When Chris Lieto finished second at the IRONMAN World Championship in 2009—a breakthrough performance for the American—one of the questions that circulated the triathlon world following was "who coaches this guy?" The answer was Matt Dixon, a British-born triathlon coach, and founder of purplepatch fitness.
Over the past 10 years, Dixon, currently based in San Francisco, Calif., has coached top IRONMAN professionals Rachel Joyce, Linsey Corbin, Emma-Kate Lidbury and Luke Bell, among others. His current roster of professional athletes includes eight-time IRONMAN champion, Meredith Kessler and IRONMAN 70.3 champions Tim Reed, Jesse Thomas and Sarah Piampiano. Dixon also works with age-group triathletes from around the world through the purplepatch online platform. Thanks to his coaching, over 125 age-groupers have qualified for and exceeded their goals on the Big Island.
This year, Dixon joins a prestigious group of IRONMAN U Master Coaches. More specifically, Dixon helped develop the "art of coaching" module, and lent his expertise heavily to the swimming modules as well. We caught up with the longtime coach below to find out what a typical day looks like in the life of one of the most sought-after coaches in the sport.
A typical day in Dixon’s life starts with a 4:30 am wake-up call to coach a morning swim session. Early morning starts on pool decks are a constant in Dixon’s life. His mother was a swim instructor and introduced her son to swimming at age two. "Swimming is a part of me. I was practically raised at the swimming pool," he says.
By 5:35 am, Dixon is managing 40 athletes as they swim up and down the 25-yard JCCSF pool at varying paces. The group ranges from professional athletes who are front-pack swimmers, such as Holly Lawrence and Kevin Collington, to age-group athletes who've only learned to swim in the past year. He paced the pool deck, shouting encouragement, juggling stopwatches, and calling out splits. "This, to me, is real coaching: to manage athletes, to see them move, to deliver the sessions to them in person. It's living it."
Despite having to manage workouts specific to each lane and each athlete, nothing seems to escape Dixon. One moment he's expressing disappointment—"Rubbish!"—that one of his elites missed their target by a second on a 100-yard interval, and 30 minutes later he's praising that same athlete for perfectly descending a set of 200's. "It’s frantic to manage, but specificity is important to set each athlete up for success," he says. He feels responsible for each athlete’s experience: "It begins with me. I love to develop and coach sessions so they are fun, energetic and competitive, but in a positive way."
Redirecting the competitive drive
Dixon’s squad of professional athletes and a few of his age-groupers gather after the swim for a trail run through San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. Dixon is dressed to run with his 9-year-old Weimaraner, Willow, alongside. For Dixon, this is a social run that also has tremendous coaching value. It offers time to catch up with his athletes and see how they're adapting to the training load: "It’s a chance to listen to them, get a sense of their mood, check their form, and provide feedback and advice," he says. He tags along for the hour-long run, but confesses that his own fitness takes a back seat these days: "I don’t have any desire to train competitively—it would dilute my ability to give myself to coaching."
This is new for someone who spent the better part of his life training and racing competitively. A former collegiate swimmer, Dixon was twice a finalist at the British Olympic Trials for swimming (Breaststroke and Individual Medley) before turning to triathlon. He says that swimming taught him a massive amount of dedication, patience and the value of teamwork but he felt he never quite reached his potential: "I was absolutely world class at training, but I never raced as well as I trained."
Dixon suspects that his work ethic and commitment to training was the likely downfall of his professional triathlon career, which ended in chronic fatigue. Those experiences have shaped his training philosophy, however, which is designed to help ambitious, focused triathletes reach their potential without over-doing it. "While there is no denying that triathlon training demands a massive amount of hard work, at purplepatch, we believe in consistent effective work. We want athletes to be fit and fresh, rather than fit and tired from purely accumulating miles."
Creating a community
Post-run, Dixon has barely time to shower, race home and grab breakfast before his 9:30 "Meetings with Matt," one of his twice-weekly video conference calls open to all purplepatch coached athletes. These calls typically focus on a specific topic, with Dixon or an invited expert, giving advice. (Dixon has a Master’s degree in exercise and clinical physiology.)
One of the unique aspects of these sessions is the Q&A component where athletes from around the world can ask questions about their training and performance. The inquisitiveness and candor of the athletes provides a group learning environment for everyone on the call (and those who watch the recorded session) as many training and racing experiences are universal. Dixon believes the group dynamic is powerful: "It allows athletes to connect with me, as the coach, as well as to one another."
It’s now noon and Dixon has not had a single moment to himself. And he's declaring naptime: "I might only have 20 minutes to take a nap or go for a walk, but it’s important to take a break and rejuvenate." After his personal time-out, Dixon spends his afternoon building individualized training plans, chatting with athletes and reviewing training logs.
He also checks in with the rest of his team, which includes his wife, Kelli, his co-founder at purplepatch fitness. "Our afternoon sessions are invigorating as we review and discuss each athlete’s progress, plans, and upcoming races," he says. It’s clear that he cares about each athlete’s success and experience, from the age-grouper signing up for her first ever triathlon to the professional who depends on his athletic performance to pay the rent.
By 6:00, Dixon is ready to call it a day and focus on his family, spending time with his 2-year-old son, Baxter. Being married to his business partner, he also recognizes that it’s important to "turn off purplepatch" so phone calls and Internet time is taboo.
Dixon’s participation in IRONMAN U as a Master Coach meshes well with his view of coaching in general: "My approach to coaching has always been about education and sharing. By sharing our approach and ideas, we can all raise the level of coaching and performance." He sees the program as an ongoing resource for coaches of all levels that will continue to evolve over time and have a positive influence on the quality of IRONMAN coaching.
Jordan Blanco is a multiple-time IRONMAN finisher and writer living in San Francisco.