I recently did an interview for the L.A. Leggers newsletter and wanted to share here. Thanks to author Greg White for the opportunity to get my message out. I hope you enjoy!
Interview by Greg White
As host of the popular podcast Endurance Podcast, Tawnee Prazak has interviewed hundreds of coaches, athletes, and thinkers on everything from 5ks to triathlon. As a holistic coach, she aims to help athletes improve both their performances and overall health (as Phil Maffetone explained in a previous newsletter interview, good performance and good health are not the same thing). And in the interest of full disclosure, in addition to her many career achievements, for the past two years, Tawnee has been my coach. In our time together we’ve covered a ton of ground, focusing not just “how to run marathons” but also the psychological side of running, nutrition, and–most importantly for me–functional movement. I’ve made a lot of progress in these past two years as an athlete and human who races (not just as a runner), and I credit her with most of that progress. To mark the launch of her latest venture, Life Post Collective, I thought it would be fun to change things up and focus on her for a change.
Greg White: What is your background in endurance sports?
Tawnee Prazak: I’ve been a lifelong athlete, participating in recreational sports growing up that would be considered endurance (mountain biking, snowboarding, hiking, etc). But I didn’t actually become an endurance athlete until my last couple years in college (San Diego State) when I fell in love with running and triathlon. My first 10k trail race with March 2007, in which I podiumed, and my first triathlon was July 2007, where I was top 10. I was hooked, had a knack for endurance, and that was it!
What made you decide to become a coach?
Being an athlete wasn’t enough! Plus I wanted to understand exercise physiology on a deeper level. As soon as I was hooked on endurance sports I also wanted to build my knowledge and become a top expert on exercise physiology, sports nutrition, training for peak performance and sports psychology. I was on a completely different career path at the time, but the idea of becoming a coach and endurance expert was too strong to ignore so I made a big switch and even went to grad school to further my education for going down this path. Meanwhile, I’ve always been able to connect with people on a deeper level and people feel comfortable talking with me, etc., so I think coaching and working closely with people came naturally, especially with the psychology side of things–you quickly find out that being a coach also means being a therapist of sorts, and I loved that!
Describe your evolution as a coach, from your early days to the present.
Basically, I hadn’t formed my own philosophy early on but I had a lot of textbook knowledge. It took some years to develop a philosophy and a lot of that came from my own mistakes and successes in sport, as well as observing what worked and what didn’t work for other athletes. And as with anything you do for a long time, you just become more confident and secure in your role–for me that meant getting away from looking to the textbooks for what to do, and learning to develop my own process in work with athletes and their individual needs. Of course, use the books and experts, but tweak that however you see appropriate for the situation… I also became better at questioning everyone and everything in the quest for more knowledge. Ultimately, I think this has made me a bit more “alternative” as a coach–my process is not what you would call typical and I tend to veer away from more traditional cookie-cutter approaches. Lastly, from a business perspective, I’ve learned how to be a million times more organized, efficient and make sure to take care of myself along the way. I have more info on my coaching at coachtawnee.com.
Were you ever coached? What was your experience as an athlete being coached? Were you coaching others at the same time? What did the experience teach you?
Yes! I think every coach should be coached at some point and I wasn’t seeking a coach but ended up finding one in a good friend. I host a podcast called Endurance Planet, and my co-host to our show “Ask the Coaches” is this crazy cool former pro triathlete who lives in the mountain of colorado. His name is lucho, we hit it off as immediate friends and I asked him to be my coach, he said yes! We worked together for several years before I decided to change directions with what I was doing… Lucho and I are still “bff’s” and talk every other week for the podcast.
All the while, yes, I was coaching at the same time. Lucho definitely helped to teach me a lot about coaching, which was never the intention, but it just happened–he had a number of years on me in the role of coach. I learned some good workouts and techniques, among other things I carry with me to this day and things that I now teach to a new generation of coaches and experts.
I also was advised by my friend and mentor, Dr. Phil Maffetone, in 2015 when I trained for my first open marathon, which ended up in a BQ. His wisdom is invaluable.
Overall, being coached or being a coach has taught me it’s about the relationship and trust between the coach and athlete that will yield best results! You want to be able to talk to your coach about anything, while trusting he/she has YOUR best interest at heart.
You describe yourself as a holistic coach. Could you talk a little bit about what that means?
On one hand, this idea of being a “holistic coach” happened after observing athletes for many many years and on the other hand it happened through my own trial and error in sport. We are seeing very serious issues with endurance athletes this day in age in which they are “fit but unhealthy.” What this means is that they can bust out some great performances (for a while) but on the inside they’re a mess–hormonally, metabolically, etc.–and their diet and even biomechanics may be a total mess as well.
This state of being “fit but unhealthy” is not sustainable, and ultimately something’s going to give and usually it’s sports performance and health, and the two are very much related. The problem is, many endurance athletes just focus on workouts, performance, and how much harder and harder they can train without taking care of themselves holistically. (For the record, the “no pain no gain” philosophy is crap if you ask me).
Meanwhile, sadly, too many coaches allow this by only focusing on programming workouts–or worse, dishing out prewritten templates to athletes–and they don’t cover much of anything else with their athletes–not nutrition, not strength training, not individual considerations and certainly not the components of good health. This is a recipe for disaster because demands of endurance training are incredibly aggressive and if you only pay attention to the exercise portion of it ultimately you will pay a pretty big price.
I made these mistakes. Over the course of about 8 years, I did a number on my body and mind (read: stress!!!) to the point where I just had to stop, reset and find my health again, which was severely lacking. I was hormonally depleted (with hypothalamic amenorrhea) my gut was a wreck, and I was wrought with immense stress and fatigue that had built up over the years leaving my adrenal output suffering, among other issues like a diet that was less than perfect, etc. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was only focused on how much I could train and how fast I could race. That had to change. Btw, my former coach Lucho did his best to help me by introducing me to MAF and being a positive influence, but I was personally at fault for pushing myself over the edge, and it was also due to the hectic lifestyle I had beyond sport.
Finally I made big changes. I scaled back on training and racing, and built back my total health and vibrancy from scratch. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was like going back to college for the third time to figure out how to heal myself naturally, but it was the smartest decision ever. Ultimately, I was even able to get back to training and qualify for the Boston Marathon in the process. In the process I found a new passion for holistic health and nutrition in particular, especially for female athletes many of whom suffer from the very things I did. Btw, you can read more of my story on my blog, tritawn.com, where I get open and honest and I have also shared my journey openly on Endurance Planet.
All this has turned me into a holistic coach–who covers diet, nutrition, lifestyle, stress management and of course functional fitness and strength training. I am an expert in all these areas, not just writing endurance workouts. The way I see it, how could I, as a coach and athlete who’s overcome a lot, ignore the variables that create healthy athletes? It doesn’t seem fair nor right to only focus on a workout template. Granted, this makes my job harder and more time-consuming, but it’s 100% worthwhile when I know I’m covering all bases with my athletes and we talk about so many building blocks that ultimately lead to their success–on and off the race course… Because in my opinion, success is not just how fast you go, but how healthy you are in the process.
I know that you hate the term “bio-hacker” but you are certainly someone I would put in the category of “better living through science.” That is, our time together has involved all manner of data collection, as well as health testing. Could you describe the relationship between science and performance?
Whoa, that’s a LOADED question. Check out endurance planet or my inner-circle community, Life Post Collective, for more real-life examples of how to use science to boost performance, and not just athletically. In the meantime, I will say: This day in age there is a lot working against us, but with smart application of specific tools and practices we can still optimize ourselves. We are learning a lot more about how little “hacks” we can perform (i.e. blue blocker glasses at night or building a healthy gut microbiome) can go a long way at improving our wellbeing, cognition and performance–whatever performance means to you!
And, even though we just established that you hate the word “bio-hacker,” I’m going to ask this anyway: what are your top 3 bio-hacks?
That’s fair… I probably am I biohacker even if I don’t label myself as such. My favorite hacks will include anything that has to do with improving sleep because I truly believe quality sleep is the key to a good life and optimal performance–so that would entail blue light blocking glasses, dark room with no electronics, no coffee after 1pm, and a cold-ish room with warm blankets. Other than that I am a huge fan of HRV to monitor stress levels and while HRV won’t change your stress, it will create awareness so that you can take appropriate actions action to manage stress and keep it in check. Lastly, not sure if this is a hack or what but I am a huge fan of doing ANYTHING you can to disconnect from technology and our modern world and getting back to nature. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in being “on” and connected 24/7 and when we can get away from that, hit the reset button and immerse ourselves in a natural environment, really good things happen. Personally, my “hack” for this is backpacking and camping.
What kind of athlete, be it a runner or a triathlete, needs a coach? Are there any kinds of athletes that are un-coachable?
I think whether you are an athlete or not, all humans can benefit from a coach at some point in their lives. Having a good coach can help you see things in a different way and get out of your head–let’s admit it, many of us are way to stuck in our own heads! A good coach will be a mentor and friend and help you to do things you didn’t think possible. If you need motivation, don’t hire a coach for that–you have to find that within. But if you need someone who will be on your team and get you closer to your optimal self, and you’re willing to put in the work, then hire a coach!
People are only uncoachable if they are not willing to change or are overly stubborn. Or there’s another situation that could be deemed as uncoachable, in a positive sense: maybe you get to a point where you know yourself so well that you don’t need a coach to tell you what to do and your training is 100% intuitive with your best interest at heart. This is not an easy place to get to. Sometimes I joke I’m uncoachable these days because I’m so incredibly intuitive with my body and I truly feel like I alone know what’s best for me at this point in my life. But that could change! As soon as I have a goal I want to work for, then you better believe I’d seek out the best coach or advisor to help me out! This isn’t exclusive to sports either–we all can benefit from getting coaching for health, nutrition, etc.
What do you look for in an athlete when deciding whether or not you’ll work with someone?
As I said before, I am not the type of coach who is looking to be someone’s cheerleader and beg them to do the work. I want people who are already motivated and ready to work hard for their goals. Working hard does not mean how hard you can workout, it means how disciplined, dedicated and consistent are you willing to be across your entire life in order to achieve your goals–it’s these athletes who have the most success when following my plans!
Also, to be honest, I love helping athletes fix or overcome mistakes or athletes who are in “bad shape” for whatever reason (overtrained or making a comeback from injury, health issues, etc). A lot of coaches just want to train the top-tier athletes, whereas I want to coach athletes who potentially need special help, and this could even mean healing the gut, hormones, overall health, fixing nutrition, or even help in overcoming an eating disorder (another area of specialization for me). I have a lot of athletes who come to me with more complicated scenarios that go beyond daily workout prescription, and I love that! I love when I can help a female regain menstruation after years of amenorrhea, or help a male boost his testosterone after it had plummeted.
What are some of the things you’re proudest of in your coaching career?
Mostly I’m proud of having always followed my heart and my dreams to build my dream career, and I never let an attitude of “I can’t” prevent me from doing something. I’m also very proud to be a “holistic coach” these days because I feel like I’m not only helping people be better athletes but also healthier, happier humans! I think I would feel guilty if I got someone peak performance BUT I knew behind the scenes they were a wreck, I just couldn’t live with that. I want people to thrive in life and sport!
You place a big emphasis on women’s health in sport and life. What makes women unique as athletes and not just, as one of your guests joked, “tiny men.”
You nailed it in the question: Women are not small men. Of course, I can’t take credit for that phrase, it was my friend Stacy Sims who coined it. It’s true though. Women are different, and we have different needs. Sadly, a lot of the ways we program training, build nutrition plans and make recommendations are based on what works for men, not women. The vast majority of research is done on men, not women. And even a lot of media (podcasts, etc.) is male-dominated still. So if you get advice that was “shown in a study” somewhere or that it worked for Joe Shmoe, be skeptical, there’s a good chance the study or experiment was done on males. (Men are more often researched than women because a woman’s cycle and hormonal fluctuations makes studies more complicated to execute so they often will avoid using them….ugh.)
Thankfully the tides are changing and there are many of us doing more to address the specific needs of women in sport whether through new research, anecdotally, and so on. Yes, there is already a large amount of research on the female athlete triad [eating disorders, decreased bone mineral density, amenorrhea] and that’s very valuable and important, but women’s needs go far beyond that. For example, how about a simple education on the female cycle for athletes, and how hormones work in conjunction with diet and exercise? No one ever taught me these things even when I was in a prestigious exercise science grad school program, which seems absurd looking back. In fact, I suffered from amenorrhea for years and was too afraid to speak up because it seemed like a taboo issue or like I was flawed. Finally I let that go of that fear and talked about my issues openly as well as how I resolved them–you know what worked to fix myself? Not using the recommendations that were based on men and learning how to embrace my womanhood and treat myself accordingly. So I’m here to say, “hey, guess what women have periods–or at least they should and if they don’t let’s fix that!” These are the things we need to be talking about more in the mainstream (don’t even get me started on ketogenic and low-carb diets for women).
Anyway, call me a feminist or don’t, I just want to be a voice of reason and comfort for fellow female athletes and women as a whole. For a long time I didn’t have anyone to go to when I was dysfunctional, I suffered, and I had to figure things out largely on my own. I don’t want other women to have to shy away in fear. Come talk to me and we’ll make it ok. It seems ridiculous to me that talk of menstruation is this taboo hush hush thing. You won’t find that in my camp. (But, I’m also the coach who asks her clients about their “poop health”).
Lastly, there’s the whole topic of body image and other things that come along with being a female. We deal with a lot. A lot of pressures, whether real or perceived, to look, be and perform a certain way. Pressure to do it all. I want women to do what’s right for them–regardless of what society says.
At the end of the day women’s health is a unique area and what works for a man does not automatically qualify as a worth recommendation for a woman. Not to mention, there are a zillion issues that will never even concern men but that doesn’t mean they’re not important.
Greg White: How does the work you do on Endurance Planet translate into your coaching, and vice versa?
My podcast, Endurance Planet, has a lot of Q&A-based shows on everything related to endurance sports, so I feel this has been great for me as a coach because at this point I think I’ve “heard it all” when it comes to things athletes will ask a coach. I also am a big research nerd, and I like to bring on guests to talk about a lot of cutting-edge information in the exercise science and nutrition worlds. As such, I’m constantly studying for my podcasts by digging into scientific literature, and likewise I research a lot for coaching and I kind of have my own continuing education thing always going in order to be the best I can for my athletes–so with EP and coaching there is a lot of crossover when it comes to the topics and information I’m digging into, so that’s nice. Plus, since becoming CEO and owner of EP in 2014, I’ve also taken the podcast in a direction of promoting health and wellness for athletes, and avoiding the “fit but unhealthy” syndrome, and our numbers have tripled in the past few years so obviously people like the content! Finally, I don’t advertise my coaching on EP, but people know I’m a coach so it gets my name out and it’s cool because it’s allowed me to reach audiences worldwide and thus get clients worldwide, which is really fun. I’ve had/have athletes in Russia, Bahrain, Indonesia, Australia, England, Canada…. All in addition to everywhere in the US.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a coach?
Don’t take things too personally!
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a small business owner?
Make time for yourself, and don’t work every day! Both of which I used to do and that was a ticket to getting burnt out and overly stressed. I’ve learned that taking breaks is the most important component to success. You have to have a fresh mind and be hungry to get at it–and you won’t have that if you work every day, you just won’t. Meanwhile, owning your own business is not all fun and games, it can be lonely, and it can actually be very expensive. Yea, we make our own hours, we don’t answer to a boss and we can essentially take off whenever we want, but there’s a lot of moving parts behind the scenes that makes this a hard life that needs a lot of attention and organization, and if you’re not on top of things, it can get really stressful. So I just have learned to stay organized and never let myself feel overwhelmed. Overall, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, though, it’s a good life.
How would you like to see Endurance Planet evolve over time?
I love it just how it is and honestly I’m not really thinking about how I can change things at this point. The biggest change happened when I became owner in 2014 and we reorganized the business so that I no longer was “wearing all the hats” and we started hiring help. That honestly saved me life! And by “we” I mean my husband and I; he is a business attorney and small business owner himself, so he stepped in and spent countless hours helping me clean things up and get it all organized and streamlined. Now, I just want to keep it that way!
What is the most common issue you see when an athlete comes to you for coaching or a consultation? (Could be a dietary issue, or a training error etc).
Such a loaded question but I’d say: Utilizing the MAF Method, figuring out nutrition (regular diet and sports nutrition) usually to adopt a cleaner diet and be more fat-adapted, and fixing or improving health and hormonal status (both females and males). People really want to “do it right” and not just train their brains out, which is great!
You’re a big proponent of MAF training (Maximum Aerobic Function). Why?
As humans, from a primal perspective, having strong aerobic fitness is everything. Unfortunately, a lot of training plans looks to the end result–how that athlete will perform in a race–and this leads the athlete into a lot of intensity relatively soon into a program without properly developing aerobic fitness first. MAF fixes that. In fact, it could take years to dial in your aerobic efficiency and potential! Ultimately, when aerobic fitness progresses you can and SHOULD add intensity. MAF also allows for a lot of flexibility and the athlete to become intuitive, and being an intuitive athlete is arguably the best thing you can do for yourself–know when to push hard, know when to take it easy, and don’t just blindly follow a plan. Listen to your body.
Plus MAF also takes into account more than training–it’s a lifestyle that promotes overall wellness, teaches patience, and how to be intuitive. MAF helps set a solid foundation of health and wellbeing through diet and stress management as well.
I have my own unique spin on MAF training for athletes that’s a bit different than how Maffetone himself tends to dish it out. But overall, I’ve learned a lot from him, so much in fact, and couldn’t be more grateful for what he’s done in the endurance sports world. He’s a reoccurring guest on Endurance Planet, if you want to hear he and I chat about all things health and endurance.
Another focus of yours is functional movement. Could you talk a little about what that is, and why it matters?
Take everything we’ve talked about in this interview, and if proper mobility, stability and function are lacking you can throw performance out the window! We simply can’t be our best in sport if we don’t move well. And we especially can’t maximize our potential in sport if we’re constantly injured, which is what will happen as a result of poor movement patterns and imbalances.
So, functional movement is one of those components that is just necessary in setting up the athlete for success. It’s a necessary part of my coaching and I do an in-depth functional strength assessment to hone in on each athlete’s unique needs (the assessment is a battery I developed myself after all these years of seeing common issues and figuring out what matters most). Heck, even if you’re not a hardcore athlete, functional movement is KEY to a pain-free happy life!
What are your favorite functional movement exercises?
Anything that is going to address an athlete’s needs 😉 I’d say anything that focuses on a healthy T-spine, hips and ankles. Start small, but ultimately we want full-body exercises that challenge the athlete and promote quality movement patterns to overcome injury and boost sports performance. I like using a TRX and kettlebells, maybe some resistance bands, and that’s about it, you don’t need a fancy gym to get good functional movement!
If you could build the perfect endurance runner from scratch, what would that look like? Obviously there are key differences in individuals, but what would the broad “best case” traits be?
- Good health – assessed by testing blood markers, gut health, hormones and organic acids
- Good stress management – just the right amount of stress needed for training adaptations, but with life stress in check, and using HRV to monitor stress. The ability to activate vagal tone and turn on the parasympathetic mode, and not be chronically revved up in the sympathetic mode.
- Strong aerobic fitness – a MAF pace that progressively gets faster and faster (i.e. getting faster at the same aerobic HR)
- Healthy, clean diet – not low carb, not high carb, and not on a diet, but rather clean eating that helps to properly fuel performance and also allows for strong metabolic efficiency (fat burning) without going to diet extremes
- Happy and well-rounded – has a life beyond sport, and is genuinely a happy fulfilled person
- Performing well
- Injury free
- All-around athlete – strong and able to jump into pretty much any sport or activity at any time and do well by having built athleticism
- Consistent year after year for a long “career” in sport
- Flexible and always evolving, open to change
- Strong spiritual practice
- Striving to live in a healthy environment
- Open to resting, relaxing and taking time off
You recently created a website called Life Post Collective. Could you talk a little bit about it and what people can expect to find there?
I’m constantly being asked for advice on how to live healthier, fuller life especially when it comes to smart eating habits, exercise, a clean environment and strong mind. Because holistic coaching is pretty demanding and I can only take on so many athletes at once I figured out a way to open up my tools in how to apply holistic methods for optimization in sport and life, and in 2016 launched my inner-circle community called Life Post Collective where I post all my coaching resources, videos and more. We attract a like-minded community who also can share their tips on holistic wellness and performance.
So I set up Life Post Collective, where I offer my coaching library of evidence-based and experienced-based information that I use in coaching. You’ll find ways to lead a healthy, happy life and perform your best—whatever performance means for you, it doesn’t have to just be sport. It’s the full package for holistic wellness with the tools you need to build a richer, fuller life.
We have articles on diet and nutrition (and how to apply to your needs), custom recipes, workout ideas, tips on functional training and strength training, how to achieve optimal health and wellness, how to grow stronger mentally, and even guides to improve your environment—such as adopting clean safe alternatives for the home, office, and personal care.
Plus videos, forums, and live webinars with Q&A. I’m also excited about is the community we’re building at LPC–you can learn from not only me but also like-minded people all working toward common goals. Ask questions, offer thoughts, share stories, and participate! I’ve seen it first-hand with my coaching clients: It’s so nice to have a sense of community and the support of others who are in the same boat as you.
Finally, if you could send one message out to the endurance community at large, what would it be?
Remember you are doing this for fun. If it’s not fun, reevaluate why you’re doing it at all.
LifePostCollective.com – Join now and get a free first month with code “lpc4me”
EndurancePlanet.com – for the podcast (also free on iTunes)
TriTawn.com – Tawnee’s personal blog
@tawneeprazak on Twitter
@Coachtawnee on Facebook
@tawneegibson on IG