Tri, Tri Again

The founder of Purple Patch Fitness on how to do your best triathlon.

Matt Dixon promotes a holistic method of training.
Photo by Danny Weiss

With triathlon season fast approaching—including the Boulder IRONMAN on June 9—we turned to Matt Dixon, founder of the coaching organization Purple Patch Fitness and author of Fast-Track Triathlete, for advice on peak performance in this challenging hybrid sport.

How did you start running triathlons?
“I was born in Essex, England, and I came to the U.S. in the early ’90s to swim at the University of Cincinnati on a scholarship. Swimming, at the time, was a particularly tough sport in terms of training. In my program, I swam 25 to 27 hours a week to prepare for a two-minute event, which is massive overtraining relative to the length of the actual race.

“When I finished swimming in ’96, I went on to earn my master’s degree in exercise physiology and started competing in triathlons. I took the work ethic I had developed with swimming and applied it to this new sport, and after three or four years of racing professionally, I trained myself into the ground, ended up with chronic fatigue, and lost all my sponsors. It was a big moment of reflection. When I took a hard look at the sport, what I saw was huge under-performance, both at the elite and amateur levels. I saw people like me: fit but fatigued. This was the inspiration for the methodology behind my coaching organization, Purple Patch. It’s also laid out in my book, Fast-Track Triathlete, published by VeloPress in Boulder.”

What does your method involve?
“Back when I started Purple Patch, training topics such as recovery, sleep, and nutrition were barely considered. I created a methodology based on more than just swimming, biking, and running. It forced the athlete to adopt a more holistic mindset that combined things like integrative recovery, strength and conditioning, and nutrition. It was more minimalist, making it, by extension, more pragmatic.”

How was it received?
“Neither institutionalized triathlon coaching nor the media took to it right away. With our athletes, however, we had almost instant success at both the professional and amateur levels. When we introduced the concept and started writing about the value of recovery, it was dismissed as life-hacking, quackery, sort of a short-term fix that wasn’t rooted in the DNA of the sport, which is grueling, hard work. Of course, our suggestion was not that this sport is easy. It was simply that, in order to maximize performance, you have to think globally about stress, sleep, travel, work—everything we cope with in life that affects our training.”

Nowadays, that seems almost obvious. Are these ideas more accepted now?
“It’s true—when we talk about these concepts now, it’s not that polarizing. I think both the science community and the coaching community finally understand the value of recovery. Arianna Huffington, for example, is talking about the power of sleep in her new book, The Sleep Revolution. We understand the value of meditation and good nutrition, and so on.”

What is the gist of your program?
“Everything is grounded in very basic habits. Getting the fundamentals right—and repeating them over months and years—is how you achieve success, even at the worldclass level. There are four main pillars. The first is sport-specific endurance training. The second is functional strength training. The key here: These have to be specific, progressive, and integrative with your life. The third pillar involves basic nutrition habits. That’s your daily eating as well as your fueling habits. And the fourth pillar is down time, sleep, and recovery. If you get the recipe right, acceleration happens every time.”

How do I train for my first triathlon?
“Three things. First: a little planning. Second: a little support. Third: an attitude of embracing the journey. To start the process, take an honest and pragmatic look at your life and ask, how much time do I really have? It’s not about forcing some stock training program you saw in a magazine, or hiring the best coach in the world. It’s a question of how to optimize the training hours you have available in the week. The second thing is to make it social and get support. Share the journey with someone. Join a Masters swimming program or a running club. Third, you have to embrace the journey and not rush it. Too many people amplify the quest and make it central in life, where everything else has to take a back seat: relationships, fatherhood or motherhood, performance at work. And that’s a really shortterm view. We want to avoid athletes saying, ‘I’m going to train for 12 weeks and then go back to being lazy.’ Instead, you want to integrate this into your long-term habits. The magic formula for performance, ultimately, is consistency.”

Fast-Track Triathlete: Balancing a Big Life with Big Performance in Long-Course Triathalon (VeloPress, 2017)