Matt Pearce is a running, strength and conditioning coach, who trains athletes from half marathon up to all ultra distances. He started coaching almost ten years ago, and now co-owns and co-runs his own gym in Northumberland in North East England. As an athlete, his true focus is mountain ultras, but he recently relocated to Amsterdam, where he also works for Patagonia as their European Sports Marketing Coordinator. He says it’s awesome, but that finding hills to run up is a bit of a challenge in his new adopted country.
TrainingPeaks: How did you get into running?
Matt Pearce: I spent a lot of my childhood up in a really small fishing village in Northumberland. I never really liked organized sports, so the first time I did an “endurance sport” was when my dad took us cross-country running one day, out of the blue.
Realistically, in the 31 years I’ve been alive, my dad’s probably run like four times, but he thought it would be character building. So we ran around in the forest and through a few streams, and at one point we had to jump clean over a fence when a bull charged at us.
That kind of stirred something in my mind, but I didn’t start really running until many years later. I spent my teens mountain biking and ski bumming in Europe and the Rockies before becoming a sponsored kitesurfer and making a career in that industry for a while. Then I got a border collie puppy that I couldn’t wear out. I took him running in the hills one day, and I was really hooked after that.
If I look back, it all really started out with my dad forcibly running his two young boys through a field full of bulls.
You were also a Royal Marine Commando. When did the military fit into the timeline of your life?
I joined the Royal Marines actually quite old; I was 23. It didn’t make obvious sense among the things I’d done in my life up to then, but I had a couple of wilderness years after kitesurfing, and I just wanted to see if I could do it. As a kid growing up in the UK, the Royal Marines posters always said “99 percent need not apply,” so I decided to try to be one of the one percent. I ended up doing five years with the reserves, balancing the military life with running my gym.
It was tough at points, but it was great. It’s a small organization when you compare it with US Marine Corps, just around 7,000 men, and a lot of elite athletes. That Commando Ethos breeds a certain kind of individual.
Most people who’ve been a Royal Marine end up applying that same “all or nothing” approach to everything they do afterwards in life, which can work to your advantage, or get you into quite a lot of trouble!
Like with racing?
Sometimes. My most memorable race was actually my first mountain race, almost nine years ago now. My best friend was a really experienced ultra runner, and he’d convinced me to do this two-day, mostly off-trail mountain event where you’d navigate with a compass, carrying your food and overnight gear. For some reason we were in the elite class too, ‘cause he thought it would be a good idea, and I thought, “Well, if you’re an elite, then I’m an elite!” So there I was, with zero experience; I’d literally never run more than 12 miles.
So on the first day you run for around eight hours over all this brutal terrain, and eventually you get to this valley where you’d camp out, and the next day you’d run another six hours. I had all this hand-me-down gear that was total crap and when we turned in for the night it was so cold there was ice inside the tent. I was awake all night just shaking.
The next morning I remember heading up the first climb of the day, and the sun came into the valley and warmed my back. It just felt so raw to have been out in the mountains for the better part of two days on no sleep, and then feeling that sun and seeing it on the mountains around me. If I wasn’t already hooked, that was it.
How did you start using TrainingPeaks?
I’d played around with it before I ever had a coach and I was sort of patching together what I thought looked like a training plan. When I started taking things more seriously, TrainingPeaks was soon at the core of what I was doing.
TrainingPeaks has always helped me analyze how I’m progressing, both year-to-year and in real-time. I can see if different techniques work compared to other sessions, and if I’ve been feeling poorly for a few days I can notice, for example, that my heart rate has been nowhere near where it should be. I’ll think, “yeah I’ve been super fatigued,” and then I’ll see I’ve also been doing sad frowny faces for a week straight—that’s when it’s time for a break.
When I eventually started coaching other athletes, there was just no other platform that I felt could deliver that kind of detail.
When I ended up getting my own coach for a while (Paul Tierney of Missing Link), he delivered all of my training to me on TrainingPeaks, and it was so easy to follow. It was like seeing a path. When I eventually started coaching other athletes, there was just no other platform that I felt could deliver that kind of detail.
With committed endurance athletes, it’s not so much about pushing them really hard to do the work, it’s about stopping them doing too much work. On TrainingPeaks I can list out someone’s week in black and white, with each workout and the intention behind it. It’s a fantastic tool for stopping people from doing something stupid.
That’s the quote that’s gonna go on the website.
It’s true! People who are newer to racing just want to do more all the time, but more is not always more if that makes sense. If somebody’s got a heart rate monitor or is really honest about how they’re responding to each session, and if they’re actually sticking to their training, then it’s pretty hard not to see what’s going on.
So how did you start working with a coach?
I did my first five or six years of running and my first ultras with no coach, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t getting anywhere (I was making progress and had some good performances at 100k, 100-mile and half-marathon distance) but I still wanted to tie it together and find out exactly what I didn’t know.
Having been a coach and then having had a gym for quite a long time, I knew a lot about strength training, but I didn’t know as much about endurance. I just wanted to be trained by somebody who really knew the ins and outs of devising a training plan, and who could help me pick out the flaws in my game.
People put such a big premium on going hard and doing more work these days, but taking that military-like mindset into training for ultramarathons isn’t as productive as you’d think.
It turns out I was doing what a lot of people do in ultra running, especially if they’ve come from running shorter distances; I was running too hard too often. It was a revelation for me. I used to go out and say, ”Right, today I’m going to have an easy run, so I WILL maintain around an 8 min/mi pace even over hills, and if there’s a downhill then I’ll go even faster.”
I’d think, “This is great! Every time I go running I’m getting HUGE heart rate spikes! I hit a new 10-sec max HR!” but actually that’s not what you should be trying to achieve.
Of course, it’s a cultural thing too. People put such a big premium on going hard and doing more work these days, but taking that military-like mindset into training for ultramarathons isn’t as productive as you’d think. Trying to make things as hard and painful as possible doesn’t really help you get that much faster, it just helps you stay generally really fatigued.
What advice would you offer to someone trying to understand TrainingPeaks?
It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re coaching yourself, then take the time to see how your training is progressing. You can keep track of how fatigued you’ve been after key sessions, and monitor how your pace improves within your training thresholds and across key distances. TrainingPeaks makes it very easy to see how that’s all working out for you.
If you’re the kind of person who needs to know that you’re accountable to someone, then TrainingPeaks is an amazing tool when used in conjunction with a coach. It’s nice to know someone is tracking what you’re doing and working to deliver that training to you.
It sounds like it could make you anxious, like you don’t want to let them down, but with that you’re also getting support. I think the biggest thing is that it takes the guesswork out of everything, you’ve got a schedule and you know that what your coach has set for you is what’s appropriate.
We put so much effort into training for these races that we do, so we might as well make sure that what we’re doing is relevant. For me personally, that’s what’s been transformative; seeing the structure in what I’m doing.
It also helps to keep track of what affects your metrics. I try to get my athletes to not just to think about how their run went, but also how their day went. If you have those other stressful factors in your day, then there’s going to be a pretty measurable impact on your performance.
What are your goals this year, and how is TrainingPeaks helping you achieve them?
For the last few years, I had it in my head that I really wanted to be pushing it at the 100-mile distance. I wanted to be on podiums (my best finish so far is joint third), and I just got really fixated. I was doing the typical 100-miler progression of building up all year; tapering, wrecking, my body during the race, healing for about a month, then building back up and hoping to finish the year roughly where I started. I wasn’t building any long-term fitness.
This season I’d planned to do a lot of fell races (mountain races) in the UK and just focus on getting generally faster in the mountains, but I actually just moved to Amsterdam to start a new job as the European Sports Marketing Coordinator for Patagonia. There’s barely a hill in sight, so I’m going to shift focus to marathons, half marathons and gravel biking for a while!
How would you describe your fitness philosophy?
To me, if you can hold down your 40-60 hour a week job, not lose touch with your friends, be a good partner or parent (or both) and still fit in your training, that’s greatness.
In terms of performance, I want to stay healthy, push as hard as I can and to still be in good shape and entering races when I’m in my 60s and beyond. That should be the goal for everyone I think.
What advice would you give someone who’s weighing their own lofty racing goals?
There will be times when you’re training as hard as you can, and your friends want you to come to the pub, and you have to say no. But if you’re not in that crucial part of a training cycle, then it’s important to go and see your friends and not get too overly focused on training. When you’re committed to a big thing, you can’t do everything you want, but sometimes it’s more important not to let everyone down.
My advice would be to always ask yourself if that six-hour ride or long trail run is worth coming home to a really annoyed spouse? Do you really want to have your dog giving you an incriminating look that says “where’s my proper walk today?”
That’s where a coach can help lay it out straight, helping you find that balance between what you need to do to reach your goals and what you need to do to stay healthy and happy. But of course you also need to be honest with yourself about stuff like that.
Have you ever wanted to DNF?
On my last 100 miler, at about 80 miles, I remember thinking how I was going to Ebay all my running gear and never run again once I’d finished. I hit this real low, and was literally wondering how much I could get for my brand new running pack.
I’d even thought about the Instagram post I was going to write. Something like, “Running has been great, but I think now I’m gonna focus on other avenues.” I had gone into that much detail in my planning. I was in a pit of despair.
I had no intention of actually pulling out of the race, like there was no way I was going to DNF. I had just decided that I was going to get to the end, and THEN I was going to quit running forever. And then of course the next day I was already looking forward to next year and trying to figure out how to go faster.
I’ve met a few people who’ve said, “I entered this race, it was so bad, I’m never doing it again,” and they actually mean it. But for the most part, people who say that are still signing up for another race within a week or so.
I think everyone hits that point in endurance sports.
Yeah definitely. There are far more experienced athletes and coaches than me who will say far more deep things on the subject of pushing through at that moment when you want to quit. But I think after a while you learn to expect it, and even enjoy that internal discussion about wanting to throw the towel in.
This might be a bit wordy, but when I was a recruit in the Marines, in the final phase of training, we did this thing called Final Ex which is a week of little or no sleep spent carrying out tactical maneuvers, and then you roll into your Commando Tests, which is a series of physical challenges culminating in a 30-mile march across Dartmoor (an upland area in England) with a heavy pack and rifle.
You’re there because you want to be there. You came for this feeling. You’re not there for another race medal; you’re there to go through this transformative experience.
We were doing this in early January in the snow, and the night before it all kicked off we we’re all feeling pretty sorry for ourselves. We were just trying to get one last night of proper sleep, but troop sergeant woke us at four in the morning and marched us over to a memorial at the Commando Training Centre, which had been built in honor of all the Marines who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He read off a list of names from the memorial, and turned to us and said, “These were all my friends, think how much they’d all love to be here where you are today, about to embark on their Commando Course and earn their Green Berets. I don’t want to hear anybody over the next two weeks feeling sorry for themselves. You don’t even know how lucky you are.”
It really hit home. Our troop captain was there too, and he wasn’t saying anything, but we later found out that one of the names on the memorial was his brother’s. From then on, if I ever fall into feeling sorry for myself at the hard point of an ultra (something I chose to do), I also just feel really lucky to be doing it. Because we are lucky, and this is a choice we make for ourselves.
It’s become kind of a mantra I have for myself: stop feeling sorry for yourself. You never want to hear it when someone says it to you, but it’s actually the perfect answer to every mental debate when you’re doing these things. You’re there because you want to be there. You came for this feeling. You’re not there for another race medal; you’re there to go through this transformative experience.
We’re so lucky to be able to physically do these things. I can’t stand the term ‘blessing’ but it is. I wouldn’t say at the time I’m thinking “Oh I’m so blessed” but you know…
Yeah, you’re not really thinking like “Ah, I’m so blessed for feeling like I’m gonna vomit.”
No, you’re thinking, “Right now I’m living in a world of deep sadness, but I’m still so lucky.”