“If you think something’s impossible, just know that you could well be wrong and so it’s best just to assume that you can just keep getting better.” – Matt Fitzgerald
Matt Fitzgerald is an author, coach, nutritionist and athlete. Fascinated by elite performance and mindset, Matt draws parallels between elite and recreational running, in everything from dealing with injury to going after big goals.
In our recent conversation, Matt talks about his time with professional runners at the HOKA NAZ Elite Summer run camp, in Flagstaff, Arizona, among other experiences, with wit and wisdom. He shares insights into elite running, ways of coaching and the evolution of 80/20 running (80% low & 20% moderate to high intensity). Also, how recreational runners can improve way beyond their own expectations, as Matt has.
We also discuss:
- developing the professional “no-stone-unturned mentality”.
- 80 / 20 running intensities, perceived effort and measuring performance.
- building a business without money being the primary motivating factor.
- accepting injury as part of the process and finding alternative workouts in recovery.
- Matt’s published and upcoming books.
- setting a high bar for your goals.
Hope you enjoy this conversation with Matt!
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Links and tools mentioned:
- Matt Fitzgerald on Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
- Matt Fitzgerald – website
- Running The Dream by Matt Fitzgerald (book)
- Paper Lion by George Plimpton (book)
- Ben Rosario (elite coach)
- Hoka Northern Arizona Elite (nazelite.com)
- 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald (book)
- Stephen Seiler – studies
- trainingpeaks.com – Matt Fitzgerald 80/20 training-plans
- 8020 Endurance – company
- How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald (book)
- Floris opens with a “well done” to Matt for writing his fun, well-written book, “Running the Dream”. [3:29]
- Matt answers on his reasoning for joining a high-altitude elite training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona: a lot of runners would fantasize about something like this. Matt started running at high school and “everyone thinks they’re going to the Olympics”. He says, “your a kid.. what do you want to do when you grow up? Keep on playing right!”. No matter what your sport is, you have that fantasy of turning pro. [4:55]
- Matt figured out a long time ago that he wasn’t going to be a professional, be he got into his mid-40’s and was still in love with the sport, pursuing it at the highest level he could. He was inspired by a book called Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, in which the writer was allowed to become a “last string quarterback” for a full Summer training camp with a pro-football team. Matt, being a running journalist, with some connections wondered if he could pull something like this off himself. [5:21]
- Floris asks to hear more about the NAZ Elite (Hoka) training camp Matt joined. When Matt was with them, there were about a dozen runners; men and women, who had contracts with the team. [6:18]
- Matt is an out and out fan of elite competition. He was interested in elite runners since being a kid and so it was kind of a fantasy for him. He could be surrounded by people he admired and looked up to. He laughs, saying it’s kind of odd, because he is so much older than them, that he made the idea up out of thin air and it was incredibly self-indulgent in a way. He also says Flagstaff is paradise if you’re a runner and it was his ideal way to spend a Summer. [8:01]
- Answering on the differences Matt noticed going into a professional training camp, he says having a coach do all of the thinking for you made him realize his way of coaching himself, had been lazy. The range of workouts he was doing under Ben Rozario (elite coach) added variety and nuance to his training. [09:46]
- Matt skews on the introvert side in terms of personality and he is quite happy as a lone wolf and his passion for running means that motivation is almost never a problem and yet, when he was in the team environment his motivation skyrocketed. He thinks the elite runners on the camp may have got a kick out of him turning up to every session with a big, goofy grin, so excited to be there. He was 46 years old at the time and he improved markedly while training there. [11:39]
- Matt says it was surprising how well his body did handle the training. He was middle-aged, had a lot of miles in his legs and he is injury prone, which he forewarned Ben Rosario about. This is why he wanted to train like this so badly, because he felt he’d never fulfilled his potential at the marathon distance. That’s not to say he wasn’t on the verge of physically breaking down while he was there. He was training a tonne! In fact, he did suffer “one significant injury” while he was there, but aside from that felt great. “It felt as if I were ageing in reverse”, he says and puts a lot of this down to strength training. He was getting massage therapy from someone who specialized with elite runners and was enjoying some of the lower intensity runs, on dirt trails. [13:46]
- Matt remembers getting out of bed one morning, about 4 weeks out from the Chicago Marathon. Previously, at this point in his training cycle he would practically have to crawl out of bed but this time, he felt terrific. [15:58]
- Floris asks Matt about his favorite memories from the camp. Matt says the first draft of Running The Dream was 100,000 words long / about 300 pages. Some stuff didn’t make the book, even though he really wanted to include it. One thing that leaps to mind immediately, is something Matt had anticipated in advance, which was a vision of himself finishing a workout, straggling behind the back of the pack and receiving a “pity clap” on finishing. This did come to pass in one session, though converse to the anticipated scene, it wasn’t pity, but actually respect. A team-mate said afterwards that he didn’t know if he could have done that alone and Matt had done the same work-out of course, whatever their relative ability may have been. [16:21]
- Floris notes: “you worked your ass off, they worked their ass off” and that the camaraderie does come through in the book. Floris goes on to ask about the subject of 80/20 training (80% at low-intensity, 20% at moderate to high-intensity) and whether this has any parallels with the training camp. This relates to another book by Matt, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower. Matt says that it is not the invention of scientists, but from observing elite athletes. The concept didn’t exist until people started putting heart rate monitors on elite Kenyan runners. He states there is only one best way and 80/20 is it, adding that it took a long time to discover it and he doesn’t want to overstate the case; there’s no magic in round numbers, you have to run a lot and most of your running has to be easy, to get the most out of whatever your genetic potential is. [19:10]
- Matt mentions that most elites naturally do a 50/50 mix. However, low intensity for elite runners tends to be really low. Matt showed up at Flagstaff, with a recent 2:49 marathon. It was not advisable for him to start training with the pro’s, especially at 7000ft! He would start off with them on easy runs, they would get moving and he would get left behind. Over time, his pace progressed. [21:16]
- Floris asks Matt why he think amateur, or even advanced/elite athletes are running at a higher intensity than their current fitness level. Matt starts by referencing 80/20 training and the guy who was credited with discovering it, an exercise physiologist named Stephen Seiler. Seiler pointed out that if you don’t have elite-level talent, your low-intensity range is going to be a lot smaller than elite athletes. Nobody at any level feels comfortable running slower than about 13 minutes per mile. An elite might run 120 miles per week and a recreational runner, more like 35 miles per week. In essence the recreational runner can do more higher-intensity workouts than someone with a far greater training load in terms of miles. It could kill an elite athlete, to do 50% of their training at higher intensity. [22:54]
- Matt says recreational athletes tend to have a higher intensity output also, due to the “Strava factor”. Floris notes that the ego element is a big one, where people don’t want to post slower times. [25:35]
- Floris raises that there are quite a few ways of calculating running intensity, outside of going to a medical lab. Matt responds that the pro’s do it by perceived effort. Pace is a large factor for harder runs and for easier runs, just by feel. The average recreational runner perceives low intensity as actually, moderate intensity, which can become a rut. Matt calls it “intensity blindness”. He says, “you can calibrate perceived effort, but that’s not a good starting point for people, because it’s exactly what’s getting you into trouble.” This is where you need objective metrics. [25:00]
- Pace, heart rate and power can all be associated to the (first ventilatory) threshold between low and moderate intensity training. Power, he says, is super reliable and we’re all going to get to a point where we’re using Power Meters. Pace can work fine but you have to know its limitations and heart rate is influenced by many factors. However, you can make this data work if you understand the pros and cons. [28:04]
- Floris notes that there are many formulas for calculating performance and yet, there is no one-size-fits-all method that can be applied to every athlete. Even medical lab data can be problematic, because of the setting and procedures. Regarding power, Floris says that terrain can make a difference. Matt refers to the talk test (of all things), as one thing you can count on, in relation to the ventilatory threshold. In terms of a gradual increase in intensity during training, fast twitch fibers are going to be activated with greater intensity. He goes on to say that brain and muscle system is like “horse & jockey”. Your brain has to work harder, with higher intensity, fast twitch fibers will be activated after only a short sprint, though your body knows not to use them until required! Stephen Seiler (aforementioned) noted the recovery rate beyond the first ventilatory threshold took a lot longer than just below it. Therefore, the talk test is a reliable indicator of where you are in relation to that threshold. Also known as “conversational pace”. If you’re in doubt, you’re above it! [29:28]
- Matt talks on his 80/20 website, getting started with writing training plans for Training Peaks. That company’s success took off and Matt’s books did well along with sales of the training plans. He says “80/20” became kind of a label, but it was useful. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to get runners to slow down, if you tell them to slow down, but if you give them kind of a schtick – ‘hey, it’s the 80/20 system, it’s the secret sauce’, it was like magic. I’m giving them the same advice with just different packaging.” [34:23]
- Matt met David Warden around the same time, a triathlon coach. He was apparently good at everything Matt wasn’t good at; spreadsheets, numbers and stuff. Matt says they’re an odd couple, but praises David’s abilities. Before they knew it, they had a company (80/20 ENDURANCE). Matt says money is not his motivator, but that these sports matter to people and coaching is such a rewarding job. Building a business on that has been fun. The 80/20 approach applies to every endurance sport. [36:16]
- Floris pulls out another book of Matt’s, How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle and asks Matt to talk about mindset and mental fitness. Matt says running is an intensely mentally challenging sport. He used to say to his team mates at high school, “I wish we were good at something fun”. Running races are just sufferfests. That’s not really a bad thing, it’s just an acquired taste. Some people are just born with it, which applies to elite athletes, but everyone is also human! They have doubts and fears, despite mental strength. Matt says his own mental game was his achilles heel as a young runner and he quit the sport. When he got back into it, he intentionally went in for mental fitness. The importance of intention cannot be underestimated. Make it a project. [38:06]
- Floris relates to mind and body connection, when he was standing at the start line of the Chicago Marathon in 2019. He knew it was going to be a challenging race. He noticed his resting heart rate (normally low 40’s) was 105. He realized he needed to just take a deep breath and calm. Once you start running, the nerves start to dissipate. Matt adds that this never stops. Also, you can’t keep on improving physically forever, but you can keep improving mentally. He says if you let the numbers and your emotions control you, they will! If you can take a step back and consider what you should substitute these reflexive thoughts and emotions with, that will help to enjoy the experience more and avoid making bad decisions. [42:08]
- Floris says it’s so easy to compare yourself to past performances and relates to Matt’s comments that you sometimes have to adapt and consciously choose a mental path through a race. However, you can also regain a lot of fitness in a relatively short amount of time. Matt agrees, he was telling himself only “today”, that this session is only a stepping-stone. If you have setbacks, such as illness, you can say to yourself that you’ve been here before and if you stick with it, there’s a “pot of gold” waiting for you, so “don’t pout”. [45:35]
- Matt responds to the question of how to stay in a positive spot, mentally, when dealing with injuries. He says, part of coping with injuries is to expect them. He says, with elites, “they stay rational”, they always let the reason call the shots. One thing Matt offers to athletes is to say, “pretend it’s not you”, like giving relationship advice to a sibling. You may also find other ways to work out. Matt signed up for a bike race, when he had a running injury, because he knew it would help psychologically. He calls it, “benign self-manipulation”. [47:57]
- The pair talk about another of Matt’s books, Running The Dream. Floris found it motivational and inspirational, to work towards certain dreams and to aim high. Matt says, firstly, “don’t make any assumptions”. He says he went through a kind of mid-life crisis in his early 40’s where he realized his last PR was in the past. It was devastating, as he didn’t think his PR’s were even good enough for him. He went into a Half Marathon and thought maybe he had one more shot and he DNF’d. However, he was wrong. He set more than one PR after that, even years after that. What he’s done, post 45 years of age, has truly exploded his ideas of what’s possible. He says, “Everyone sets their last PR at some point, but if you assume (you) can’t get better after a certain age, that can become self-fulfilling”. [51:01]
- Matt’s second piece of advice here is, “don’t be afraid to fail”. When he went to Flagstaff to train with professionals, he didn’t have as much at stake as they did. Their very livelihood depended on it. There was still a lot at stake for Matt. His wife and dog came with him, it was risky financially and if he got injured for the Chicago Marathon or “just bombed it”, there would be no way to tell a story with a happy ending. He blogged while he was out there and a lot of middle-aged runners wanted him to succeed, for what it might mean for them. [54:00]
- Matt talks about Sarah Crouch, a professional runner who he befriended in Flagstaff. She advised him, if you achieve your goals more than 50% of the time then you need to raise the bar. He says, the best athletes fail a lot because they’re setting a high bar, but setting a high bar is also what makes them the best athletes. Failure is not even really failure. [56:04]
- Matt has a sequel to How Bad Do You Want It? coming out in December (2020), called The Comeback Quotient. In that, he advises athletes wishing to become less risk-averse is to look at what Eliud Kipchoge did with his sub 2-hour marathon attempt. Matt says Kipchoge had maybe a 10% chance of doing it and he did it. You can do the same. Try and you’ll almost certainly fail and you’ll see, it’s ok. [55:25]
- Floris talks about athletes discovering running later in life; in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. He notes runners in the Extramilest facebook group setting PR’s in their 50’s and 60’s. If you want to do something say, qualify for Boston, absolutely go for it. One member, Walter Liniger (68 years old) runs further than ever, just recently running 100K self-supported. Both Floris and Matt agree they are inspired by this. [57:39]
- Floris asks if Matt has any other, high-level, advice for runners looking to become a stronger, happier and healthier athlete. One thing Matt brought back from Flagstaff was the “professional’s, no-stone-unturned mindset”. When something goes wrong, you try to figure it out. When Matt returned home, he decided after some decompression time, to improve his Ironman time from when he was 31, at 48. Take that mindset in and put the limit to where you are comfortable. It is a professional approach to your sport and well, why not!? [59:01]