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Before he was a six-time IRONMAN® World Champion, triathlete Mark Allen was a six-time IRONMAN also-ran—not to mention an also-swam and also-biked. Merely competing in an IRONMAN race is accomplishment enough, but after winning races across the country and abroad, the future IRONMAN legend still could not break through at the World Championship held annually in Kona, Hawaii.
“I was really at a crossroads,” says the now 63-year-old Allen. “It was like, you know what? I should just go to races around the world where I’ve proven I can be champion, forget Kona. There’s something about the distance, the conditions, the Big Island—I’m cursed when I go there.”
Considered one of the most grueling races on earth, the IRONMAN Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride topped off with a full 26.2-mile marathon run. The World Championship on the Big Island of Hawaii, however, takes endurance to another level: Competitors must swim in the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean, bike against the powerful jet stream winds known as the Pineapple Express, and run toward the finish line on a sizzling tarmac of black lava rock that makes this island paradise look like the harsh, unforgiving surface of the moon.
No amount of physical training can replicate those competition conditions, let alone the intense mental burden of the ultimate endurance race. But when training harder just isn’t enough, athletes like Mark Allen overcome obstacles by training smarter—and looking inward for answers.
“In 1989, I had a completely different mindset in how I trained and how I went into the race,” Allen recounts. “I just didn’t feel the same need to win. Here I am in this most important race of our sport, and on some level I’m like, Hey, this is pretty cool!”
Rather than fight to get ahead, Allen ran side-by-side with the leader, keeping pace in all three legs before ascending the final uphill stretch of the race.
“Right before you drop down into the town of Kona and go to the finish, I was able to make a break,” says Allen. “And I won by 58 seconds. Wow. A very, very small difference on a day that took over eight hours to complete.”
Allen not only conquered his Kona “curse,” but also shattered the world record time in winning what would become known as the Iron War—widely considered the greatest race in IRONMAN history. Allen would go on to win five more World Championships, cementing his legacy as an IRONMAN legend.
After retiring from competition, Mark Allen decided to use his decades of experience and knowledge to train aspiring athletes to follow in his footsteps (and swim strokes, and bike path). Allen now coaches triathletes at all levels, from elite competitors to weekend warriors to people looking to stay in shape and put their bodies to the test at MarkAllenCoaching.com
“In the 1980s, there were no triathlon coaches because the sport was very young,” says Allen. “The top athletes, we were the experts—and we all trained together because you need somebody who’s crazy enough to go out and do all this. And some of the things we did were completely nuts.”
Well before workout apps, personalized nutrition, or even GPS, Allen and his fellow triathletes adapted new training techniques mostly through trial and error. While some of these methods are outdated by modern standards, these endurance race pioneers developed numerous training principles that are still in use today and apply to sports across the entire spectrum.
“One of the big things is that you have to really, really lay a base foundation of endurance and strength, and that takes time. You can’t rush it,” cautions Allen. “A lot of athletes try to by throwing in too much speed work, too much intensity. They don’t take long enough off-seasons to help their body rebuild those deep reserves that you need to draw on when you train and race at that level.”
Above all else, Allen preaches patience and balance. Mixing steady aerobic workouts with strength work helps build the power and endurance necessary to increase speed and optimize performance. Conversely, too much high-intensity training can lead to burn out and injury. Allen still cringes at his past training regiment, which at one point included running 90 miles or biking 500 miles each week for six weeks straight leading up to a race: “By the end of that, you’re toast.”
Allen is an innovator for many reasons, including his online-only training programs, unheard of back when he started Mark Allen Coaching in 2001. Allen now coaches competitors from every corner of the planet, imparting his race-tested training philosophies and how to build steadily and safely. But his real passion is training non-professional athletes—people with jobs and kids and commitments who still want to go out and have fun in the sport Allen helped put on the map.
The True Athlete Challenge
Shortcuts won’t get you very far in training, and they’ll get you disqualified on race day, which is why Allen takes a cautious, measured approach when it comes to trendy training methods.
“The biggest challenge for me today as a coach,” says Allen, “is that every time a new method comes out, a new device, a new way of training, people jump on it because they just like to be entertained with something new. And then everyone is using the super-secret, double-twisted thingy that goes around your knees and makes you swim like a gold medalist—and it might work for three weeks, but if you try to use that philosophy for a year, you’re going to be racing in the tank.”
That applies to fueling and nutrition too. Allen has been tinkering and honing his own diet for decades, enduring every single fad food or supplement promising supercharged performance. He cautions against extreme diets of any kind because, while the initial results may seem magical, the long-term effects can often stunt your progress. For instance, Allen used to down a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies while triathlon training, depending on the quick bursts of sugar to fuel him. That was in stark contrast to the strict diets of some of his competitors, and while cookies are undoubtedly delicious, those disciplined dieters were also consistently winning races. Allen cut sugar from his diet and felt the difference almost immediately—but don’t expect to find him straining the excess fat from his cottage cheese.
“A lot of people I train ask about what nutritional products I take, or which particular component can turn you into a superhero,” says Allen. “And I always pull it back to just basic human hardwiring. We’re meant to eat some carbohydrates, eat some fat, eat some protein, and balance it based on your training.”
“That’s the same with nutritional products. They can be like diets, where every few years there’s the next greatest thing that will help you be the ultimate endurance athlete. And some stuff actually does work! And some stuff is like, okay, that may have worked in the lab, but in the real world, it doesn’t.”
Suffice it to say that Mark Allen—who may actually be the ultimate endurance athlete—maintains a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to supplements. So when Allen agreed to try True Athlete®, he promised to approach it as an experiment, integrating True Athlete products into his own daily training in order to observe the effects for himself.
Even 25 years removed from his last World Championship, Allen still works out every day and often twice per day, starting most mornings with a brisk walk from his home in Santa Cruz, CA, to his local beach for a sunrise surf session. Depending on the day, Allen may follow that up with a stationary bike ride with his international cyclist community, a core workout or functional strength training, or a simple evening walk to allow his body to recover.
When it comes to supplements, Allen’s first concern is legality—not a problem for True Athlete products, all of which are NSF Certified for Sport®, free of any banned substances and approved for all competitions. Allen also appreciates that True Athlete products do not contain synthetic colors or flavors, given how he eschews sports drinks that drown vital electrolytes with tons of sugar, artificial colors, and added calories, and generally seeks out nutritional products that avoid all unnecessary ingredients. As he ages, Allen focuses on workouts that don’t add extra wear-and-tear to his body and brands like True Athlete that support recovery and reduce exercise-induced stress.
Highly attuned to his own body, Allen says he can notice even subtle changes to his performance and claims that many of the nutritional products he has tried in the past didn’t even impact him negatively—they simply had no effect at all. How did True Athlete stack up for a truly remarkable athlete like Mark Allen?
One month later, and it is clear that True Athlete is unlike any other supplement Allen has tried over his long, decorated career—and the positive effects are manifold. The True Athlete Whey Protein, for example, not only enhanced Allen’s workouts and recovery, but also revealed an important insight into his own body.
“Clearly I wasn’t getting enough protein, even though I focus on that,” he admits. “And that’s a huge issue for somebody who’s getting older—aging athletes need a higher percentage of protein in their diet. But you can only eat so much chicken or salmon or whatever, so the Whey Protein was a super valuable piece for me.”
By that same token, you can only drink so much water before it hinders performance or makes you feel just plain sick. Allen could feel the impact from True Athlete Balanced Hydration Powder, which allowed his body to retain and absorb more liquid while providing critical micronutrients like magnesium and a burst of flavor that encouraged him to keep drinking fluids.
“It’s been cold here in Santa Cruz, so I wasn’t so naturally focused on staying hydrated,” he says. “But all of the sudden it dried out and got hot, and the Hydration Powder was the perfect way to top off the tank—it’s something I’m definitely going to carry on through the summer.”
Allen used True Athlete ZMA™ with Theanine before bed and woke up each day with less discomfort and fresher, more supple muscles regardless of the prior day’s workout. But Allen felt the biggest boost not just in his body, but in his brain. Allen became an IRONMAN icon off the strength of his physical and mental training, and a sharp mind is especially critical for complicated, coordinated activities like surfing.
“If your brain is not firing quickly enough, you just can’t surf well,” laments Allen. “Going from paddling to standing requires one coordinated movement, where in one instant your entire body has to shift, and if your brain is exhausted, that stand-up process is about five steps and you look like an ostrich out there on a board.”
After a few weeks of taking True Athlete ZMA with Theanine—a patented vitamin and mineral blend for recovery with theanine for relaxation—Allen sat on his surfboard, bobbing in the waters of the Pacific, feeling as sharp as he did when he first took up surfing as a kid growing up on the Santa Cruz Coast in Northern California.
“I love surfing,” he says, recounting his earliest memories of the sport. “It’s my cardio, it’s my yoga, it’s my stretching, it’s my balance. It’s my time in nature and my stress relief, and I can’t do all that if I don’t get good sleep. And for the last few weeks, all my coordination has been spot-on, and that’s a real indicator that my brain is firing well. It’s all connected.”
“The True Athlete ZMA formula—I’ve been sleeping great. I take it and the next morning, I’m as fresh as a daisy!”