coaching, leadership, Training, triathlon

A Chat with Mark Allen – 6 time Ironman World Champion

Mark Allen is one of the most recognizable names in triathlon. He’s probably best known for winning in Kona 6 times.

Listening to Mark speak is quite a treat because he makes every word count. He has the gift of communicating in three sentences what might take others three paragraphs. Speaking simply and methodically, he offers profound lessons from his days as an athlete and now a coach.

Here are the highlights from my conversation with Mark: (Note: Because the interview was NOT recorded, many of the answers are paraphrased. I’ve done my best to be as accurate as possible.)

David Bertrand (db): What originally drew you into coaching and what do you enjoy most about it?

Mark Allen (ma): I got an email from a guy in Chicago, and he asked if I’d coach him. I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I started with one client and grew from there. The most I’ve had is 20 to 30 people. The idea for online coaching came from that.

db: What is your coaching philosophy and what if anything, do you consider to be unique or core to your approach?

ma: Everything people get is based on 15 years of personal experience racing at the highest level.

I sifted through lots of information over those years. Most of it didn’t work. Or it may have worked short-term but not long-term. 

One thing that’s unique is the deep, personal experience that happens when I coach athletes.

All training intensities are based on heart rate…it’s the #1 thing you can do to help you regulate training intensity. Some coaches only use watts and pace; I don’t do it that way as it doesn’t address the physiological aspects of where you’re at with your fitness on that day.

db: Did you receive any advice from early on in your coaching career, which has been something you draw strength from and/or something you consider to be a great piece of wisdom?

ma: The thing that’s helped me the most is the questions I get from my athletes. If I get the same questions over and over, then I have to be willing to looks at things differently.

Coaching is so multi-leveled…depending on how personally engaged you are, it becomes more about helping athletes through your wording and stories and helping them to stay in that calm place when they are training.

Helping them get physically fit but also helping them with weak points in their inner character as well…that can help tremendously in a race, the human being stuff.

db: Do you have any tips for athletes or coaches in regards to getting through injuries / difficult patches?

ma: An injury is just the end result of something that was out of balance. You have to ask “What led to it?”

Help them find out where it stemmed from. Go back to where imbalance started. Be disappointed for a while. It’s OK to be disappointed, but after a week, let’s circle back. It’ll be more clear maybe after that and we can look at it differently.

db: Regarding the business of coaching, what do you see as the biggest challenge to establishing a successful coaching practice?

ma: The biggest challenge is to stand out among all the noise out there. Asking questions like the following will help: “What’s my niche? What am I offering that will attract folks? What type of service does the client want and need? Do I need to train with my clients?”

My niche is providing customized training programs online.

db: What are the most common mistakes you see coaches make?

ma: Not providing the availability of support they they’re going to provide. Lack of integrity.

Next would be coaches who take too much out of the physiology textbook and try to implement it directly into practice, without real world experience.

It’s hard to tell athletes to hold back and to slow down. I see new coaches struggle with this a lot. Triathlon attracts Type A folks, coaches and athletes, so it’s a huge challenge to continually remind them that they need to slow down a little bit.

db: Where do you see the sport of triathlon headed?

ma: It seems like there’s still steady growth in the sport, in regards to the # of races. I think a cohesive Olympic-distance series will surface. Eventually somebody will figure this piece out.

In regards to coaching, we must continue to educate as there’s a lot of free stuff on the Internet…people will try these free programs out, and then they’ll need a real coach.

db: If you could wish one thing for an ATHLETE that may be new to the sport, what would that be?

ma: Start from where you’re at, not from where someone else is at. Build slowly and gradually.

You want to talk about Ironman? OK great, but you can barely finish a sprint properly. Make the journey a positive one (and don’t rush it).

db: If you could wish one thing for a COACH that may be new to the sport, what would that be?

ma: Figure out what your core training philosophy is that you will build on. Don’t get caught up in the latest and greatest. Lots of folks train by the “article de jour” whiplash, so don’t be a coach that does that too.

Understand that you’re going to deal with different personalities and not everyone is going to need the same approach to get the results they should. You’ve got to be willing to be part psychologist, so be ready for that.

Lastly, don’t feel like you need to know everything. We as a collective coaching community don’t know everything. There’s a lot of complexity out there. I’m asking the experts things all the time. I’ve got to be humble to do this.

Navigating this area can be confusing for a new coach because you will encounter some “know-it-all’s” that seem to get a lot of clients and do quite well. Some athletes feel more secure with that. But it’s these coaches that get stuck in their ways and don’t grow.

db: Any final thoughts?

ma: Just keep learning as a coach and as an athlete – about the sport AND about your physiology. USAT Level 1 certification doesn’t mean you’re “arrived”.

The learning keeps going and going. Get the experience.

A big thank you to Mark for helping us all get BETTER!

For your success,



If you liked this article, then you also might appreciate interviews with the following:

Dave Scott

Brett Sutton


All triathlon coach interviews were conducted in April and May of 2014.


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