Podcast, Racing, Running, Training

Running, Peaking, and Suffering with Olympic gold-medal coach Malcolm Brown | EP#96

 January 25, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Running, Peaking, and Suffering with Olympic gold-medal coach Malcolm Brown | EP#96

Malcolm Brown has been coaching the Brownlee brothers since they were teenagers to 4 Olympic medals, and been an integral part in developing the highly successful Leeds Triathlon Centre. Now retired, we look back at how he achieved all this success, and what he has learnt along the way.

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  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • His greatest contribution in making team Great Britain such a dominant force in triathlon.
  • How he changed the run training of British triathletes to make them "run more like milers" when moving from athletics to triathlon coaching.
  • How athletes like the Brownlees, Vicky Holland, Non Stanford and others consistently manage to perform well in Championship races when it really matters.
  • What allows the Brownlees to race like they do, at a suicidal pace and handle evident suffering so well.
  • The most important change that has happened in triathlon training the last 10-15 years.

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About Malcolm Brown

0:50 - 

  • Coached the Brownlee brothers, along with Jack Maitland, since they were teenagers.
  • Reached international gold medals at the Olympics, Commonwealth, European and World levels.
  • Part of the British Triathlon coaching team for many years.
  • Co-founded the Leeds Triathlon Centre which has produced athletes such as the Brownlee brothers, Vicky Holland, Non Standford, and many more.
  • Appointed Director of Sport at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2000.
  • British Triathlons Olympic Performance manager for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
  • Before triathlon, Malcolm spent 25 years coaching endurance running with British athletics.
  • He was awarded an MBE in 2013 in the Queens New Years honors list.
  • Malcolm has recently retired from triathlon coaching.

Contribution to British Triathlon

4:28 -

  • Still doing a lot of coach development work in triathlon and athletics.
  • There was a lot of accountability when coaching at the Leeds Triathlon Centre. There was an expectation that they would produce medals, which required a lot of meetings and work outside of actual coaching.
  • I was invited to formally coach the running element of triathlon by Jack Maitland (co-founder of the Leeds Triathlon Centre).
  • Previously, there was a focus in triathlon and athletics on endurance running - but the weakness in most cases is inability to tolerate a higher speed.
  • By working at speed, you start to focus on things like running technique, strength training, reactivity off the ground, holding stride length and stride frequency.
    • This was how athletes like the Brownlees were developed.
    • Not concerned with their 10K time, more concerned with them looking as if they were 1,500m runners.
  • When you get off the bike, there's no reason why you can't attack that first 3km (Olympic distance) and take it from there.
  • I've had the privilege of working with some world class British athletes: Dame Kelly Holmes (2x Olympic medals in middle distance at Athens and 1x in Sydney Olympics), worked for 10 years alongside Paula Radcliffe, and with John Brown, the marathon runner.
    • Learnt what "world class" looked like, in terms of preparation, lack of compromise, expectations, support teams and was able to bring that to the Leeds triathlon environment.
  • I came to Leeds with a big network of world class medics, physios, nutritionists, conditioners.

Success of the Leeds Triathlon training environment

11.54 - 

  • Athletes almost always join at 18 or a little later.
  • The culture and environment is supportive but very challenging, which has been set by Alistair, Jonny, Jack and myself. It's athlete led and coach supported.
    • The environment values consistency of training as a high priority.
    • You must learn what your body can and can't tolerate.
  • We have 40-50 coached sessions across all our squads per week, but there is a number of occasions where athletes are by themselves and need to take control of their own destiny as athletes.
  • The training is slightly secondary to learning about your own body and taking responsibility for that.
  • There's a very strong framework around the swimming and running, and to a lesser extend (but increasingly) around the cycling.
  • Important to focus on a key goal - for age group triathletes as well as professionals.
    • Alistair, Jonny, Vicky and Non have always been able to focus on a championship, for example, each year, and perform on the day that matters.
    • This was helped by my experience in Track and Field - 52 weeks a year and only 2 races that really matter to most athletes - the National trials and then the Championships.
  • In triathlon, there is always another day and another opportunity, but this mentality can weaken you. You've got to feel that there isn't, that you will die one minute after the end of the race.

Changes in how elite triathletes train 

19:05 - 

  • I always felt there was room for improvement in the run - it felt like it was a survival test at the end of the race for many people. I wanted athletes to attack it, whatever they'd done on the bike.
  • Important to understand the value of strength training and it's contribution to injury prevention and resilience in endurance athletes.
  • Plyometric training is also important in increasing economy and the ability to run fast.
  • Personally I've learnt a lot about the ability of the human body to recover from training.
    • Mo Farah for example would be running about 15 hours a week.
    • Our triathletes will be doing aerobic or anaerobic training, either swim, bike or run, for well over 30 hours a week.
      • The ability for the Brownlees to train and recover between sessions is remarkable.
      • The ability to recover between sessions and between blocks of training distinguishes the best from the second best.
  • We don't know the limits of human performance and the most optimum ways to recover from particular efforts, that knowledge is not as advanced as it is for training.
  • For athletes, training camps are really valuable, particularly in preparation for major championships.
    • The quality of the rest between sessions is so much higher than at home.
    • Something as simple as not doing the everyday activities of life makes a big difference (e.g. having a chef to cater for you).
  • In terms of recovery we've tried ice, heat, massage, low level aerobic recovery, but when you get a deep fatigue there isn't a short term recovery that you can use that is very effective.
  • There are individual differences both in how people respond to training, and how people recover.
    • For example, I used to know two marathon runners in my early days in Scotland. Both ran the same marathon, both ran 2:40. One said "I'm going to run another marathon I can do better than that next week", 4 weeks later the other runner still couldn't run properly at all.

Advice for age group triathletes

30:45 - 

  • You need to wrap the training methodology around each individual athlete.
  • Consistency of training is the key - you need an organised, predictable life and the support of significant others as much as possible.
  • Running at race pace is not enough to improve your race pace.
    • You need to run faster than race pace consistently once a week/fortnight on an organised basis to improve your race pace speed.
  • Also polarised training, which Steven Seiler has been an advocate of,  can benefit age group athletes.
    • Working at low lactate levels (below 2mm/litre) for a large proportion of your training time, and then working occasionally, but regularly, at a very high level (VO2max).
  • Regarding brick runs, the principle is that too many is not good. You want to do as few as you can whilst not neglecting preparation.
    • They are important before key races of the year.
    • Brick session example: work hard on the bike for 1 hr, and then a combination of 2 minute runs, 3 minute runs and eventually 5 minute runs all above race pace - for no more than 15 minutes max.
  • Off the bike the Brownlee's will be running 2:40-2:50/km which is what they'll be aiming to do in training 2-3 times before a race.
  • Important as an athlete to be objective about where you are and how training is going.
    • Filter out what is really important at any given time, whether that's training, lifestyle, etc.
  • In this day and age, having someone who can be a reassuring presence can be vital.
    • E.g. One of the best British milers was Steve Ovett (previous world record holder and Olympic medal winner. I remember being at a major event in London where all the best milers had come to try and beat Steve Ovett, who had won 35 consecutive mile races previously. I was standing with his coach. Ovett was bouncing up and down - he'd never been fitter in his life, and he'd beaten all these athletes before. I said to his coach "He looks fantastic", and his coach Harry Wilson said: "You'd be really surprised, an hour ago he was as nervous as a kitten telling me how good everyone else in this race was - I was having to remind him how good he was".
    • If Steve Ovett can be worried, anxious and unsure of himself, then all of us can be.
  • Having somebody you can trust to have a look at what you're doing when you're doing it, it probably the biggest bit of advice I can give to anybody.

Responding to listener questions

40:24 - 

  • What are the most important changes in training that happen when moving from draft legal to non-draft racing?
    • When Alistair moved to non-drafting it was outside of our coaching environment to a large extent - so I have observations rather than coaching input.
    • They key is adjusting to the bike - both the physical demands of the distance and being able to hold the position and run effectively off it.
    • The nutritional demands of the event take a while to adjust to.
      • Alistair doesn't easily adhere to a particular nutritional plan in a race.
    • With Alistair, he was already doing so much training that he couldn't physically do more, so the swim structure is the same, the run programme is similar (with a little less emphasis on the VO2 run sessions), but more time is spent on the bike.
  • Is there a secret to peaking for a particular race?    
    • Important to say no and be disciplined - which most people find hard to do!
    • It's not just about your fitness, but also turning down opportunities to go to other events - particularly for professionals where other events may pay well.
      • Vicky Holland and Non Stanford had demanding selection criteria from British Triathlon to be pre-selected 1 year before the Olympics in Rio - had to medal at both the Rio test event and the Chicago Grand Final, which they both did.
      • After selection, both began to worry that the only race that mattered in 2016 was the Olympics so they would have to turn down a lot of other races that mattered to them that year.
    • The ease of dropping training volume before a big race is different for each athlete.
      • Non will want to keep training, and push through any difficulties.
      • Vicky will always take an opportunity to have a rest - she is psychologically comfortable with taking the foot off the accelerator when required.
  • Have the Brownlee's changed/improved their ability to suffer over the years of pushing themselves so hard, and can others improve their ability to do this through training?
    • If you adopt a particular view of training sessions, you initially create a mindset that enables you to do it. Following practice, you create changes in your body and mind which enables you to do it better.
      • If you attack training, you develop a mindset which never leaves you.
    • One of the reasons Alistair and Jonny are as tough as they are is because every Saturday morning for the last 15 years, (48/52 Saturdays), they attack a particular running training session we do, regardless of conditions.
      • This ability becomes subconscious.

Rapid fire questions

49:45 - 

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon/endurance sports?
  • What do you wish you had know, or done differently, during your coaching career?
    • I was once a little too honest to a world record holder about why they weren't able to win Olympic medals, and I'm not sure I've been forgiven yet - and I doubt if I ever will.
  • Who is somebody in coaching triathlon or endurance sports  in general that you look up to?
    • My Father ran the mile with a guy called Roger Bannister - he didn't run as fast but he wasn't far behind him. A lot of what I've learnt about endurance and life came from my Father, Jack Brown, who has passed away now.
    • You can sometimes forget the influence your parents have on you when you have all these other superstars around you.

Key takeaways

Other episodes you may like

Links, resources & contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Malcolm Brown

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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