Kudos to Mark Allen for sharing his food preferences during a stunning career which yielded 6 World Ironman Titles. You can read the great man’s article in his own words here, but I thought it might be worthwhile to layer some additional thoughts on there.
Bottom line, I found myself asking if this guy was 20 years ahead of the pack, or were the rest of us just 20 years behind Mark Allen?
Although he never had a coach in the strictest sense of the word, a relationship with Phil Maffetone is reflected in his comments; so too a pretty firm rebuttal of the carb loading mantra that would have been prevalent at the time (those 6 World titles came between 1989 - 1995).
A major in biology probably influenced the intuitive decisions Allen seems to have taken just by listening to his body as well. He wasn't just fast. He was fast, smart and finely tuned in to his own physiology.
Throw in the fact that he notoriously trained slow (relatively speaking) and you have an athlete primed to burn fat and avoid the inflammation, niggles and breakdowns associated with elite performance requirements. His superhuman consistency points to one very clear conclusion - he created the perfect storm to perform within his own body.
In this context, a very genuine mutual respect between Prof Tim Noakes and Mark Allen is not surprising. I have not met Allen personally but Tim Noakes lights up at the mention of his name - which will inevitably lead to a discussion around the retrospective, intricate energy analysis his team in Cape Town have conducted into Allen’s performances. Pegging on a 2:45 ish marathon to the back end of a world title fast Ironman points to an exceptionally astute fueling strategy of course.
However, what was not entirely clear was exactly where Allen could be getting his energy from when the glycogen tank had pretty much run dry? In the context of what was understood and accepted about the limitations of fat burning for performance at that time - that the rate at which fat is burned for fuel is too slow to support a hard, fast Ironman effort - that Noakes quote up top appears accurate.
When Noakes's “Lore of Running” was first published in 1986, the table was well and truly set for carb loading for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not for Allen though. He seems to have picked and chosen and played with a variety of expert opinions on nutrition and training methodologies before settling on his own protocol - at all times listening to his body.
If Noakes’s expertise in the physiology of endurance performance is unparalleled, Allen’s body nonetheless lead him to a different conclusion on the subject of fueling the body at that time - albeit one that Noakes now shares (and openly laments he missed at the time).
As is the gift of the great mind, Noakes can now describe a very complex piece of physiological trickery very simply indeed. “We were looking on the wrong side of the curve back then!” As glycogen levels depleted, how could Allen have maintained such power and pace through the marathon phase of the race?
If the gap between his performance and what science knew about glycolysis seemed impossible at that time, flipping that same chart today reveals only one answer, and that answer is fat.
In Cereal Killers Movie (2013), Noakes physically ripped out the carb loading chapter in his tome. “I’m responsible for writing all this, and I don’t believe it any more” he told us. The next edition of “Lore of Running” will catch up with Allen. I expect it will explain the role of insulin sensitivity, expand upon the work of Phinney, Volek et al and reframe the physiology of fat burning for endurance as only Noakes can. It will close the gap that the FASTER Study has recently bridged.
And after that, we have no more excuses.