Monday, July 14, 2014

The Mark Allen Approach

If you're looking for a great summer sports-related motivational inspirational read, try picking up Iron War.  I read this book a couple years ago and really enjoyed the intense tale of rivalry between super-human triathletes Dave Scott and Mark Allen.  The book chronicles their numerous battles at Kona, culminating with the legendary 1989 Ironman World Championship race in which *spoiler alert* Mark Allen finally beat Dave Scott for the first time.  In addition to being entertaining, this book also made me start thinking about the science behind the training.  It was the first time I'd ever encountered the "Mark Allen Approach."

Early in his career, Mark Allen had the same approach to training that most people do - the harder and faster you train in training, the faster you will become as a racer.  He has openly talked about how this approach led him to fatigue, burn out, and the inability to reach peak performance.  As he matured he started doing things differently which he believes allowed him to ultimately beat Dave Scott and become a 6-time Ironman World Champion.  What did he do?

At the start of every season, he spent a long (3-month) block solely focused on aerobic threshold training, meaning that he monitored his heart rate and kept it at or below aerobic threshold (AeT) for all training sessions.  Even if it meant he had to slow down or walk up a hill he did not exceed that number.  Week after week he would time himself in an 8K, keeping his heart rate at or below AeT.  In these time trials he would expect to see a consistent 5-6 second drop per mile per week.  The theory is that during this time, his body's aerobic capabilities were increasing such that he could spare carbohydrates, rely on fat as a fuel source, and run at a faster pace at the same given heart rate.  Year after year of this type of training allowed him to run at 5:30 pace with a heart rate of only 150 bpm!

So, why don't more athletes employ this type of training?  In this video, Mark Allen says that it's because "aerobic training isn't really sexy."  Because the intensity is so low you don't feel like you are really getting a great workout.  It can be kind of boring and difficult to run at a slower pace if you are used to burning it up for every workout.  And it takes patience to continue with this type of training for an entire 3-month block!

Granted, Mark Allen seriously ratcheted up the intensity of his training after the base period once his speed phase kicked in, but he believes that doing the aerobic base training allowed him to make greater gains from the speed block of training which lasted about 10-12 weeks.  After the speed block, he did a short recovery period before a very hard 8 week training push leading into Kona.  In addition, through the entire cycle he was putting in 30-40 hours per week of training.  I also forgot to mention that he did weight training twice per week in the base period.  Here is a link to an article on SlowTwitch with an except from The Lore of Running that goes into much greater detail on Mark Allen's training regimen and is certainly worth the read.

Anyhow, I find his approach interesting and I think scientifically it does make sense.  My previous coach had me do something very similar to this the year that I ended up qualifying for an elite license in triathlon.  I started my season with very high volume low intensity base training.  As the races got closer I started working on speed.  And then some of my hardest sessions, although short in duration, were at the beginning of a taper leading into a big race.  That approach worked for me.  However, I never religiously monitored my HR.  And I believe that too many people are going too hard when they should be going easy.  Then again, I was doing high volume (20-25 hours/week) and some people say that volume is the ultimate trump card...

So, at this point I'm training for the Savannah full marathon in November.  I obviously don't have time to do an entire base training period right now, but I have started training by heart rate, so I guess you could say it's going to be a little mini cycle of the Mark Allen Approach.  These are the reasons I'm using it:

1) I'm working on gradually building up my mileage and I want to prevent injury.  If you increase mileage too quickly, intensity too quickly, or both at the same time your risk of injury goes way up.  I'm hoping that keeping the bulk of my miles at low intensity will help me stay healthy.

2) Doing easy runs at AeT allows you to have enough energy in the tank to really crush the hard days, which is where you make your speed gains.  This method of training is also referred to as polarized training and I am a VERY strong believer in that model.  Here's a great video (long but worth it) on the subject.

3) I want to see if the Mark Allen Approach really works.  It may take an entire year to really test it out, but if I can get a decent result at Savannah, I just might do that :)

If you've ever tried the Mark Allen approach, please leave a comment and let me know how it worked for you!  And if you are a naysayer, I'd like to hear your thoughts as well!

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