Time. It’s our only limited & non-renewable resource.
If you’re an entrepreneur or engineer, it can be tough to set aside time for exercise when there’s always an email to respond to or a feature to write. If you’re an athlete, recovery can often fall by the wayside when your mind is fixed on seeing results.
We speak with Matt Dixon, founder of Purple Patch Fitness, a top endurance performance coaching company based in San Francisco. He is an expert in optimizing the lives of both time-starved athletes and knowledge workers. He was one of the first coaches to prioritize recovery and nutrition for elite athletes during a time when they were an afterthought.
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Hey Matt, thanks for coming in the office.
Thanks so much for having me. It will be great to be here.
There's a lot of ways we can slice into this conversation, given your background as an athlete, as a coach, as someone who's been in the performance space for a long time. To set a context perhaps, why not have you tell your story of how you got into performance, how you got into athletics.
Sure, and it might take an hour. I'll do the very quick and dirty. I'm obviously not from the states. I grew up on the east side of London. In the early '90s, a very lucky recipient of a swimming scholarship over here, so I came across after finding the Olympic trials in '92, not making the team. Came across, and had the chance to swim in university here, obviously the best swimming country in the world. I went through four years, and if you know anything about swimming, it's not an easy sport. Particularly at the time I was doing it, it was all about big volume, big work. The program that I was in was very much that.
What strokes were you swimming?
I was one of the lunatics, I was a breaststroker in 400m. I did one of the tougher events. I spent a lot of time in the distance lane accumulating way too many hours, 27 hours a week of swimming was sort of our average. Then we had to do the strength as well, and go to university. But I didn't make the team in '96, and retired from swimming at the ripe old age of 22 or so. But my education at the same time was in exercise physiology. From there, I got into coaching swimming, and was very lucky to coach at a very good age group program. We had a lot of sort of top swimmers. I went through my first journey, everybody sort of continued the regular swimming mindset in many ways. But decided that with my sort of restless curiosity that I seemed to have, I decided to move on and go and get my Master's in clinical physiology down at the University of South Carolina. It was when I was down there that I got into, I found this book "Triathlon, Three Disciplines." I'm a big guy, I weigh almost 200 pounds, so I also had a big engine. I run like a donkey dipped in cement, but I gave myself a shot at it, and I ended up doing very well.
Really from there, I sort of now had this backbone of elite swimming, coaching experience, and a background and a Master's of clinical physiology. I decided to go and try my hand at professional triathlon. I think the reason I give you that background is I'm a wonderful example of how to do a professional triathlon career very, very poorly. With the help of some terrible coaching, over sort of three or four years managed to train myself into the ground. I think it's indicative of what the sport was at the time. Success was just more, more, more, how many hours could you accumulate. Everything like recovery lip service, and recovery strength and nutrition was just lip service.
For me, that was really the fundamentally best thing that could ever happen to me, when I look back now as a coach, because that forced me to reflect and was really the start of my coaching journey in triathlon and performance globally. I just thought, there just be a better way.
I think that's been a recurring theme over the last, a lot of the conversations that we've had on the podcast and industry on the field. When do you think that tipping point came where there was that mind shift from, let's put in volume, you're a champion, tough it out, why are you being a softie? Towards, hey, you know, recovery is an active process. Let's be thoughtful about it, let's actually bake it into the routine. It seems that the conversation over the last maybe couple, two or three years have really accelerated. Or is that just a perception change, and it's really been a conversation over the last 10 years?
I'll say I think it started 10 years in a way. I remember when I first started Purple Patch, which we're 11 years in now. One of my first, what's always been important for us is education. I decided that I was really going to be polarizing not for polarizing's sake, but the traffic was going in one direction. As you say, the direction of just toughness. Out of my own experience, I thought, I've got to go about things in a different way. Because I fundamentally believe when I look back that there is a better way, a smarter more pragmatic approach, both at the world class level and at the amateur level. Right at that time, we started with a methodology where we didn't just look at endurance training. We sort of viewed the program as being what we call now for an education sake, the four pillars of performance. We talk about endurance, we talk about nutrition and everything that falls under that bucket. Strength and conditioning, which I think is critical for endurance athletes, and that topic of recovery. I decided to really start to write about recovery as that subject to that point. To answer your question very briefly, when I started talking about recovery, it was really polarizing. I somehow became known as this recovery coach. Some people, it really resonated with, and some people it was not exactly kind when they referred me to that.
I wasn't alone, I wasn't this maverick or pioneer of recovery. But I did see that right at the point 10, 15 years ago, that the sea was changing. It resonated, the message, because we had so many athletes, particularly busy time starved athletes, that were under-performing, both in terms of their effort they were putting into their sport, and their performance return that they would get from it, but also in life. They were walking around fit and fatigued. So it was almost like this message that was like, "Ah, that's what I want." I think that the sport started to evolve at that time across multiple levels. The acceptance that strength and conditioning is a key component, the understanding that nutrition and hydration is a part of the performance puzzle, not just an afterthought. And recovery not being a sign of weakness, but actually being a part of the program to facilitate what is still a tough sport or a tough set of sports. Endurance sports are challenging, but it's really the performance catalyst in many ways.
Yeah. What did that initial insight come from? Was it a specific publication coming out of the research literature? Was it just your personal experience, and you coaching people and realizing, hey, if they take a couple days off here and there and do some active recovery, people are actually seeing better? So is this more of a practitioner lens that you've had these insights 10, 11 years ago? Or did it come from some seminal papers that you looked at, you read in the literature?
I did my Master's degree in clinical physiology in the late '90s. I don't even refer to myself as an exercise physiologist anymore, because that is such a young exploding science. I think it was at that time though it was a great backbone of knowledge, and I was reading plenty. I was reading lots of research, but I didn't get the answer or the catalyst of a methodology off of a research paper. I really got it out of an accumulation of my own experiences, and my own experiences being my own personal journey where I was world class in terms of work ethic. I was a performance level down. I was never going to be a world champion. But the one thing I could do was work really hard. I was unfortunate in some ways that my structural body, my muscular skeletal system was robust, so I could drive myself into the ground from a hormonal level, let's call it that. It was that experience, coupled with looking at the performance returns of other athletes that I swam with, other professional triathletes that I viewed and knew, and then my first exploration into coaching. I just looked at it and thought, this just doesn't make sense. So I think it was an accumulation of all of that. And I think one thing that can't be understated is, when you have sort of done it to yourself, but when everything is removed, so you lose all your sponsors, you lose the ability to exercise, I couldn't even, let alone training, I wasn't even exercising for a couple of years.
So you really crashed.
It really crashed. When that happens, it forces you to look back and think, okay, let's actually take a real look at the landscape here. I realized I wasn't alone. It wasn't that everyone was in my situation, but I did see too many people in a fog of fatigue.
Were there specific biomarkers that you looked at? Was testosterone down? Was cortisol up?
I think I had the testosterone of, I had my choice, either an 85 year old man or a four year old child. I went with the 85 year old man. I had very, very low testosterone, very limited cortisol response. You can imagine my iron levels were in the toilet. Everything across everything. Actually, I think that at the time as well, you're desperate to seek answers. I went to all kinds of doctors. This is past now, a professional triathlon is behind me. I went to all kind of doctors to try and get an answer. But ultimately, the answer was time, rest, healthy eating, and a very pragmatic lens on exercise. Even though I was an athlete that loved to train, I couldn't do that. I had to actually be smarter. But it wasn't something that could be rushed back by some magic supplement.
It sounds like you were just stressed almost in a battlefield like condition.
We talk to a lot of folks that serve in the military, and folks that have accumulated so much damage and time in the field have similar symptoms, like low T, high cortisol, maybe some sleep issues.
It's hard to reverse. It's not just like some acute damage, you break a bone, you can heal. It's just like an accumulation of a lot of stress. It sounds like you were very much working your body down and pushing it at such a limit.
And when it goes, it's very hard to define exactly. What is the symptom there? But I think up a level from that as well is the people, and so many of them at that time, that I felt the people that weren't in that stage, it's not that everyone was walking around in a coffin type thing. But it's the people that were just not getting the results relative to their hard work. Their only sort of route that they knew to try and seek more results was to do more work. And of course that becomes-
So you're in a negative death spiral.
It's this negative death spiral. You saw so much. At that time in the sort of early years of Purple Patch and my coaching, I was very lucky to actually start to work with a few athletes that almost became my living laboratory. It was accidental, but it was very fortunate. I had a couple of my early professional athletes that happened to be working with real jobs at their time. So I was forced to try and get them to world class within the context of a very busy life, rather than a regular professional athlete that only focuses unapologetic world class performance.
On 24/7 to train and rest.
Exactly. So how do we get these athletes to compete against those other athletes with all the time in the world? I had that challenge. Then I had one particular athlete who is very well known in the triathlon space, Chris Lieto, who was already world class. He had been on a journey, he had already won multiple IRONMANs and multiple Half IRONMAN races. His big quest was the Hawaii IRONMAN. This is going back to 2008, I think, when I started working with Chris. I looked at him, and looked at the landscape of him. While he was an infinitely better athlete than I was every going to be, I saw symptoms of under-performance relative to the work he was putting in. He was working out or training 30 hours a week. When I looked at him, there was no strength, recovery was an afterthought. I felt like he was under-fueled relative to the training.
To his exertion, yeah.
All credit to Chris, he had been down this journey for many years. For his last two to three years, all he wanted to do was to perform great at the Hawaii IRONMAN, which is the world championship, and the toughest IRONMAN there is, Kona.
The Kona, yeah.
He took a massive risk with me. I was pretty much a no name coach. I asked him to do a few things, which was the first to cut his total training volume by a third, to really take recovery seriously both in terms of sleep, which has become a trendy topic nowadays. But really maximizing sleep environment and the hours of sleep to try and improve the quality. He was eating around 1,500 calories a day more than he was in his previous years, and we started doing some strength and conditioning. He was moving into his late 30's, and I felt like there had to be a different way. That year was really a magical year, his first year, because Chris had always been upturned by muscular skeletal injury. That year, we managed to create the magic word in performance, consistency. He showed up to Hawaii that year, and he was already talking about next year. I could tell that he was as fit as he needed to be, and he had a big platform of base. But he was excited, and that really told me he was fresh. He missed winning by two minutes, but he got second at the Hawaii IRONMAN, a huge breakthrough performance. That was a wonderful opportunity for me and athletes like him to start testing and proving.
Yeah, so it sounds like a lot of your intuition here is qualitative in assessing the athlete. I know within the last probably three, five years, it is much more quantitative biomarker trackers. This is a heart rate variability ring, so it's not just a piece of jewelry.
Is that something that you look at now as these technologies are evolving, or is it a combination of you as a feel, the human side of engaging with your athletes seeing input output not matching? Or are you starting to use some of these quantitative tools?
It's the marriage of the two that creates the optimal scenario. One of the challenges for performance driven people globally is that there is a natural inclination to become what I call paralysis of analysis, getting driven by the information and the metrics. The truth is that the information that we receive, whether it's heart rate variability, sleep tracking, power meters on bicycles, biomarkers information, for me it is valuable information if it is actionable and it starts a conversation. But the human body, we're not building a bridge, we're building a human. It's highly variable, and ultimately has to withstand all sources of stress. We really try and sort of empower the athlete to be a thinker, and we use the information. We do use a lot of that information, we like to track sleep, we like to track mood, and obviously that's qualitative and quantitative. We capture data on all sessions that the athlete's doing, and we use that as information to help us paint the picture of which then it's a human decision that has to occur from that. A part of my job as a coach, or our team's job as a coach, is to help educate the athlete and then empower the athlete to ultimately become self-sustaining, to actually be able to make smart decisions. I think it's the same thing with the emerging trend that's happening now, that will happen in the coming future, is AI and machine learning, which is really interesting. If you take data science and you look at best decisions, but all of the companies that are going to come on the scene for that have to realize I believe that I don't think that will ever be a replacement for the human intuition and gut that has to become along as a part of the equation.
Yeah, and I think that's been consistent with a lot of my conversations with coaches and athletes, in the sense that, I could I just get your thoughts here, sometimes coaches will analyze the information but not expose the raw data to the athlete. You don't want to confuse them with, you had a low heart rate variability rating today. I don't want to prime you that you're not going to have as good of a session today.
Do you play with that, or are you pretty transparent, like, "Hey, here's the raw information. Let's not over-interpret the data here." How do you balance the priming the athlete for a really good day or bad day with like a placebo and nocebo effect, versus how do you actually be quantitative here?
I fall onto the latter more, sharing. But before then, I think there has to be a discussion and an educational process around how we are using the data. Even from a prescription standpoint, I'll come back to the question, but from a prescription, athletes tend to be very metric driven when it comes to what intensity should I ride my bike at, for example, or what should I run at. Even when there are prescription, we have a range of let's say power on the bike or pace on the run that we expect an athlete to be. But we prescribe it in terms of what this should feel like. What's the intention of the workout, what's the intention of the intervals within the workout, and what should that feel like? That could be in terms of perceived effort and the sensations that the athletes feel. Then on the other side of it is the marriage of, well these are the outputs that we expect, somewhere in this range. But that's a very different mindset than, "Here you go, Johnny, ride at this power." Because that's theoretically specificity, but that ignores what the body is providing us for that day. To answer your question, when it comes to some of the data that you might be looking at, it's data to help us make a decision or to frame where it is. So this is where we're at, let's see what the body can give us.
This is basically the decision making tree that the athlete can say, "I want to be open to a good performance, but if I was a little suppressed this morning and I get a good performance, then it really might be time for an extra day or two off that's a little bit lighter." Or, "Okay, this is the data, and my system's a little suppressed." Then they don't feel guilty if they give it a shot, go through a warmup, go through a pre main set, and it's just not there. There is reality. So I tend to prefer to share, but share within context. Ultimately, I'm dealing with highly motivated adults. I think that truth and education empowerment, and trusting that you can bring the athlete to look at things through your lens is long-term the more effective way to go about it.
I think one assumes that, okay, if we're rational adults here trying to be the best possible version of ourselves, then more ground truth is better. It's interesting. In terms of you assessing how recovered someone is, or manipulating your protocol for them, do you take perceived exertion as the highest order a bit, or do you see some of these quantitative biomarkers, like HRV or amount of sleep. Or is that kind of a dumb question, like you still take both?
Both, but I think that the golden question is for the coach to ask the athlete, and for the athlete to ask themselves is, how am I feeling? One of the things that doesn't happen in busy lives is a pause. When you first wake up in the morning, you can't overstate the value of actually coming out of the weeds a little bit. Any time that you can have a conversation with yourself or a conversation with the athlete to say, come out and that you say, "Hang on, how am I feeling here? What am I looking to do," is really positive. Ultimately, that's the decision. Then what you have is the other supporting information to help make that decision. I'm not so sure, and there's the data, okay, that's clear. It's objective. But what I wouldn't do is say, "Oh, look at that HRV, for example, we shouldn't train today, period. I think that's just being shackled by the information.
Yeah. I think when people think, okay, recovery, that seems intellectually appropriate, but what do I even do? When you tell your athletes to recover, is it like, hey, go sit down and watch Netflix? Is that, do some stretching? Is that, do some yoga? When you're actually recommending, prescribing recovery, what is the most optimal way to recover?
I'm a big fan of trying to boil complex to simple, so I make this as simple as I can when I talk about this. But I see recovery having really three main buckets. The first is sport specific. The second big area is lifestyle in many ways. And the third is what I call modalities. We'll just go through all three very quickly. Sport specific is planned recovery within the sport. For some people, for emotional reasons that means doing nothing from a training standpoint. Sometimes people just need that break, they need to release it from the calendar and not move their body. But typically, it tends to be, I'm more of a fan of active recovery. Very low stuff, maybe with a little bit of neurological stimulation, a little bit of very, very short fast stuff just to keep the dialogue between brain and muscle going.
Just like slamming like a medicine ball or something?
Yeah, something very short, or a very quick pickup if they're running, and going up to a very fast speed type stuff. But nothing where they're looking to get fit or stronger or more powerful. Actually facilitate the bridge between hard work. And then of course within sport specific, you have things like how you're managing a season, how you're managing a block of work, where you have programmed multiple easy days in a row, or complete season breaks. But there's a whole category of that, and globally the need to know for the show is keep moving, but keep moving light, and nothing that's accumulating fatigue. The second area then is what I would call lifestyle. That is obviously around sleep, nutrition, fueling, which is a critical habit driven component in my mind of consuming calories after workouts, particularly for heavily training athletes. It's not just about restoring the calories that you've done in the workout. It's about sustaining energy, stunting cortisol, the stress response post-workout with protein.
Yeah, rebuilding muscle protein.
And then rebuilding muscle protein.
Rebuilding lycogene, yeah.
And obviously, preparing for upcoming sessions. A good platform of eating is obviously a part of recovery, as is post-workout fueling, as is daily hydration. In every training session you are doing, you are finishing suitably dehydrated, you'll never retain full hydration status. So what are you doing to facilitate recovery? Then the final big component is modalities. I might say that's everything that you have to pay for. Whether it's foam rollers, or body work, or stem machines, or compression socks, et cetera. They're all great, they're all nice, but they're just the little sprinkles on top of the cake. If you fundamentally don't get the program right, and you fundamentally don't have very simple but actionable supporting habits, the modalities are useless. That is way down on the priority list for me. Unfortunately, in performance driven people, the important stuff is less sexy. This stuff is more sexy, it's gadgets and you can pay for it. That becomes everyone's focus. Ultimately, if they have a smart and appropriate training program that integrates into their busy life, and it's supported with some very simple habits, they're going to be able to recover better and ultimately perform better. The other stuff, nice to have if you've got time and money.
Just to be more pointed here, what do you think is in terms of modalities most overrated, most bullshitty, versus what you think is one of the best modalities?
I'm generally not a massive fan of cold water immersion.
Cryotherapy stuff is mildly interesting, but not that interesting to me. I actually prefer heat. That's less of a physiologist's lens, and more of a coach's lens. I don't like interrupting the post-training adaptation process too much. I think we're at this point where there's this really interesting collision of research.
Yes, so something that I've been looking into as well, I'd love to dive into this, the cold versus hot.
Cold versus hot. We're at this point where I think that any sensible coach would say, "I don't know right now." I think it's different tools for different jobs. If there's an isolated area where it tends to be that, yeah, an isolated area that's maybe a specific injury, then very cold treatment might be helpful. But for a heavily training athlete, consistently I see that when they come out of the cold immersion, whether it's ice bath or cryotherapy, it tends to make them feel less good when they go into their next heavy session. Versus heat, there's a great opportunity that if you're sitting in a steam room or you're sitting in a hot tub and you're able to do some mobility type stuff in there without looking too pornographic, it tends to make people feel good. It's relaxing, it's enjoyable. When they come out of it and they come back into their heavy training, joints are mobile or joints are loose. I'm working with heavily training sort of endurance athletes, but that tends to be the trend that I see. So I slide towards that.
Interesting. I think from the physiology perspective, I think you touched upon a topic that I've been looking at, which is that for cold therapy, you halt, you insult the post-exercise adaptation.
Where in a steam room or in heat, you actually sustain and accentuate that stress response. Some of the data coming out with hot saunas and steam rooms, you actually elevate growth hormone, you accelerate the heat shock protein recovery process.
Whereas, with the cold ice baths, you halt that insult, and then you halt the adaptation period, which might reduce inflammation. So you might not be as sore potentially, but you're not getting the benefits of being exercised.
But why are you training?
Right, exactly. You want to get the effect of your exercise.
If the training is smart, and then you go, and the other thing that heat does as well for an endurance athlete is, by doing post-workout heat immersion, it actually helps with some of the physiological stimulation to perform in a hot environment. It also boosts your blood volume. So if you under-hydrate immediately following and put yourself in a little bit of a stressful situation from that standpoint, and then immerse yourself in heat, you're going to get heat adaptation, which is a nice positive. Then of course you hydrate over the rest of the day.
Yeah. So I think that's spot on. I think that's a very nuanced argument. I think that's at the really cutting edge, and I think right now people are, "Oh, ice bath and then sauna." I think it's very confused.
Yeah, it is.
I think people out there, the general lay, even coaches, I think they're just confused about that, if you talk to professional coaches. I'm glad that we're touching upon something I think at the cutting edge that will be more fully understood. But I think to be perhaps fair or steel man the cold argument, I think there's probably some application for, okay, you have an injury, you have another basketball game or a soccer match the next immediate day. Maybe you don't want to do the adaption training now. You want to just get your body in the place where you can go again tomorrow. Then I can see it's a compelling story. Does that seem fair?
A hundred percent. I was going to say, it's a sort of performance readiness tool. So I can imagine a MBA player on the road, and they've got to play, and come back tomorrow. We're not looking for adaptations there, or we, I have nothing to do with the MBA. But we're not looking for adaptations there. We're looking to be able to perform the next day on the court. That makes perfect sense. I'm not saying, hey, cryotherapy chamber, it's useless. It's not, it's really interesting stuff. But for people that are just looking to train and create optimal adaptations and carry it throughout the rest of the day with proper energy, it becomes more interesting with heat.
Yeah, I think I'm on the same page there, where if I'm not trying to compete in a specific event, then I'm always using heat. I'm not really trying to blunt my adaptation.
What are some good modalities? I guess we like heat, cold we're a little bit more skeptical, or we need to apply them in the right indication in the use case. Foam rolling, stretching-
Foam rolling and body work.
What do you think of that? You think, what the fascia tissue, is that something that you think is beneficial, or is that just like a nice massage and it feels good? Maybe that's a benefit of itself.
I think so much of it comes down to the practitioner, and understanding. But time and again, the body work if done really, really well, is a great supplement. Going to a nice massage and having the legs flushed, it feels nice, so it might be good for the soul. But I don't think it's actually really being beneficial. The one thing I will say, our general approach for body work is to try and align the body work on a day of heavier training, because there's so much trauma happening. On the days that we are actually really looking for recovery, we like to leave the body alone. What happens with all sorts of body work is there is a little bit of trauma that occurs.
People are really digging into the tissue, yeah.
Yeah, they're really digging in. So we don't want to do that on a day that we're looking for recovery. We want to have the body work done at the end of a hard training day. Then the next day, let the body regress to the mean. The body is wonderful at regressing to the mean, and that's what we want it to do. So let it have a time of healing. That really relates to injuries as well. Hot spots that people have, little niggles and pains, and they get foam rollers or trigger point. They just go hammer and tongs at it. They isolate the spot, which is typically the symptom not the cause. My IT band hurts, so I'm just going to absolutely hammer it. They end up doing so much trauma that the body can't respond.
It just tightens up, yeah.
It just tightens up. They end up actually magnifying the injury. So I think that whole area is good, but it's really dependent on the practitioner. Some of the foam roller stuff is great. On stretching, I'm not a globally massive fan of static stretching. The old school classic hamstring stretch, or put your leg up on the table and just holding it in position. Stand and lean against the wall and lengthening the calf, and just leaving it there. We do a lot of work on what we call dynamic stretching, a lot of mobility work. Even post-workout, particular to me as sort of focusing generally more on endurance sports, most of the work that we're doing, we're not putting the athletes into massive acidosis. Even components like a cool down is in a time staff life. Warmup is critical, cool down less critical. We don't spend a long time cooling down. We don't do static stretching afterwards. We tend to do more range of motion and mobility exercises.
Interesting. Yeah, I think that's something that I've personally just found much more interesting and it seemed a lot more effective. Doing more dynamic movement and stretches, rather than just trying to touch my toes.
Trying to touch your toes. It's funny, because I remember a couple of years ago watching the professional soccer players in the premiership, and they're all out on the field doing static stretching. But there's really interesting research around static stretching-
Before games leading to under-performance in sprinters. And there they all are, some of the best soccer players in the world, doing static stretching.
You've got to tell their physiologist, hey-
Tell their physiologist, you've got to catch up. I think they are, but certainly for our athletes we don't do any static stretching before, unless there's some form of medical reason, so under the guidance of a specialist.
How about more speculative modalities? Have you heard of infrared saunas? Is that on the edge of your knowledge? What else are some of the crazier modalities that you've seen?
We're building a center in San Francisco, and I think we're going to put an infrared sauna in there. I find it really interesting.
Okay, you think it's reasonable, okay.
I think it's reasonable, but I haven't made the purchase yet.
As you point out. Let's more on to nutrition. I think that's interesting coverage on the modality side. Obviously with our audience, a lot of interest around fasting, ketone diet, low carb diet. We had on a number of carnivores on the podcast recently, which were interesting conversations. We had on Mikhaila Peterson, who is the daughter of Jordan Peterson, who is a famous Canadian psychologist. We had some of the moderators and thought leaders in the carnivore space, I think a lot of interest in diet. I think it's always something that everyone cares about, because that's what we kind of make decisions on every single day. I would say that in the endurance space, there's perhaps an upswing in interest in low carb, but I think that needs to be thought of in a very careful way. Obviously, when we're doing IRONMAN triathlons, these are very intensive, so you want to be fueling properly.
Just doing a fasted marathon is probably not the smartest thing to do if you want to actually win. What are your thoughts on diet and nutrition? Maybe you can unpack some of the considerations here.
The first thing that I would say is I'm not a massive fan of evangelism across any subject. As a coach, I try and surround myself with smart people, and I remain curious and explore. You guys, it became maybe a great case in point, where it's this really interesting exciting research that needs to be reviewed and looked at. But I don't think any of us can say, "Oh, we have the answer to nutrition globally." I tend to start at a place of habit driven. What are the key components. I don't think that you can have a discussion around nutrition without being in context of what the person or the athlete is trying to do.
A hundred percent.
If you take a type 2 diabetic that is relatively inactive and has been living on a diet of processed food and sugar. That is a very different methodology that you might use of intervention to try and help them thrive and repeal their type 2 diabetes, than a fit healthy IRONMAN amateur triathlete that's trying to perform at their best level in IRONMAN. When we sort of mix the two and say, "This is the solution for all," I think there's going to be a collapse somewhere. From a performance driven population, I start with things that I think are, what are we looking to achieve? If we're looking to train consistently, achieve adaptations, and thrive in the other compartments of our life. So our work performance with cognitive function, et cetera, our health, and bring the best version out that we can for our family. For most performance driven people, that's what we're looking to achieve. For someone that's training or exercising in the morning, for me that means that we tend to front-load carbohydrates, and we tend to have carbohydrates following the workout when the gateways are there. But not carbohydrates alone, it has to be supported with plenty of protein and some fat. If they do that well, so I'm not a massive fan of fasting post-workout. I guess that's the message out of that.
But if they do that well, the last thing that someone that's sitting in the workplace wants to be doing is consuming a whole bunch of starchy carbohydrate and a whole bunch of sugar. That's going to start to create fatigue. Instead, we tend to anchor around lots of proteins, lots of vegetables, lots of fruits actually, and just a general well-rounded diet. To answer your question, maybe you just sort of probed me more into specific areas.
Yeah, I think I just opened a giant can of worms here. I want to-
Yeah, exactly. I tend to be more habit driven than anything else. But if we think about our professional athletes that we work with, our very elite athletes, we have several of our athletes that are what we might call fat adaptive, if you want to think about that. None of them are fasting, eliminate carbohydrates from their life. They embrace fat utilization, they embrace proteins, they have to eat a lot to support their training. Actually racing, the predominant fuel source still needs to come from carbohydrates.
Right, so I think that because we talk a lot about ketone esters, fasting, ketogenic diets, people think that we advocate that, or I advocate it, or I am on a ketogenic diet every single day of my life. I'm not. I think that you touch upon it nicely where you have to look at the indication to optimize your nutrition and your protocols around that. So again, I think you're absolutely on the dot. If you're a type 2 diabetic, you probably want to reduce as much carbohydrate intake as possible.
But if you're trying to be at the highest level of performance, clearly there's a role for sugar for the anerobic push at the end of a race or during a race.
I wanted to touch upon what you mentioned, which is keto adaptation or fat adaptation. I think one interesting active debate in sports nutrition is, can one be as keto adapted as possible and have as peak performance as someone that's being filled with carbohydrate? I think some of the work out of Volek and Phinney are advocating, okay, keto adapt for six, nine months, and you don't need carbohydrate. I'm personally a little bit skeptical about that, given just some subjective in practice experience, and just looking at the broader literature of how useful a punch of sugar can be for performance. That sounds like a lot even for your keto adapted athletes, you still recommend carbohydrate during the races or before the races.
Let's think about the other side, I think, for the equation. When I hear stuff like that, the chances of that being function across and long-term, it would be like suddenly finding out that gravity exists. It's too revolutionary for me. Not to be too dismissive, I think it's really interesting. I think about it like this, and I'll talk in terms of triathlon globally or endurance training. If you're going out on a low intensity long endurance bike ride or run, you don't need to be packing your gills with Gatorade and sugar, and everything that was pushed and marketed and promoted to us for the last 25 years. That's a mistake. You can eat, in my mind and just my opinion, but you can eat real food that is not carbohydrate heavy, because you can train your body to actually become more fat adaptive, if you want to call it that. You shouldn't be overly dependent on high sugar in those environments. But if you're doing a very short, very high intensity interval workout, then on the flip side there is a case to be told that sugar is your friend in that environment. If you are doing an Olympic distance triathlon that is two hours of very high intensity, or running a marathon at the elite level-
You're going aerobic-
You're going aerobic, and there may be, and it's really interesting, of is supplemental exogenous ketones, it's really interesting to me. But I don't know enough about it yet. So rather than just for me jumping on and saying, this is great, it's the next big thing. Let's stand back, explore, investigate, research, and hopefully lean on guys like you to-
Have you experimented with ketones?
No, not at all.
We've got to get you to experiment a little bit.
Yeah, will do. But the case comes back, it's pragmatism. I think it's where I started with evangelism, where there's this, in the same way as what do we learn from history when we were told that fat was bad? We saw what happened there. On the flip side-
Right, you brought up-
Yeah, if it's this polarized, carbohydrate is bad, there has still been no diet that I'm aware of in history where a complete elimination of one of the three macro nutrients has ever been successful long-term. I still haven't seen one that's been successful.
Yeah, well I think that's the N=1 that all the carnivores are testing out live right now.
Yes, exactly. Well, let them be the living experiment.
We'll see, exactly.
We'll see, and it's investigating. I'm not being by any stretch dismissive of it. I think it's very interesting. But I also don't claim to be an expert. It's a part of my field, that I'm on to explore and understand and talk to specialists about to build than a pragmatic-
Yeah, I just want to get your thoughts there. I think one thing that we've seen getting more and more traction is this notion of cyclical diets. We touched upon the notion of keto adaptation or fat adaptation, or fasted workouts. The notion there is that you want to stress the metabolism, so you up regulate enzymes and proteins that relate to when you're at later stages of the race where you are more fuel depleted. Then you also do training when you're fully fueled to give your body full adaptation across all types of fuels. Is that something that you guys play around with, or do you stay pretty consistent? That seems to be one of the things that you folks, on consistency we have a fairly stable diet, and we just put people on their habit and let them go.
There's a reason for that, where if we think about in terms of things that are mutually exclusive. If you only think about it at the enzyme level, you say, this happens in the lab, and this will happen, so this is what we should play with. I tend to come up a level and try and look at the whole landscape. For the vast majority of people that we're working with, if we remove the world class athletes that have all the time in the world to plan their meals, to sleep, to take naps, which is a huge part of recovery by the way. Everything that we would love in an optimal situation, there's more opportunity to play test and align. But most people are trying to integrate performance health fitness into a really big life. What's the knock on effect of someone if they fast, they get up, they go and train, they don't replenish calories afterwards, and they go into their work day.
And they feel terrible.
They're going to feel terrible all day, so their cognitive function will lower, their decision making will lower, their ability to focus will drop. And ultimately, they're going to have massive motivational urges for foods that they don't want to eat.
They have them in the afternoon, and they end up buckling because it's human nature. It's a part of their life, it isn't their life. So they end up eating pizza or ice cream, whatever it might be, and then they crash in the afternoon. It becomes incredibly stressful. When we are training within the context of a time starved life, we are placing a specific stress into a whole big reservoir of stress. The challenge of getting enough sleep, travel stress for work, your commitments at work and obviously with your family. It comes back again, it's really interesting, but the solution has to be habit driven and repeatable. Similar to the mindset of modalities, in order for anything to be effective, it has to be simple to execute and repeatable. They might go through phases or opportunities where you can look at the workout, look at the day and say, this is a time that maybe you're doing some careful reduction of calories or fasting. But it has to be done very strategically within context of the big picture. I think that's where people miss it, because in thinking that they're doing the right thing in one particular area, they fail to see the big picture.
Right. I think it's an important caveat. I think one thing that is kind of my pet hypothesis here is that cyclical training blocks is fairly standard practice now in top level sports physiology training. Right?
Like you'll ramp up a load, and then taper down before the event. I can imagine a world where, again, the caveat is that this is a professional with an infinite amount of time and resources to have custom diets. You have cyclical nutrition blocks that match your training volume that also peak for the competition. That could be an interesting interplay where the training volume is now sort of cyclical and customized, can you imagine that one of the other interventions, nutrition, is also cyclical and personalized for an outcome? It's funny you say it, because I was listening to that question. I think in some ways I'm a dummy. We kind of do that in a way, and I'll explain. You're dead right, and let me preface this first. It doesn't just have to be an athlete that needs to train. I think everyone needs to train, because exercise is random, training is structured and progressive. So even if you want to be the healthiest human being possible, I think most people that exercise want to improve.
The only way to do that is to have some structure and progression. From an athletic sense, that means that we're sending athletes through phases of training. The phase of training that we tend to be in right now is what we call post-season, which is the lowest physical stress. It's really a phase of preparation, so we're doing a lot of technical development and a lot of readiness of in the upcoming months being able to absorb and handle very heavy training loads. So at this time of the year, we really encourage athletes, this is a time of the year that there shouldn't be a workout where you are consuming high sugar, because the training load is not there. Versus if we go into right in the heart of race season and we're doing race simulations, we want the athlete to be adhering to the same timing amount and type of calories that they're going to be absorbing in the race specific training sessions. Not every training session, but in the ones that most mimic what they're going to do on race day. In many ways, it sort of is periodized, if you want to call it that. It is phase specific. So I said, hey, it has to be simple and actionable. We still do go to that level I would say.
Yeah. I think the marketing side is interesting where, it makes sense again I think where you're speaking of like Gatorade, GU shots, it makes sense when you're in practice. But if you're a casual athlete who maybe goes to the gym for like 30 minutes on a treadmill or an elliptical machine, do you need to be downing a sugar bomb? Probably not.
The rule of thumb that we say to our athletes globally is, if your workout is 75 minutes or less, you just don't need any calories. Maybe if it's really high intensity, you might have something there just in case. You've got something wrong, and you're having a sugar crash or whatever. But for the most time, 75 minutes or less there's just no need. And you can drink to thirst for the most part, because you're not going to have any of that negative byproducts. But it is what you do afterwards that becomes really important. For a workout that's lasting multiple hours and is training and is interval driven, well then there's a case of like, okay, what's the strategy that I need to employ there to make sure you're maximizing performance, and you're not creating too much of a deficit that's going to have a lag into the rest of your day?
Yeah. I think a lot of people focus on pre-fuels, but it sounds like especially on the recovery side, I agree with you. Fasting after a workout, unless there's some specific reason why you want to do that, is very stressful for your body.
That 30 minute or hour period when your muscles are open to absorbing nutrition is a pretty critical time period.
I don't think that's controversial. Anything interesting there, would you say a standard carbohydrate protein shake is kind of standard practice? Any specific nuances? I think you can get kind of nerdy with like, oh, do people care about vegan protein versus whey protein, versus should you just eat a steak? There's been emerging data around how ketone esters paired with carbohydrate and protein accelerates someone to glycogen and protein resynthesis enzymes. Anything interesting in playing around there for post-exercise nutrition?
A general rule of thumb, again, for the time starved busy person. It has to be simple, able to be executed, and easily absorbed. If you've got a very heavy training session, and then we tend to go carbohydrate, protein, easily absorbed. A protein source is a shake. But for the vast majority of people, you sort of point before the person going to the gym, the person doing strength, eat real food. It's a great opportunity. We have too much processed food in our life anyway, so if you get the opportunity to eat real food, it's great. We tend to lean more post-workout fueling of, that's a good time to actually have some of your carbohydrates that you're going to have in the rest of your day. Protein is always there, and a part of that is we know that protein is a natural suppressor of cortisol, which is obviously suitably elevated to help you perform. But you don't want to carry that into the rest of the day. We tend to be a little less on things like antioxidants, which tend to disrupt-
Once again, blunt adaptations.
Blunt adaptation. So we tend to try and avoid people having lots of berries in their shakes, et cetera.
But it doesn't mean antioxidants are bad. They're great in the rest of the day, they're full of vitamins and minerals, et cetera. It's the timing of them. Simple actionable stuff. I have never tested ketones as being a part of the process. All I've done so far is read Brianna's paper.
Okay, yeah, we've got to get some actual data from you there.
I think that resonates true with me personally. I like doing fasted workouts and fueling afterwards, which I think is a reasonable response in terms of draining out remaining lycogene, and then post-recovery you have full repletion of all those nutrients. That's more for longevity and metabolic stress reasons than for winning.
Yeah, winning anything. I'm not trying to win anything either. The other thing as well is I tend to, when I work out I work out in the morning. I just don't do well with food in my stomach. So you wake up naturally fasted. You go and exercise or you go and train. Then it's a great time to fuel the rest of your day and replenish. Even from a life structure, I think it's a really good thing in performance during. The only component, there is some research for female athletes and some of the negative hormonal byproducts of not taking in some calories, particularly protein, first thing in the morning.
Interesting, yeah. There's definitely some variation in terms of how much body fat per gender that you want to maintain, absolutely.
I know that a lot of our audience are high performance athletes, but people like myself, I'm not a professional athlete. I don't have any dreams or delusions of winning Kona. I consider myself more of a creative or intellectual worker. Do some of your training protocols, nutrition protocols, modalities apply to that world? How do we optimize our training, our routines to be move productive members of modern society?
I sort of have a Jekyll and Hyde life as a coach, and really our Purple Patch coaches have to live the same as well. On one side, I have my squad of pro athletes, and unapologetically, their quest is world class performance. But the majority of people that I work with outside of that people are very busy executives and CEOs that are looking to do just that. They understand the value of integrating fitness into their life, let's call it that. But how do they do that where it can have a net positive effect on their health and their cognitive ability, decision making performance, let's call it, in the workplace. Then also, still be able to return and be really present for their family. I think that's a utopian but achievable ideal. The lens that I take on that is, how do we draw the lessons from the methodology that we use for these elite athletes that are looking for fantastic performance, physiological fitness performance? How do we draw the lessons from that and translate and apply?
You don't just replicate, but translate and apply to someone that's just looking to thrive in life? Some of the key components if you imagine sort of, we always talk about in terms of an intersection of a Venn diagram, where in the busy working professional that's going to thrive, they have to have three main components. The first is their habits around what they're doing in the workplace. There's all sorts of really interesting emerging research of how to be most effective in the workplace. It used to be not so many years ago, probably aligned actually with the bubbling up of the interest in recovery, where effectiveness in the workplace was measured by the number of hours that you're actually doing, and toughness. And what we realized by working with so many executives and CEOs is toughness is not a differentiator. That's just a prerequisite.
Life is not easy, everyone's tough. But really being able to work in effective, both in terms of environment, understanding that you're working in sprints, taking breaks. Looking at things like hydration and realizing your pee breaks are performance enhancers. They're not distracting your effectiveness at the desk. Moving around, we obviously know things like standing desks and things like that. The key to actually consistently move around. Your Apple watch will tell you to get up every hour, for example. So there's a big bucket of what you do there. There's then I would say training. I mentioned this before. Just because you exercise, it doesn't mean you're healthier. Just because you get up every morning and go to the gym, it doesn't mean that that's actually creating positive adaptations or helping you thrive in the workplace. I think every human being needs to train. That doesn't mean they have to be trying to search and win Hawaii. It doesn't mean that they have to sign up for an event.
I think a goal of some nature makes it easier to adhere to. But their exercise that they're doing, the same as anything in life, will be more effective if it's structured and progressive. You draw from athletes not to become an athlete, but to actually get the most out of your sessions. If you are exercising four or five times a week, what are the sessions that are designed to move the performance needle and be more challenging? What are the sessions that are there to be more therapeutic emotionally and physiologically, and help support those key sessions? You don't need to be obsessive about it. You don't have to be evangelical about your fitness, but structure and progressive is key. I have never seen someone over the long term be highly effective in that area without having real structure behind it. One of the limiters of general group fitness, you get fitter and quick results over six weeks, and then what's the next thing, because everyone plateaus.
You plateau, right.
Longevity and consistency can only happen if you have periods of progressively load, and then you have breaks to rejuvenate and step back. Not dormant, but breaks in the stress.
So you're saying that, okay, you probably going to the gym 30 minutes or an hour a day is at least better than sitting on your butt.
Right, that should be obvious. But you oftentimes see people plateau, so having some sort of progression and cycle or periodization around challenging yourself is maybe a little bit more incremental work but pays much more dividends, is your argument.
There's also loads of other benefits from it as well. One of the great components of training, if you want to call it that, it's almost in a therapeutic from a mental standpoint. Almost carries what meditation should do as well, and is a great performance inclusion. We didn't talk about it, but I think meditation is key. If you have structure around your workout those 30 minutes, it forces you to be present. If you are present or focused, then it removes you from the stresses or family or work or commitments. Outside of the dishwasher effect of your brain that's going to improve cognitive function, decision making, long and short-term memory and focus, it also removes a step away from you. That's key as well. So absolutely to be effective, you have to be structured. Every day should not be the same. Otherwise, the body won't adapt, because it gets used to the adaptations. But then the third bucket is rejuvenation, not recovery but rejuvenation.
That includes what we talked about with a backbone of healthy eating habits and fueling habits, positive sleep in terms of quality and quantity. But I think also another venue for the high performing individual to remove themselves from the rigors of work. That might be building model airplanes. It might be meditation. But there has to be an escape. When you get the connection of those three components, where you have great habits around fueling and recovery and rejuvenation, tied in with appropriate and integrated training. It can't just be dumped on top of life, it has to be integrated into life. And positive work habits, something happens every single time, they accelerate. Yeah, they improve in sport, but they also become better at decision making, better leaders, more effective, and they start to join the dots. The final thing I will say about it, which I think is most interesting is when I've worked with so many CEOs, it's the same tools and mindset that they would apply to setting up their business strategies. All of the lessons that they have as a business leader, they already know them. But most of them do a very poor job of connecting the dots to themselves.
To themselves, yes.
We have a saying, "Coach our pros like CEOs, and our CEOs like pros." Once they join the dots, they realize, how can I have been such a dip shit? It's all basic and habit driven, it's not overly complex. They start to join the dots between the parallels of that. If you look at the traits of a high performance CEO, for example, and you look at the personality traits of everything that makes a professional athlete, they're exactly the same.
The same, yeah.
They're exactly the same. They continually cross pollinate, and just look at each other.
It's interesting, you're essentially an executive coach or a life coach with a vehicle of training, which is interesting. I think there's a couple nuggets in there, especially around the structure of training, making sure that you're actually meditative or present when you're training. That just reminds me when I am at the gym, I see so many people in between their sets on their phone, checking social media or Twitter, or any of that stuff. I've been guilty of that myself.
They're missing a chance.
Do you think that that distraction has really popped up in the last couple of years that you didn't see 10 years ago? Do you just feel that people are just a lot less present now? You have to just retrain people's mind more aggressively today versus 10 years ago?
I think we've fallen into a trap of feeling that we always have to be connected to be effective. The truth is the antithesis of that. I think you have to be really programmed to be effective. A great example of that is email. We always feel like we have to respond to email straight away, and hand up I'm also guilty of that. Versus, we know that the most effective way to use an information transfer tool, which is email, is to do it in blocks of focus.
Block it off, yep.
And then turn it off, so that you can be present on task. The same applies with exercise as well. Can you imagine if I said to you, "All right, we're all going to go and meditate, and we're going to go and sit in a room, but we're all going to be on social media." You'd say, "That's insane." The same applies, because exercise or training is not meditation, but you are spending some of your valuable time.
For many people, time is our most precious commodity, you are deciding to spend this time on something that you know is really valuable for you. But you want to get the biggest results, and the best way to get results is to execute as intended. The only way to do that is to be present. It's why I banned cell phones from our indoor cycling classes. I need people to be present. Then when they come back-
Do people listen to music?
Music is a tool in training, as another one that's really interesting. Similar to our nutrition discussion, it depends on the training session. I think music is a great motivator. We know that it can lift mood, it can lift performance if we're happy and we're enjoying-
But it can be distracting.
It can't be a distraction.
I've almost took it off, just so I get distracted. I don't like the song lyrics, then you just get thrown off.
Exactly. For me personally, I'm not a fan of, "Hey I'm a coach, listen to me because it's what I do." But there are certain sessions where if they require focus, where they're really interval driven, then the best thing might be some music to help maximize performance. But you're not listening to a podcast there, for example. Versus, if I go for a trail run and I'm getting some byproducts, physiological benefits by being out there for an hour or whatever it might be, but I'm not really training per se. The purpose of that session is for me to move my body, have fun, and be a release, go listen to a podcast. It's a great way, because that's feeding my soul as well with something that's interesting.
Yeah, very balanced, very wise. You've dropped a lot of interesting nuggets out there. How do people find you or learn more about Purple Patch, learn more about you and all the things that you offer?
Our website is purplepatchfitness.com, but I think the easiest way is probably the Purple Patch Podcast actually. We do a weekly podcast, and it's not about triathlon training, it's about the subject of performance globally, and it's only education. One of the things that's right since the inception of Purple Patch is the passion for education. I think that's a great venue to listen, and I love to hear thoughts. We answer questions every week. I love it when people engage and participate. So either head to the website or listen to the podcast. We appreciate if you share with your friends and family if you find it valuable.
Yeah, if you enjoyed this conversation, head on over. Matt's got some wisdom to share here. Thanks so much for dropping by the H.V.M.N. Podcast.
Really great fun. Thanks so much, really appreciate being here.
Thank you. Cheers.
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