There is lots of sports science research out there specific to endurance sport. Few people however, are able to explain and present the latest research in a way that most non-elite endurance athletes are able to understand. Healthynomics was fortunate to interview one of these individuals – Matt Fitzgerald.
Matt Fitzgerald is an author, runner, triathlete, coach and a sports nutritionist. Some of his best-known books include Racing Weight, Brain Training for Runners, and Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide.
Most recently, Matt has written about the epic 1989 Ironman® World Triathlon Championship battle between Dave Scott and Mark Allen. In the book entitled Iron War, he captures the spirit of that duel.
A special thanks to Matt for his time! The interview…
Do you feel there are any particular aspects of training for endurance sports that are relatively untapped areas for improved running and endurance performances?
Matt Fitzgerald: If we’re talking about non-elite athletes, yes, there are plenty of known means of improving performance that the average Joe and Jane competitive runner are not tapping. Some of them are as basic as getting the volume and intensity of training right. Most runners don’t run enough and do too much of their running too fast.
A majority of elite runners, at least in the United States, are taking advantage of most of the known means of enhancing performance. They are much more likely than Joe and Jane competitive runners to cross-train, sleep at simulated altitude, get regular sports massage, and so forth.
As for what may still come down the road, I think the next big opportunity lies in the brain. New research suggests that perception of effort, which is produced in the brain, is the primary limiter of endurance performance. I think it’s very likely that we will discover ways of training or influencing the brain to push back the limits it imposes. For example, Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent has developed a video game that he believes may enhance endurance potential when used as an adjunct to physical training.
You have written lots weight control and racing weight for endurance athletes. Were there any surprising discoveries when researching the topic of race weight?
Matt Fitzgerald: I was surprised to learn just how powerful a predictor of endurance performance leanness is. We all know that the best endurance athletes are very lean, but few of us realize that body fat percentage predicts race potential as well as VO2max.
Even within a group of elite runners, for example, the leanest one is as likely to be the fastest as the one with the greatest aerobic capacity.
Many endurance athletes today rely on external feedback from devices like GPS and heart rate monitors to make the connection between their effort and pace to help improve their performance. How can learning more about the mind-body connection help improve endurance sport performance?
Matt Fitzgerald: First of all, let me say that I’m a big believer in using performance metrics such as time and watts in training. It’s a well-established fact that endurance athletes are able to perform at a higher level when receiving relevant performance feedback than when going strictly by feel.
That said, I do believe that many athletes rely too heavily on such feedback. It has a tendency to suck athletes into going too hard in workouts when they should take it easy. Paying attention to your body and understanding its signals are critical to maintaining a proper balance between hard work and lighter, foundational efforts in training.
What inspired you to write your new book “Iron War” about the epic 1989 battle between Dave Scott and Mark Allen?
Matt Fitzgerald: I think it’s one of the greatest stories in the history of sports. Two larger-than-life legends of sport, who are nearly polar opposites, race side by side for eight straight hours, obliterating existing ideas about the limits of human performance, at the culmination of a decade-long rivalry as intense as any sport has ever seen… I get chills every time I think about it! It’s a book I had to write.
You have recently partnered with PEAR Sports. Can you tell us a bit about PEAR and how it will help athletes get more out of their workouts?
Matt Fitzgerald: PEAR Sports is a new company that makes a training device which combines heart rate monitoring, speed-and-distance feedback, music, and audio coaching through headphones. Users download workouts onto the device and are then guided through them step by step through the session by a coach in their ear—who just happens to be me!
I think PEAR Sports is going to have a revolutionary effect on training. So many runners don’t get as much out of their training as they should because they don’t have a good plan, or because they have trouble translating a calendar of workouts on a piece of paper into correct workout execution out on the roads, or because they don’t know how to make proper use of heart rate and performance feedback. The PEAR device eliminates these issues in a clean sweep.
Minimalist running has received lots of press over the past couple of years. Do you think it’s here to stay or just a phase?
Matt Fitzgerald: I believe that the recent minimalist running craze has had a needed corrective effect on the running footwear industry. Not every runner should be in minimalist shoes, but until recently there just weren’t enough options available for runners like me, who fare best in light, low-heeled, flexible shoes.
Do you have any mentors or particular athletes that you admire?
Matt Fitzgerald: I have a very long list of mentors and athletes I admire! Many of my mentors are scientists. I am not a scientist myself, but I am fascinated by the science of performance and I like to serve as a bridge between that realm and the “real world” of training and racing.
To do this well I have had to rely heavily on mentoring from some of the scientists who I believe are doing the best work. They include the legendary Tim Noakes at the University of Cape Town, Stephen McGregor at Eastern Michigan University, and the aforementioned Samuele Marcora.
Obviously, Dave Scott and Mark Allen are near the top of the list of athletes I most admire. Number one on that list is probably Haile Gebrselassie. His sheer passion for running and for pushing his limits is hugely inspiring to me.