Matt Dixon: What Every Athlete Can Learn From Triathletes
Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former pro triathlete and elite swimmer, and an exercise physiologist. You might also know him as Jesse Thomas' coach — amongst countless other IRONMAN pros — and the host of Purple Patch Podcast. He's combined his unique expertise and experience to form the backbone of his coaching philosophy, the Purple Patch Pillars of Performance. We love Matt's approach because it's incredibly balanced, and it gets results for athletes ranging from enthusiast to elite — plus he keeps it real, serving up practical solutions for even the most time-starved individuals.
We asked Matt what every athlete (no matter the sport) can learn from multi-sport athletes and his wisdom is game-changing. You're going to love his insight!
Triathletes are a funny bunch of folks. Often not too hard to spot in airports with the fashion crimes of shorts and compression socks, prone to an over obsession of metrics, and often great lovers of all things equipment. Of course, while I jest (partially) and speak in stereotypes, the reputations gained are built on some substance. Despite this relatively unappealing introduction, I can promise you that their sport and approach does offer a unique series of lessons to those in other sports and interested in overall global performance improvements. It seems that, if executed appropriately, the sport can hold provide important secrets to a balanced and lasting performance journey.
To discover these, we must first outline my overall lens when I guide athletes toward performance evolution. The driving force behind massive performance gains is a simple guiding methodology that we call, for education purposes, the Purple Patch pillars of performance. These combine to create something very simple:
When we apply smart and appropriate endurance training that includes integrated functional strength, and then has a backbone of great habits in nutrition and is supported with appropriate recovery; athletes accelerate.
No matter the level of athlete or enormity of their goals and aspirations, we consistently see this ring true. It is not enough to have a singular mindset to improve performance long-term. Just because you eat well, you will not improve body composition if you are consistently under slept and over-stressed. Equally, you may have the best training program out there, but inadequate recovery and poor habits around fueling and nutrition will be your undoing. Fitness enthusiast or chasing a world championship, this rings true. In my role, I am lucky to partner with both professional IRONMAN athletes as well as incredibly busy time-starved enthusiasts who seek to improve within the chaos of a big life. This range of athletes forces me to adopt a somewhat Jekyll and Hyde mindset when applying the same global methodology to the different athletes. For the professional athlete the mission is an unapologetic quest for world class performance. All things physical performance are what life is focused around. Training, nutrition, sleep, strength are the central pillars, we then aim to build some social life around it — but for many it can be a monk’s life.
If you are a time-starved amateur I believe the mindset — and definition of success — is very very different. I believe you are nailing it if:
1 — You improve in your sport and reach goals.
2 — Thrive in health, work, and life performance.
As utopian as this sounds, this is performance in a big life. It is possible to achieve in the long-term. So, with this lens, what lessons can the crazy multi sport athletes offer? Let’s explore.
Breaking apart the sport: Any single discipline sport is always going to be challenged to provide a globally balanced performance improvement from a functional standpoint. I am sure you have thought "he looks like a cyclist" or "she looks like swimmer." Swimming is a great sport, but it is not weight bearing and the hyper mobility of many joints often leaves swimmers susceptible to injuries when trying other activities. Running is a joyous adventure with lots of potential for exploration, as has a low barrier of entry, but the pounding qualities make it corrosive. Risk occurrence is high among the full range of participants. The very nature of multi sport offers a different dimension:
Swimming: A great route to safety develop cardiovascular fitness, train with range of intensities more frequently without risk, and also develop muscular conditioning and endurance in the upper body.
Riding: Further cardiovascular conditioning, but the addition of great muscular resilience and endurance without weight bearing injury risk. There is also a component of adventure on the bike, opening up opportunity to go to places that one would seldom venture on foot or in a car.
The good news is the global conditioning effect of swimming and cycling training tends to have great cross-pollination, or carryover, to running. We can leverage swim and bike to gain global fitness in running. Of course, some running is important:
Running: Appropriate running training is the wonderful addition to the recipe. If dosed correctly then it will strengthen tendons, muscles and ligaments, maximize muscular endurance and assist in improved bone density.
When you complete a cocktail of balanced swimming, cycling, and running it suddenly becomes a really healthy looking approach to performance, with balanced stress and opportunity for muscle balance. If we add into the mix a strength and conditioning program that offers a focus on mobility, muscle symmetry and lateral strengthening we have a total body conditioning route to performance.
This is not a call to action to become a triathlete. Far from it. By way of example, if your passion is just running then feel free to stick to it, but you might consider integrating some of the elements of multi-sport training into your approach to running performance to help improve your running. Within Purple Patch we have countless examples of running enthusiasts who have done that on their journey to marathon racing and other extended duration racing such as multi day trail races or ultras. One can lean into those cross pollination effects of swimming and cycling as a source for global conditioning, and reduce the total hours of weekly running. The approach can reduce risk of injury and ensure that all running completed is executed with best form and high quality. A mindset we encourage runners who adopt this is that their running training doesn’t need to be the venue to improve fitness and general endurance, instead, their running training is about the specificity of the demands of the race. A great example of this in action would be the recent success of Rick Wimmer, a Purple Patch athlete in his early sixties who decided to take on a 7-day adventure run around Mt. Blanc in France. Almost a marathon per day on trails, to prepare for this adventure would surely mean injury if we just deployed running training. Rick only has a limited background in running. Instead, we leaned into multi sport to help him. You can read his story here.
Another positive of the multi discipline make up of triathlon extends into the health of the challenge for fitness enthusiasts. As athletes we are often prone to follow our strengths, but seldom force ourselves to take on the humbling experience of developing a true weakness. The vast majority of triathletes have one discipline that is clearly a weakness, with runners often challenged in the swim or some seldom ever ridden a bicycle properly. The pursuit of self improvement is mentally healthy, and little humbling, but ultimately a worthy pursuit. It is a growth opportunity — all set in a healthy framework. We can add to this the value and crossover of a multidisciplinary mindset require to succeed across the challenges of the sport. It parallels the most common demands that most of us face in the workplace and is a great venue for developing the appropriate mindset. There isn’t an executive alive that doesn’t need to have great capacity for excellence across many skill sets, and the make up of triathlon fosters and develops this lens.
Ultimately, the lessons and benefits of adopting a global performance mindset and integrating variance of discipline, not just variance of type of training intensity, may well be the ticket to help you accelerate. Just don’t feel that, by expanding your training range, you will be forced to become a metric head or wear compression tights under shorts in an airport!
I wish you best on your performance journey.