Ignorance is Bliss..? with Terrence Mahon

[Editor's note] The following is a guest blog post from world-class running coach Terrence Mahon, who has been coaching running champions for more than 20 years.


Hello fellow CORE Temperature Sensor users. My name is Terrence Mahon and I am a professional running coach of more than 20 years. I call San Diego, CA my home and currently work with Adidas as they support my team Golden Coast Track Club.  Over the years I have had the opportunity to coach numerous athletes in becoming Olympians, World Champs Finalists, American record holders and National Champions from around the globe. During this time I have worked with athletes from the 800 meters on up to the 50k and every event in between. So it is safe to say that when it comes to middle and long distance running I have seen my share of top level races and all the training plans that have gone into them.

When it comes to my coaching philosophy I always found that having an intense curiosity in what sports science can do for endurance sports was always my best approach to help my athletes succeed and I still follow that model today. This curiosity is what led me to CORE and I couldn’t be happier that we are now partnering with them and using their sensors.

Ignorance is bliss?

It is often said that “ignorance is bliss” and I have heard many an athlete use that mantra when approaching a new event. I usually see this with the track runner moving on to tackle the marathon for the first time. How hard can it actually be to run 26.2 miles? Just lace up the shoes and go! However, my personal experience tells me that ignorance is bliss until it isn’t. Unfortunately that “isn’t” that I mention is when it all goes frightfully wrong and most likely could have been avoided with a bit of education and understanding. My thought process has always been about not leaving things to chance when they can be managed and prepared for ahead of time. Sure it take a bit of extra work and isn’t always the most convenient thing to do, but if it reduces the possibility of disaster come race day then I am all for it.

A scorching World Championships

This summer I had the opportunity to be the US Men’s Distance Coach for the World Championships that took place in Budapest, Hungary. We were told ahead of time in our early season team meetings that the average temps during the day could be expected to be in the mid to high 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That isn’t the greatest climate you would want for top level performances, but it wasn’t bad either. However, come August we found that Europe was in the middle of a massive heat wave and the World Champs would just happen to fall on the tail end of it. So those days of 70s were now 90s. Ouch! I also forgot to mention the humidity and sun exposure – both were out in full force.

In an instant these distance races were going to change from ones of chasing records to battles of attrition. What become apparent in both the men’s and women’s marathon events were that the ones that prepared for these conditions the best were the ones that reached the top of the podium. The ones that didn’t either didn’t finish at all or if they managed to get across the line it was in a time far off of their personal bests.

Traditional heat training

So how does one prepare for a hot summer running race such as a half marathon or marathon when most of your experience in the top races around the globe are all held in the cooler months in the fall or spring? It is definitely a different event all together and one that relies much more on understanding heat, humidity and your perception of effort. It also takes a lot of adaptation.

Here is some insight to how my athletes handle it. In the past when we were prepping for summer racing, we would try to mimic the conditions as much as possible in training. We wouldn’t do it every day, but on a few key days each week. This prep consisted of alternating running in hot conditions with full skin exposure to get the feeling of the sun beating down on you with running in more layers of clothing when the sun wasn’t out or not hot enough and we needed to stimulate it being hotter or more humid.

Both of these runs would be followed up by stints in the sauna. I typically recommended running for an 60–90 minutes (depending on what their event was) and then straight into the sauna or steam room for 20–30 minutes so that the athlete kept sweating and the heart rate stayed up similar to what it was in training. Along with doing this sort of heat adaptation I would also monitor water loss by weighing the athlete pre- and post-workout to see how much they sweat out in the attempt to cool off. All of this info helped me to understand how much they would need to hydrate in the competition and also how to pace themselves better on the race course. It also helped me to see who were the athletes that handled the change in temperatures better and who would need more work at it prior to stepping on the line.

New protocols with CORE

For the past 20 years I used this approach and I would say that we had a pretty good track record with our summer performances. However, it was by no means perfect and I definitely had those handful of athletes that always seemed to blow up in the heat. As a professional coach that always bothered me because I felt like I didn’t do something right to prepare them better. However, at the time I didn’t have all the tools at my disposal to make it right. So as any coach like me does, I go down the internet rabbit hole looking for solutions and I stumble upon CORE. Wow, what a game changer! I read a few articles, watched a few videos from the top pro triathletes and their coaches and it was like a giant window opened up in front of me giving all this information I never had before, answering all my questions about why some of my athletes weren’t competing up to par when the thermometer started to rise. So now it is all CORE all the time.

The CORE sensors and app have been great to track my athletes on different workouts and see what makes them tick from the thermogenic side of things. I now know who suffers more on long runs when the pace gets hot, who struggles more when we do our VO2 work in nasty conditions and so on. It also helps me strategize plans for how to solve those problems – or at least minimize the damage.

It is an interesting problem because if you have ever worked with an elite athlete they all pretty much tell you that at the beginning of every interval session, tempo run or long run that they feel great and the pace is easy. However, once we get 2/3 of the way through that session most don’t sing the same tune. What was once easy is now hard and for some they won’t even make it to the finish line. Their perceptions are fickle and not to be trusted – or at least not on the more challenging heat days.

This is where data helps. When I have a heart rate monitor and a CORE temp sensor on an athlete then I can see how they are really feeling – not the story that they are telling both themselves and me to get through the session. The data that the CORE app gives me provides an objective tool to work with and allows me to create training to improve those metrics. If tolerating and dissipating heat is the name of the game then it really helps to have a tool out there to tell you that you are doing it right.

Heat training is hard, but losing is worse

Is the work hard, sure! Training in the heat can be nasty and mentally challenging, but what is the alternative? Losing races because you were unprepared and mismanaged your race effort is so much worse. Believe me when I tell you that consoling an athlete that put everything they had into a race to only blow up in the heat is no fun task. It is so much better to go in armed with all the knowledge that you can so that when they follow the plan and conquer the event they come across smiling – even in the most dire conditions. That is definitely when the victories are the sweetest. Once you have been there you know you never want to be without these tools.