An interesting read, Mark Allen was one of the most consistently successful athletes at Kona.
From “Lore of Running, Fourth Edition” by Timothy D. Noakes, MD, DSc
All of the athletes included in this chapter achieved exceptional success in their sport. For many, the duration of their success was relatively short. Their stories tell much about the factors that exhaust the body prematurely. At the other extreme are those athletes whose careers defy the normal. One such runner was Bruce Fordyce, whose repeated successes in the demanding Comrades Marathon will probably never be equaled. Californian Mark Allen is another athlete whose dominance of his sport, the 226-km Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, arguably the toughest one-day endurance event in the world, was quite exceptional.
The experiences of Fordyce, Allen, and the third member of this trio of uniquely successful ultradistance athletes, Ann Trason, presented subsequently, provide additional information on approaches to training and racing that can ensure an especially long and productive racing career.
Allen’s athletic career started in 1968, at age 10, when he began swimming competitively. For the next 12 years, he followed a regimented training program based on the simple philosophy of “Do more faster—if I could just train more yardage, and train faster, then I would most certainly race faster. Or so I thought” (Maffetone 1996, p. 9). This is reminiscent of Frank Stampfl’s “Try harder still.” Allen concluded that his results from this training program were mediocre at best. “Do more faster really only worked for those so talented that their genetics were going to override the lunacy of their training and take them on to greatness anyway” (Allen 1996, p. 9).
Allen’s conversion from a burned-out swimmer to the world’s best triathlete began in 1981 when he watched Julie Moss, the athlete who would later become his wife, crawl dramatically to the finish of that year’s Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon race. Within days, he decided to try the triathlon, entering his first standard triathlon. Finishing fourth in a demanding event for which he had not trained, he learned two crucial facts. First, he discovered that he had a natural ability in this sport. The three athletes finishing ahead of him in that race were the three best in the world at that time—Dave Scott, Scott Molina, and Scott Tinley. Second, he learned that the triathlon race was not over until the finish line. In all his swimming races, he had learned that once he fell behind, he could not improve his position Hence, he had become programmed to failure. Yet, in his very first triathlon he had discovered that perseverance would be rewarded. By being more patient, he had been able to repass close to the finish those runners who had passed him earlier.
At that time, his training continued to be based on the old “Do more faster” model. His results were again unpredictable, in part because, unlike the non-weight bearing sport of swimming, the weight-bearing component of running introduced an additional damaging component.
Allen’s career as a full-time professional triathlete began in 1983 when he entered his first Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, having won his first triathlon, the Horny Toad Half—Ironman in San Diego, in 1982. In the same year, he won the Nice International Triathlon Championships. His record in the Nice and Hawaiian triathlons is a record unmatched and perhaps unmatchable, as Allen became the world’s best triathlete at the standard (51.6 km), intermediate, and Ironman distances for more than a decade. He won 66 of the 96 races that he entered, finishing in the top three in 90% of his races. Between 1988 and April 1991, he was unbeaten in 20 races. He was also the first-ever winner of the International Triathlon Union World Olympic Distance Triathlon in Avignon, France, in 1989, and he is the only triathlete to have won the Triple Crown, with victories in Zofingen, Nice, and Hawaii in the same year (1993). His 15-year career as a professional triathlete ended with his final Hawaiian Ironman victory in 1995, at age 37. His consistent success is reminiscent of the domination that Paavo Nurmi achieved in distance running in the 1920s. Indeed, it may be appropriate to suggest that Allen is to the triathlon what Nurmi was to distance running in the 1920s.
Another turning point in Allen’s career was in 1984, when he met Phil Maffetone, an applied kinesiologist who suggested that Allen was training too hard to be continually successful in the medium to long term. Accordingly, he proposed that Allen should train less hard for a period of up to three months each year. Using the Maffetone formula (chapter 5), Allen was encouraged to train at a heart rate of 150 beats per minute for the first three months of each new training year. Using this approach, Allen’s performances became more consistent so that he won the 140-km World Championships in Nice, France, 10 times. Despite never being beaten in that race, he still had a weakness in his approach–he was unable to convert his International dominance at the standard 51.6-km triathlon distance or the Nice Triathlon (140 km) to success in the 226-km Hawaiian Ironman.
In six Hawaiian Ironman races between 1982 and 1988, Allen had been in contention, only to be reduced to a walk sometime in the last 90 minutes, or 21 km, of the race. Thus, in his very first race, aiming to finish in the top 100, he was in second place when his bicycle suffered a mechanical failure. In 1983, he finished in third place after leading the race by 13:00 at the start of the run; in 1984, he was leading the run by 12 minutes but was passed by Dave Scott, with 21 km to go. He finished fifth. In 1986, he finished second. In 1987, he held a 5-minute lead over Scott with 16 km to go. Again, reduced to a walk, he was passed by Scott before the finish, again finishing second. In 1988, he again led the race after the cycle leg, before being passed by Dave Scott in the run, finishing fifth.
Before the 1989 race, he decided to change his mental approach. As described in chapter 8, he realized that he feared the race and had developed a negative mindset toward the entire experience, especially the uncompromising environment in which the race was held. He had also tried to win the race by training as hard as he thought necessary to win. Realizing that this race might require more than he had been prepared to give, he decided to do “whatever it takes” to win.
That he corrected his failings was shown by his five consecutive victories between 1989 and 1993. Then in 1995, at age 37, he returned to win the race a sixth time. Like Fordyce, Allen became a ruthless perfectionist. Of his approach, Paul Huddle (another triathlete and coach of Paula Newby—Fraser) wrote,
“The amazing thing about Mark was that every year; you would think he ‘a’ back off but he was always upping the ante. The big conception was that he was relying on his spiritual practice, but the fact is he was always trying to extract every ounce from every corner of his training. Always trying to improve on how he was doing it.”
In early 1989, Allen went to Queenstown, New Zealand, for six weeks of intensive training. It raised him to a new performance level. He was, he said, finally “starting to live what it was going to take to win the race” (Allen 1998b). He had also learned patience; the patience to know that the race is won only when you cross the finish line. In that race, perhaps the classic Ironman of all time, he had raced for 8 hours alongside the other great American Ironman triathlete, David Scott, Only in the last 4 km had Allen been able to pull away, winning by less than a minute (see figure 6.29).
His next four consecutive victories through 1993 left Allen emotionally and physically exhausted. At age 35 he retired for 18 months to a more cloistered existence in an attempt to regain his physical and emotional strength, hoping that he would still achieve one final Ironman victory. After 18 months, his body responded and he returned to contest the 1995 Hawaiian Ironman at age 37. wondering whether he was too old. The mental aspects of his remarkable victory in that race are described in chapter 8.
Allen’s training approach was to divide his year into three phases (Allen 1996 table 6.27). The first phase would begin in January after two months of rest in November and December following the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, which is contested on the first Saturday in October closest to the appearance of the new moon During the first phase, his Patience Phase, Allen combined aerobic training with weight training. This period would last three months. During this time, he would not train at a heart rate in excess of that allowed by the Maffetone formula, which was about 150 beats per minute during the last five years of his career. During this period of training, he was swimming 21 km per week, cycling 500 km per week, and running for 6 hours (approximately 90 km) per week. Thus, his total endurance training time was about 27 hours per week during this period. Allen would also undertake two strength training workouts each week but would always leave at least two clays between sessions.
To monitor his progress, Allen would complete an 8-km run at his maximal allowed aerobic heart rate of about 150 beats per minute. During his Patience Phase his average pace when running at that heart rate would fall progressively. When he first started training according to the Maffetone approach, his aerobic pace during this test was 4:05 per km. During this phase, Allen would expect his running speed at his aerobic heart rate to fall by about 3 to 4 seconds per km per week.
When Allen retired in 1995, his aerobic pace had improved to 3:19 per km, as the result of a steady progression during his entire career. For physiologists used to reporting human training studies lasting a few months, this is a remarkable finding. It shows that the human body may continue to adapt for 10 or more years to the form of prolonged, intensive training undertaken by Allen.
He would terminate his Patience Phase when either
-his speed during the 8-km aerobic run was no longer improving or was, in fact, deteriorating, indicating that he was no longer adapting to the aerobic training, or
-he was about five or six weeks before the first race of the season, usually a standard distance triathlon.
During the second phase of his training, the Speed-Work Phase, Allen reduced his training slightly but added two speed sessions, one on the bicycle and one running fartlek session. As a result, his training volume during this period included swimming 18.5 km per week, cycling 480 km per week, and running 8 hours per week.
Allen advised that when he was young, presumably under 30, he could complete 10 to 12 weeks of this type of training. As he aged, he found it more difficult to maintain this volume of training for as long. At age 37, he could maintain this training for six weeks. He predicts this would be reduced to five for athletes over 40 and to none for athletes over 50.
At the end of the previous phase, Allen would judge whether he had reaped all the benefit from this training schedule when his running pace at his aerobic heart rate plateaued. He wrote that
“the key is to watch for a slowing of your pace at your maximum aerobic heart rate. When this happens, its time to go back to your base-building phase….It’s very subtle, but if your heart rate starts going up for a given effort in workouts, you know that you’re on the edge—just resting won’t help; you have to modify your training.” (Allen 1996b, p. 92)
Allen notes that many other athletes would probably try to train through this plateau in an attempt to reach an illusive higher level of fitness, But Allen stresses that this will fail, as continuing to train when the body’s adaptation has plateaued will lead only to mental burnout, overtraining, injury, and a subpar performance on race day. When this happens, Allen’s advice is, “If you`re burned out, put a big ‘R’ for rest in your training diary, close it and put it away, Rather go and play” (Allen 1996b, p. 92).
As he has grown older and is therefore unable to sustain this training phase for as long as before, he spends a few weeks of recuperation training, perhaps even including a full week of rest, in July and early August. During this period he does no speed training but reverts to training that does not elevate his heart rate above 150 beats per minute.
Eight weeks before the Hawaiian Ironman, Allen begins the Push Phase of his training. This consists of four hard weeks of training and a four-week taper. During this time, Allen does not race at all. This period of training is, in my view, the most taxing training ever recorded by any modern human athlete, exceeding even that of the Kenyans (table 6,28). During his peak training week, Allen will swim 28 km (8 hours), cycle approximately 800 km (22 hours), and run for a further 8 hours, for a total training time of 38 hours, equivalent to the hours many of us spend at work during a five-day working week. To develop both speed and endurance, Allen reverts to doing long intervals of up to 20 minutes in both cycling and running during his long rides or runs.
During his four-week taper period, Allen progressively reduces his cycling distance by 160 km per week so that in the final week of his taper, which includes the distance cycled during the Ironman, he cycles only 240 km. This means that he only cycles 60 km in the final six days before the Ironman. He reduces his weekly running distance by 24 km per week and only runs 16 km in the last six days before the Ironman.
Other advice offered by Allen includes the following:
-The key workouts each week during the Speed-Work and Push Phases are the two long-distance and two speed workouts, one each cycling and running. All training is built around those workouts.
-During the Speed-Work Phase, only one or preferably two, but certainly no more, sessions should be set aside for all-out speed training.
-His longest run before the Ironman was always five weeks before the race, and his longest cycle, four weeks before. His toughest speed session was three weeks before the race, during the tapering period.
-For his long runs he would begin at 1 hour and then increase in stepped fashion by 10 minutes every second week, dropping back to the duration of the run two weeks earlier in the intervening week. Thus, the duration of the first seven consecutive long runs would be 60, 70, 60, 80, 70, 90, 80 minutes. After 15 weeks, this would increase to the 150-minute long runs that Allen maintained during the Speed-Work and Push Phases.
-In a discussion I had with him in Pajulahti, Finland, Allen added that the key to his longevity was the three months of gentle aerobic training in the Patience Phase. His belief is that once you begin speed training, the body enters a hyped-up state that wears you down, as you are unable to sleep properly and recover adequately during this period. Thus, in his opinion, intensive training produces a cumulative fatiguing effect, which is not due solely to the actual training performed but also to a residual effect that acts during the recovery period between training sessions.
-In response to my question why more triathletes do not follow his methods, which have clearly proved effective, Allen answered that many athletes are too ego-driven. They can’t wait to perform well and will not accept anyone else’s ideas.
The similarities between ideas, training methods, and successes of both Bruce Fordyce and Mark Allen are so striking that one is left to assume that all are causally related (that is, that their ideas and training methods produced their successes). I would suggest that the next athletes to match their successes will do so by adopting their training ideas.