be one person win the race. Does that make everybody else a loser? No, absolutely not.
I changed a number of things in my training. I did a couple days that were a lot longer than I’d never done before because I saw I was consistently falling apart after hour six of the race. I did some eight-hour training days that year. I could start to feel, okay, physically, I think I’m there now. Mentally, I just didn’t know what it was going to take because I saw that there was – even though that tape wasn’t quite the way it was when I was a swimmer, when I started feeling things going south, there was still a little echo. We all have that — when you’re feeling good, it’s easy to be confident. When your legs are starting to hurt and your energy’s dropping, you can doubt your ability to fulfill a dream you have. That was happening a lot for me.
When I first go to the island that year, I went to this little place by the water. I just said, “Hey big island. Just help me just to have a great race here. Just help me to have that race that I’ve been searching for.” It was the first time that I felt like I could hear the island talking. I had this sense that it was like the island was saying, yeah, you can have what you have come here for, but you’re going to have to have courage. I’m thinking, okay — I didn’t know what that was going to be.
Anyway, Dave Scott and I swam together the entire swim. I stayed on his feet the entire way because I thought, this guy knows how to race it. Why do anything other than what the best guy is doing? We stayed together on the bike. I shadowed him the whole way just thinking, he knows how to pace this thing. I’m going to try to learn what I can. We started running through town. He set this pace; it was well under six-minute pace for the first 10k through town. My logical brain goes, this is suicide.
This is absolute suicide, but I figured again, he knows what he’s doing. If I blow up, at least I blow up with the best. We headed out of town. At that point, you had 10 miles straight out, 10 miles straight back on lava with silence. The only thing to break it up is each aid station where people are giving you food and water. In between, all you could hear was our four feet soaked with sweat hitting the ground, squish, squish, squish, squish.
The pace actually got a little more sane out there. We made the turn. We’re heading back. He’s starting to push it. He’s dropped it back down to sub-six-minute miles. I’m like, I just don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can hold on. Then all the garbage came in like, Dave, he’s so strong. I can’t do it. Wow, I shouldn’t have come back. My legs are killing me. I got this blisters that have popped.
Finally, it was so hard to stay with him that my mind just went quiet. When it went quiet, something came back to me that I’d seen two days before the race. It was an advertisement for a workshop in this magazine that I was flipping through. It was going to take place in Mexico teaching a way of life that comes from the Indians in that area, the Huichol Indians. I would later learn that the Huichol Indians have a saying that says “it’s never over until it’s over.” Meaning no matter how impossible something looks or how difficult it is to take that next step, take it anyway because it’s never over until it’s over. I would also learn that the Huichol Indians actually work and value the ability to get their minds quiet. They say, when you can be quiet, then you can tune in and get the real answers to life, or you can get the real insights into life, or you can feel connected to life. When you’re talking to yourself day and night, all you’re doing is actually isolating yourself from life.
Anyway, in this ad were photos of the two shamans, medicine men that were going to be leading it. One was 110-year-old Huichol Indian, Don José, and the other was his adoptive grandson, Brant Secunda. They both had this look on their face in this photo that was that beautiful combination of peaceful but powerful. As an athlete, that’s what you’re looking for in a race so that flow comes. You want to have that quiet and that peace, but you also want to be able to just sense a certain strength in there that’s just slowly coming out as the day unfolds. Right when my mind went quiet in the race, Don José’s image came back to me like he was right there with me, and I could just feel that sense of peace but also strength just filling me up. It was like life force just coming into my body.
All of a sudden, everything just relaxed and loosened up, and I could feel that flow come back. Then it’s like I didn’t care if I won. All of a sudden, I was just in this amazing moment of space where I was just part of everything, and it was moving. I looked around. I’m like look at this. This is amazing. This lava is so beautiful. Wow!
While you’re running sub-six-minute miles almost eight hours into a race?
Yeah, there’s Dave Scott. This is awesome. Here I am, and there he is, and look at this. There’s still miles to go. Who knows how this is going to turn out? I’m sure he was thinking about splits in the next aid station where he’s going to drop me, and I’m having this vision of one of the greatest shamans of the modern time. It just shows you that so many realities can coexist in the same place, right? It’s like what do you want to be connected to in the difficult moments or the challenging times in life? Whether it’s a race or anything else, it’s like get your mind to be quiet. Stop, take that breath. Draw back for a second, and then you’re tuned into something much greater than whining about your situation that you’re in.
The race kept going, and we’re side by side. There was this huge entourage of motorcycles and cars and camera vans and people on bikes and mopeds following us. Everybody was silent because nobody had ever seen a race like this before. Both Dave and I knew that with about a mile and a half to go there was one last long uphill that would take you down into the town of Kona and the last finishing little stretch to go to the finish line, and that was really the only course feature that both of us knew was going to break the race up. Leading into it, it was just gentle rolling hills. I could see that he was actually a little weaker than me on the uphills, and so I would play dumb. We’d go on these upgrades. I’d actually drop back a little bit so that he hopefully would think that he was better on the uphills, right? Then on the downsides, the other side, he was much faster, and so I knew, if we crested that last hill together, he would win because there’s no way I could keep up with him on a downhill.
We got to the bottom of that last hill. It was about three-quarters of a mile long, and there was an aid station. Conventional logic says you grab one last glass of whatever it is that you’re going to get a little bit of energy into the tank, and then take off. We both knew. We both had the same thought. Grab some stuff, and then go. He actually accelerated a little bit just before we got to the aid station, and he came in in front of me. He grabbed one last glass of whatever he was drinking.
I started to come in behind him to grab my last glass of calories, and just as I started to reach my hand out, something just said GO. It was like I was shot out of a cannon. I pulled my hand back, and I took off. This is like don’t grab the Gatorade, right? It’s goes against the logic that says play it safe and do it smart. This was intuition saying, no, do it differently.
In the few seconds it took him to get his glass and look back, I’d already put a few feet on him. All of sudden, you can see it in the footage. He’s shocked. Somebody is pulling away from him in this last bit of the marathon which had been his territory for years. All of sudden, you can see him get tight. Something’s going on in his head. He starts to rock, and he’s losing his form. I got to the top of the hill before him. I got down to the bottom of the hill before him, and then I knew I had it.
From there, it was just getting to the finish line and having the first really great race there that I’d had in seven tries.
MARK ALLEN ON MINDSET
The quieting the mind experience from that race; how were you able to channel that later in life and future races?
It’s not like you get into this quiet space, and you’re just there. You’re in it for two minutes, five minutes, and then your mind starts to wander or go crazy or get negative thoughts again. Then you have to bring yourself back to it. You keep bringing yourself back to that quieter place where, in a certain sense, you’re not as attached to the outcome. You’re more interested in just pulling up the best experience you can.
I started studying with Brant Secunda, Don José’s grandson shortly after that race. There is really some kind of energy, or power, or strength that I was touched by in that race that was the switching point. The funny thing is when I went back to the condo after the race that — my friends and family can’t really get out on the course — they’re like, well, what happened? I go, well, I had this image of this Huichol Indian shaman, and they’re like, huh? It’s not what you expect somebody who just won a world championship to be talking about.
Anyway, I started studying with Brant, and a lot of what he helped me to develop over the years was that ability to just get quiet in a very quick moment and to focus on practicing that over and over and over. I tell the athletes that I coach, you can do this in any workout. There’s usually some point, especially if it’s a more difficult workout, where you start whining. You start going it’s too hard. It’s too tough or too long. I’m too tired. I shouldn’t be doing it here. I got so much to do.
Whatever it is, get yourself to be quiet. Maybe you’ll only be quiet for 30 seconds or a minute, or maybe you’ll last 10 minutes or maybe the rest of the workout. As you do that in every training session, then when you get in the race you can get back into that quicker and more frequently. A lot of athletes know that probably the biggest thing they’re going to have to deal with is themselves in the race, but very few actually do anything in training to help them practice how they’re going to do deal with themselves. They swim. They bike. They run. They do their functional strength.
In training, it’s low pressure. If you have a bad training day, you have another training day tomorrow. In a race, if you’re having a bad race, bad Ironman in Hawaii, you have to wait a year if you can’t pull yourself together. Figuring out how to pull yourself together in training will enable you to do that in the race. Brant was the critical part of helping me develop that more and more as I went through the next five Ironman’s in Kona.
Were there specific mindset techniques you practiced?
There are specific practices you can do that come from the Huichol tradition that help you develop the ability to get into that quiet space and to, if nothing else, experience it. So much of getting there is having the experience of it. It’s almost like, if somebody’s never been happy, they don’t know what happy is, but once you have something happen that you’re just really happy about, then you go, oh, that’s happy, I can do that.
A lot of the techniques he teaches as a byproduct help you quiet your mind and connect with that deeper part of yourself that is able to give everything, even if the situation isn’t ideal. Taking that next step even if things look impossible for you and trusting in life itself. He teaches these techniques in his workshops and retreats; his website is Shaminism.com.
Back to that race, you set a marathon record that stood for many years, right?
Yeah, that race in ’89, Dave Scott did his best time ever in Kona by over 17 minutes. I did my best time up to that point by almost 30 minutes. The difference in our times at the end was a very, very small 58 seconds. The marathon split that year which actually included the transition from bike to run was 2:40:04, and that record stood for 27 years.
Finally, two years ago, Patrick Lange from Germany broke it. He went 2:39 high and change.
What was your per mile pace?
Around 6:10 miles, a little bit less.
The funny thing is a couple years ago I was on a hotel treadmill in February in Boston. I wanted to get a little run in, but the weather was terrible. I went and jumped on the treadmill running along, and thought, hmm, I wonder what a 6:10 mile feels like. I haven’t measured anything for years, right? I keep having to hit the up button to get it to go faster and faster. Finally, I got up to a 6:10, and I was able to hold it for about a minute. I’m like how did I did I run 26.2 miles at that pace after the bike, after the swim. It’s just mind boggling, even to me.
Everyone talks about Ironman, but what about your results in Olympic distance?
I won the first Olympic distance World Championship in 1989 in Avignon, France. I won the Nice International Triathlon ten times in ten starts, which is more mindboggling to me than anything I did in Ironman because I never lost in ten starts.
Do you ever get the urge to go back out and do it again?
Next lifetime. I had 12 years as a swimmer, 15 years competing as a triathlete. That’s 27 years of really pushing my body, and after my final Ironman in ’95, I really felt complete. I knew going into it this was going to be the last one. I had this overarching goal from the early years of my career that I wanted to retire healthy, uninjured, and not burned out. Early on I had seen a lot of runners and cyclist and world-class people exiting the sport because they pushed too hard, their body breaks down, and then they leave frustrated.
That was one of the things in the back of my mind the entire 15 years I raced. When I finished competing, all of those things were in place. I was healthy. I still am. I know that if I went back and really tried to push my body again that I might pay a price I’ll never get back. I still exercise every day, but I don’t do anything to be race ready. I don’t push myself like I did.
There’s a big difference between peak performance and life health. Peak performance is getting everything you can out of your genetics, and the closer you get to maximizing that, the closer you are to being injured, or burned out, or just exhausted. Life health is what can I do today that I can do tomorrow and keep doing every day for the next 10 years or 20 years?
How many of the athletes you coach or that you see racing do you think know why they’re reaching for peak performance?
That’s a good question because there’s so many answers. Some people love competing. Some people don’t really care much about competing, but they love the training. The competition is just the excuse to train. Some people use their sport more like a practice to just help develop themselves. I don’t think it really matters what you do. If you’re doing something over and over every day, day in and day out over the years, if you do it with a certain amount of awareness, there’s lessons you’ll be taught. It doesn’t matter whether you’re chopping celery, or training for a triathlon, or surfing every day, or at work continually doing something over and over. If it’s done with awareness, each time you do it there’s going to be something a little bit different about how you do it, and over time, you can feel yourself getting tuned by that process.
That’s good to reflect on — I’m not always sure I’ve thought deeply about the reason behind training for an event.
There is a certain thrill to just giving everything you have. Even if it is painful or difficult, there’s something very freeing about just giving everything you have to something. A race has a beginning and an ending to it. You go into it, and this is the amount of time to be giving everything that I have. When I cross that line, then that is done. It’s very different than, let’s say, work where you put everything you have into it, but there’s no endpoint. It just goes and goes and goes. All of sudden, you feel like, oh, I’m getting burned out here. There’s something unique about competition that way. There’s something very freeing about having a very intense experience of yourself that has a start and an end, and then you can reflect.
You are a regular surfer now. Do you channel that former competitive spirit into surfing or are you a pretty relaxed guy out in the lineup?
I’m definitely not competitive in the water. I tell people I’ve already competed 27 years. I’m not going to compete for waves, so if you feel like you need to get this one, then you go for it.
I use surfing as one of the things I do over and over, and I try to get a little better at some aspect of it each time I go out. Sometimes that means I’ll do something I’ve never done before. Other times it means that I start out the session, and I’m completely off. I’m having a hard time getting up to my feet with any kind of smoothness, or maybe I’m not doing my turns the way I want. What I try and do on those days is to at some point reach a better level of that lousiness than I start with.
If I end it a little better than I started, that’s a real lesson for life, isn’t it? You can have a lousy day, but if you just give up and go home frustrated, then you haven’t gotten anything out of it. If you’re having a lousy day and you turn some aspect of it around and get something a little bit nicer out of that lousy day or that lousy moment, it shifts something for you. Then, when you’re having a good day, it makes it easier for you to make a huge shift on those good days.
MARK ALLEN’s KIT: MIND, BODY, RECOVERY AND COACHING
Positive mindset — what are the things you’ve seen work for the people you’re coaching or working with who are trying to keep up with jobs, kids and other life demands?
The first thing is to be a little bit realistic about your time and your health and your family and your job and your sport and your passion and all these kinds of things. It is more difficult for people now, I think, because there are a lot of demands on people’s time. For some folks it can be hard to really dive into sport with any passion because you don’t have the time to get to where you can envision you would be if you had the time.
The first thing I tell people is to try not to think about what you could be if you had the time because you don’t have it. Have the best experience you can with the time you do have. If you do that, all of a sudden it takes the pressure off. They don’t have to become this great athlete that they could be if they didn’t have a family and a job. You do, and those things have value too. Once people kind of go, phew, then they can really have fun with it.
What have you learned about nutrition over the years that allowed you to perform well as an athlete that you turn to now for longevity, energy and health?
I never did anything extreme with my diet. I saw a lot of athletes try to do things that were extreme. Maybe they would get a benefit for a very short period of time, but then there would be a cost. It just never made sense to try to go to an extreme with my diet. Our bodies are set up the way they have been for thousands of years.
I look back and ask, is this thing I’m eating something that is anywhere close to what my ancient ancestors would have had access to? I try to tune into how food was affecting my energy levels and my performance and my recovery. If I tried something popular and my energy levels went down, I would go back to the basics.
I pretty much don’t restrict anything. However, I don’t like stuff that’s junky that’s not doing anything to help me recover. I can eat something that’s high taste, low nutrient density, high calorie density, and I can feel that I get filled up, but I feel disgusting. It’s not nourishing my body. Whether it’s natural or evolves from so many years of doing it, I really crave the things that are pretty healthy for you.
There’s so many diet trends now, the paleo diet and the keto diet. I haven’t seen one diet stick for more than a fashionable period of time.
When you finish a big workout or were training really intensely, what do you turn to for recovery?
I made sure my meals had some carbs and some good fat and some protein. If any one of those was short-changed, I could tell that not everything was getting replenished. I didn’t have the stuff to rebuild. The ratio depended day-to-day. Sometimes I could tell I needed more oils, some days more protein, some days more carbohydrates.
One thing that I eat very little of is anything with sugar in it. That’s sort of how things evolved for me. When I don’t eat sugary foods, I really crave good stuff. If I start getting on the sugar binge, then that’s what I’m searching for and I forget how good arugula tastes and how good Swiss chard is sautéed over your salmon or whatever it is.
On the longevity side of things, are people pushing themselves too hard? What are the things you recommend to the people you coach?
A lot of the people I coach don’t get injured because I don’t give them as many hard, fast workouts as a lot of other coaches. For me that was part of the secret longevity was just training smart instead of training hard all the time. Our bodies aren’t set up to do boot camp every day. We just aren’t set up that way. We’re endurance animals. We’re the best endurance athletes on the planet.
We can go farther, faster than any other animal on the planet. Trying to tweak those genetics and do hard interval workouts every day is going to kill you. Usually if people get injured, it’s because they’ve either ramped up their volume too quickly and/or they’re just doing too much fast stuff. Their body isn’t recovering, so things are breaking down and it’s not regenerating and all of a sudden the weak link, whether it’s a knee or your lower back or an elbow or whatever starts to really hurt, and you’re forced to slow down.
Any time anybody gets injured there’s a sign that something was not balanced, whether they were doing too much or too much fast stuff. Or maybe there is something missing — they’re not eating right, so they’re not recovering. Maybe they’re not getting enough sleep. There’s only a few general things that I look at. Usually you can pinpoint the one or two things that got them to that point.
I’ve heard you talk about the importance of sleep.
Sleep was one of my keys. I got a lot of good sleep, and I would take naps. Of course all I did was train, so I had that luxury. Finding the time to get enough sleep so that they can absorb the workouts is one of the biggest challenges for a lot of folks who have jobs and families.
If it becomes an issue I tell them in the middle of the week don’t worry if you do twenty-five percent of what’s on your calendar. On the weekend when you have more time, then you get your long workout in, and that’s ninety-five percent of your fitness anyway. Make sure you get that sleep. Without the sleep, you don’t recover. When you’re not recovering, then you get sick. You get injured, whatever it is.
Since you’ve retired from racing, you’ve got books and your coaching business, and the Fit Soul Fit Body retreats. Talk about the entrepreneurship and coaching side of things.
Fit Soul Fit Body started as workshops that I teach with Brant Secunda. Obviously, he’s the fit soul part, I’m the fit body part. We integrate those two themes together.
We have these emotions and this internal landscape that’s kind of like our soul or our spirit. Then we’ve got our bodies, and we have to take care of all of it. When we integrate it together, you’re healthier, you’re happier. You’re able to achieve more of what you want. You feel more peace and fulfillment out of the things you’re doing. That integration of Fit Soul Fit Body was what enabled me to win six Ironmans in Hawaii.
If it was just how much I was logging in my logbook, that would never have earned me six victories. It was doing all that physical work in the right way so I didn’t get injured, but then strengthening my internal character so that I was able to be stable in that crazy chaotic thing called Ironman.
Brant and I started with a workshop. Then we wrote a book, Fit Soul, Fit Body. We have a workshop at 1440 in Scotts Valley in February and another one at the Kripalu Institute in Massachusetts in March. You can see the dates and information on those on Brant’s website, shamanism.com. Go to Upcoming Programs.
My coaching, MarkAllencoaching.com, is targeted to people who are doing triathlons. We will have running up pretty soon. We integrated with a company called Final Surge. They were just voted best online log by Triathlete Magazine. My app is in their interface, and it’s great because all of the subtleties of how you combine cycling and running together, people can get training programs that are basically exactly what I would have done if I was starting wherever they’re starting at.
In the app, people get daily workouts and there’s descriptions of what to do each day, what to focus on. Again, people who have done a lot of really hard interval stuff all the time, at first they’re going to go, “this isn’t enough workout, I’m not going hard enough, my heart rate is too low, you’re having me train too easy.” Over time they say, “I’m starting to feel good. I’m actually getting faster, and I just ran a PR in my 5K.”
What would you recommend for people who are looking for hiring their first coach?
There’s two kinds of coaching you can get. One is basically the informational side, which is what I provide online. I can give you training plans, whether you’re in Santa Cruz or you’re in Singapore. I can communicate with you, and we can have dialogue. I can’t be there with you every day.
Some people need that kind of a coach. They need somebody that they’re going to show up for a ride or a run or a swim and know that their coach is there keeping them accountable. If that’s the kind of coach that you feel you need, or if you need somebody to look at how you’re moving, how you’re set up on your bike, how your stroke is in the pool, there are those type of hands-on coaches. Mine is all delivered online. If people need me to look, they post videos and I can check it out.
The main thing is to find the coach that has gotten results from other athletes and to find a coach who has athletes who have had a good experience with that coach. Some people are super knowledgeable, but they’re terrible to work with. Others are great to work with, but they just don’t have enough knowledge. It’s kind of a combo if you really want a great coach.
MARK ALLEN: PARENTING AND THE FUTURE
What was it like seeing your son come across in his first Ironman?
My son, Mats is 24 and raced in Hawaii for the first time this year after qualifying last September in Ironman South Korea. It was just amazing to be at the finish line and to greet him coming across. There was just this raw emotion that you only have when you cross the line like that, especially when there’s been part of it that was hard for you.
His swim and his bike were super fast. He struggled on the run. His nutrition wasn’t working the way he’d hoped. That’s one of the hardest pieces to get right. It took me years. He was kind of getting nauseous and couldn’t eat as much as he had planned on, so his energy levels were a little bit lower. He finished, which is the main thing there.
Part of the marathon was hard for him, harder than anticipated. He had this mix of raw emotions that was elation and some disappointment and just the rawness of knowing that he put himself through something that was very intense. I said, “If your day had gone perfectly, you wouldn’t have the same perspective on just how difficult this race is. Everybody knows it’s difficult, but if it goes the way you want then sometimes you can get fooled into thinking that when you really have to keep pulling yourself together to keep going, to get to that finish line, you’ll reflect on this for a long time. There will be things that will come back to you in the years to come. It will enhance other things in your life going into the future.”
Did he have a big interest in endurance sports growing up?
He played water polo. He grew up surfing here in Santa Cruz. He ran cross-country a couple of years. He swam. He got into rock climbing. A couple of summers ago he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and went from Canada to Mexico, did it the harder way.
He’s always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to compete and do an Ironman to see what it was I did. He went to South Korea and his mom actually raced with him. She also raced with him in Kona this year.
After qualifying for Hawaii this year, he goes, “I guess I’m doing this for more than one year.” What’s next? I’m not sure. I don’t think he’s decided on that yet.
What do you think about how kids and sports and getting kids outside, how has that evolved from your time of being involved in the industry?
I think it’s harder to get kids to commit to a particular sport than when I was a kid. When I grew up people usually had their sport that they were into, if you were into sports at all. Now it seems like a lot of the millennials love sampling things, which is fine too. This summer they’ll run a marathon. Then next summer they’re doing a Spartan race. Then rock climbing, or whatever it is.
They’re getting all these different experiences. Maybe somewhere some will filter off and really focus on one particular thing. It seems like a lot of the kids now are not interested in devoting their entire life to one thing. They want to just have this broad experience of what sports and being active and having fun with it can be.
What about the burnout that’s happening with some kids specializing so early?
That whole champion mindset — especially in sports that have high profiles in the Olympics — every parent wants their child to be the next Olympian. Coaches are setting it up that way. When I swam, my coaches didn’t care whether you were ever going to make it to anything. They just wanted to coach you to be a swimmer. That whole winning is everything mindset has to be dialed back a lot in the youth.
The other side is you can’t have it be the opposite where some youth sports don’t keep score and everybody gets a medal. That’s not realistic either. If you’re no good at work, you’re going to get fired.
What trends are you watching in the endurance sports world?
There’s been a big influx of runners in triathlon recently. There’s a lot of people who’ve been running for a lot of years who are coming into the triathlon to do something more than just another marathon. Also, I think there’s going to be an increase in the number of collegiate teams in triathlon, which will bring this whole younger group into it. A lot of colleges are implementing a real triathlon program now. It’s a pretty exciting time.
I’m 60 and I still love the sport. I love coaching. I love being at the races. This year being at Ironman with world records being just crushed is exciting.
Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.