How to truly integrate recovery into your training plan

By Dave Colley | 8 Minute Read

Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former pro triathlete and elite swimmer, and an exercise physiologist. He's the founder and owner of Purple Patch Fitness, a fitness and coaching company serving triathletes and endurance enthusiasts across the world. 

Under his guidance, his athletes have recorded over 350 pro IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 victories and podiums, including multiple World Championships. 

His distinct performance methodology - focused on integrating performance into time-starved life - has made him a highly sought after resource for many industry leading CEOs and executives. His longstanding focus on truly integrating recovery in training plans has also led to him being nicknamed 'The Recovery Coach'. Matt's also the author of The Well-Built Triathlete and Fast-Track Triathlete.

Given their respective histories and some of the overlap in philosophies and their approach to various aspects of performance, it's odd that Matt and Andy have never crossed paths, though we were obviously familiar with his work and fans of the Purple Patch podcast.

But not long ago, Team PH athlete and Captain Brad Williams introduced Matt to Andy and they got chatting, with that discussion spilling over onto the podcast

We thought it'd also be good to pick Matt's brains on recovery in particular to help you optimise your approach to this important aspect of performance in the year ahead...

 

So Matt, you're often referred to as 'The Recovery Coach', what's the story behind that?

The title 'The Recovery Coach' blossomed over ten years ago and was born from a belief and methodology that emphasized the need to have a truly integrated recovery as a part of any athlete's training program, instead of recovery simply being an afterthought.

As simple as this seems, in the late 90’s/early 2000’s I felt like there was a widespread symptom of underperformance relative to effort put in for so many athletes, including many pros.  

Much of this stemmed from the fact that most athletes and coaches' barometer of training success simply measured the accumulation of miles and hours.

Concepts such as recovery, nutrition and strength and conditioning were given little more than lip service, with so many athletes rumbling around 'fit n’ fatigued'.  

I decided to go against the grain and give these elements an equal emphasis with any training session and this decision was anchored in my own experience as a swimming coach (a sport prone to over-training relative to demands) and my experience of training myself into the ground as an elite triathlete! 

Despite having extensive elite swimming and coaching experience, as well as a Masters in Clinical Physiology, I'm a prime example of executing a professional triathlon career poorly — with massive over-training, poor fuelling/ nutrition habits and by ignoring the value of recovery.

This mindset was the driving force behind my coaching and, as we began getting strong results across all levels, the nickname emerged. Of course, some people referred to me as 'The Recovery Coach’ in a complimentary manner, but whenever disruption occurs there's a likelihood of friction and some coaches and athletes were dismissive.

It's not without irony that nowadays recovery is viewed as a most basic and obvious component of improved performance!

 

Can you give us a quick history of your career as an athlete?

Sure thing! I grew up in England but came to the US in the early 90’s as a lucky recipient of a swimming scholarship. I had made the finals of the British Olympic swimming trials in 1990 and had aspirations of making the team for 1996.

The truth is that, despite having a world-class work ethic, I was a level off in terms of pure performance and stopped competitive swimming following the 1996 trials.

From there, I took up swimming coaching in the US and then found triathlon in the mid-90’s while studying for my graduate degree and coaching for the University swimming program. 

I performed well at an amateur level and spent a few years racing professionally but, despite having a cluster of respectable performances, I limited my potential through gross over-training and ignoring recovery. 

I was the epitome of 'fit ’n fatigued' and spent two years following the end of my professional career unable to exercise at all. While it was a long journey back to health, it was a critical and highly valuable experience for me as a coach, and set the bedrock of my beliefs that still govern how we go about training athletes of all levels today. 

 

Matt Dixon Purple Patch Fitness

 

Ok, so what are the most common recovery-related mistakes you see athletes making?

I think there are a few basic, yet critical, elements of performance consistency (the magic word) that athletes often get wrong...

 

1. Failing to refuel following workouts

This impairs adaptation and recovery, but also ensures the athlete carries stress into the work day and a host of other negative influences in energy management and recovery.

 

2. Going too hard on the easy days

Motivation is seldom an issue, but the courage to recover impairs performance in the key performance-needle driving sessions of the week.

 

3. Believing life is a spreadsheet

Planning is wonderful, but the real performance stems from making smart decisions based on the daily ebb and flow of stress.

Coaches are part to blame for this if they adopt a ‘hero’ status in prescription. The only way this static mindset is overcome is when the athlete understands the why behind the training prescription and is empowered to make smart decisions for themselves in their weekly training. 

 

Interesting. So, should athletes' approach to recovery be the same or do we need to personalize it?

Some athletes are more resilient, while others require more recovery, so a single solution doesn’t work. What's more important is to understand what recovery in sport really is. I break it down into three major buckets...


1. Sport-Specific

Easy sessions, multiple days of lower stress training, seasonal breaks for training etc. This is all about planning and understanding your true recovery needs individually.

 

2. Lifestyle-Recovery

This includes sleep (critical), nutrition, fuelling habits, naps and meditation. Really important backbones to restore and maintain health and training readiness.

 

3. Modalities

Everything you can buy! While aspects such as foam roller, body work and compression boots might be nice additions, their value is nothing without a smart and appropriate training program supported with the great lifestyle recovery habits.

This makes up the backbone of our approach to recovery — and why we created the educational 'pillars of performance' (endurance training, strength and conditioning, nutrition, recovery).

 

That makes a lot of sense. And what can coaches do to help encourage good recovery practices?

Commit to it as as much of a valuable part of training as hard bike intervals or track sessions, then educate the athlete on what true recovery is and why it's important, before following through and coaching it.

The Purple Patch coaching team are tasked with 'coaching to the pillars', and this means we avoid simply discussing swimming, cycling and running in our coach-athlete review sessions. Instead, we monitor and educate around all performance aspects, including recovery. 

It isn’t enough for a coach to talk about recovery, they have to make it a part of the fabric of the program. Soon, most will realise that the vast majority of athletes are highly motivated and prone to training too much so integrating isn’t limiting, but instead creates more effective training over the long haul — hence performance gains.


Matt Dixon triathlon coaching

 

Nice. And where would you suggest athletes looking to focus more on their recovery start?

If any of the ideas below need addressing then I would strongly recommend picking one to focus on as there will be a directly impact on performance in all areas across your life...

  • Understanding how to refuel properly after workouts
  • Add a 10-20 minute nap in the middle of the day (It isn’t laziness!)
  • Prioritizing sleep — low sleep isn’t toughness, it's performance stupidity
  • Become less obsessive about data
  • Realize that the sport should be fun, not a second job

  

Rumour has it that you've got an interesting new project going on in San Francisco right now, can you share any details on that?

Indeed — we're in mid-construction of a Performance Center in the heart of San Francisco and there are three main reasons behind building the space.

The first is a lovely home-base for our San Francisco training squad, the second is a destination for our global athletes to visit and the third is that we're building the center as a production facility for both education and sporting content.

Education has always been at the backbone of what we do and as a coach I believe in sharing ideas as much as possible. The aim will be to generate a large amount of professional education for the use of fitness enthusiasts, coaches and athletes. 

I also hope we can create a platform for other experts-in-fields to utilise the center to generate valuable education. The hope is that we carve through the blizzard of misinformation out there with sensible and applicable education for all.

The center itself will be a destination for coaches and athletes, with training facilities, seminars, a laboratory, consulting and a host of other services. We hope it can become a meeting of minds for all performance-driven enthusiasts and experts — especially those who believe in sharing their expertise for the betterment of sport globally.


Lastly, what would you say are your 3 biggest accomplishments in 1) Athletics 2) Coaching 3) Life in general?

Athletics: Having the courage to leave Essex in 1992 to come and live in another country that I'd never been to in order to study and chase my athletic dreams.

Coaching: Tim Reed winning the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships against the odds was satisfying, as was Chris Lieto’s 2nd place at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona. But the truth is I'm most proud of the athletes that I have developed from amateur to world-class over many years — including the longevity of these relationships. Meredith Kessler, Sarah Piampiano, Jesse Thomas, Laura Siddall and more. Those guys started at a low level and evolved and improved over many years.

I'm also proud that our highest performing athletes have been both male and female. Oh, and beyond that, the fact that we've now helped so many levels of athletes reach their goals. I'm not interested in just being a ‘pro coach’ — it feels too selfish to me.

Life: Beyond the patient development of building Purple Patch in partnership with my wife and business partner Kelli, it must be the fact that I've somehow persuaded my 6 year old (Baxter) that the best football (soccer) team to support - while growing up in San Francisco - is Southend United FC!

 

Not bad Matt! Thanks for sharing your advice with us and we're looking forward to chewing the fat with you again soon. 

Rehydrating is another important aspect of a true recovery. Learn more about how to rehydrate more effectively after you've been working hard

Was this article useful?

Share this article

Get your free personalized hydration plan

Take the sweat test