Corrine Malcom is the type of athlete I think we should all aspire to become. She approaches her training with a particular intelligence that comes from knowing and experiencing failure. Corrine is gentle to her body and understands the importance of rest, a concept most are easy to acknowledge but hard pressed to implement.
I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of getting to know her better, watching her climb steadily through the ranks of the prestigious Western States 100, to an amazing fourth place finish at this year’s TDS in Chamonix, France; Corrine is the poster child of what it means to accept patience as a pivotal performance enhancer through training and her career.
I sincerely hope you enjoy this interview and come away with a shifted perspective on what it truly means to train smart.
Describe your character in 3 words.
Curious. Passionate. Stubborn.
What’s your story?
I grew up the prototypical oldest child with two younger brothers. I’m fairly certain I started racing them as soon as they could walk, always wanting to be the fastest. We spent most of our childhood in the Midwest in a small rural community that valued it’s sports programs and we were expected to be three sport athletes. I fell in love with nordic skiing part way through high school and that kind of took over my life. It’s an incredibly nerdy sport, heavily vested in science, and with it my passion for physiology grew as well (pushing most of my academic career up until this point).
I ran as a means of cross training, competing in track and cross country during high school, but moved to Montana for college to ski race collegiately. While at MSU I ran two seasons of cross country as an athlete “on-loan” from the ski team, meaning I didn’t train with the running team and just went to meets. As you can probably guess, it didn’t go over super well with the women’s running team. From there I dropped out of college after my sophomore year to pursue biathlon full time. I had a spot on the Junior National team and competed at Junior Worlds and European Championships that year (2010-2011).
That is a daring risk to take as a Sophomore in college! Talk about that adventure.
Honestly, I thought it was going to be a one year thing, returning to college right away. Instead, I made the Senior National Team 10 months after dropping out of school and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY. Everything was moving along well with the Olympic cycle and I was fully focused on the Sochi Olympics. I was training a ton. Skiers train huge volumes; 20-30 hours a week not including strength training. The coaches only goal for me was to “keep up” with my older more experienced team mates and by the time fall of 2013 rolled around, I was fully cooked.
We were part way through the Olympic selection process and I couldn’t move without being gassed. I got a bunch of funky blood tests that left hematologists scrambling to resolve the issue, but the only obvious treatment was to stop and rest. I shed a lot of tears that summer and fall. And then a lot more during the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic games.
I did go back to school and eventually finished my degree. During that time I was able to stop and take the time off my body needed. Slowly I started to go for hikes and runs, back country ski, ride my bike, and by the summer of 2015 I was starting to feel like myself again.
I remember going for a run and turning to my boyfriend and just exclaiming “Oh my goodness, I think this is what fresh feels like!?” That fresh sensation turned into trying some local running races, and then some sky running in the west. Finally, in 2016 I tried ultra running for the first time with Chuckanut 50km and Gorge Waterfalls 100km.
How has being a biathlete helped you in your ultra running career?
The physiological side of biathlon is similar to most other endurance sports being that there is a lot of aerobic and anaerobic training that goes into it. The biggest differences are that because it is low impact you can train with a lot more volume as a biathlete. In the summer we’d utilize roller skiing, cycling, hiking, and running and then we’d transition onto snow in the fall and winter.
I do think the biathlon training has helped me stay calm under pressure as the shooting range during a race can be an incredibly stressful environment. So those things in conjunction work harmoniously in the ever problem solving world of running ultra marathons!
What does a typical day in the life look like for you?
I’ve found that I work best first thing in the morning so generally I try to write and do work, athlete calls etc, right away when I get up. This is fueled with copious amounts of tea and breakfast (I’m a toast person). Then I usually head out for my run mid-morning. This gets me back home in the realm of early afternoon depending on the workout so I eat a late lunch and if I have coffee, this is when I’ll have it!
Running training has always just found a place in my day dependent on everything else I have going on. All the jobs I’ve had, including graduate school, are not typical 9-5 pm days so running jumps around to fit my schedule. I suppose you could say I’m a bit ambidextrous (if that’s a thing) when it comes to being an early morning vs late night person.
In the afternoon I either run again, go to the gym, yoga, or run with the youth program I volunteer with, etc. This leaves dinner and more often than not a little more work, athlete calls (I coach for Carmichael Training System), and reading before I go to bed. Sleep has become a huge priority of mine over the past year and so I try to sleep from around 10pm-6am. I was working in an ER for the 4 months going into Western States and that meant both 5 am and overnight shifts, so being adaptable has been key!
Overtraining. What is it? How do you know if you’re doing it?
So it’s actually really, really hard to overtrain. It is however, really, really easy to be under-recovered. This can be from just not getting enough rest or it can be from a combination of stressors building off each other. Examples of stressors can be high life stress, high work stress, and high training stress all in conjunction with each other. The purpose of training in endurance sports is to push right up to the line and then back away over and over again in order to create physiological adaptations.
Push over that line for too long without rest and recovery (which is when you create those adaptations) and you can become increasingly fatigued and see a decline in performance (day to day and in races). This is generally what is known as non-functional overreach. During this phase it’s easy to feel like you’re of shape, or just not fit enough because you’re tired, and instead of resting most of us try to train even more!
Generally speaking, in non-functional overreach an athlete can take a couple days to a week or two completely off from training and bounce back. Now, if you’ve been in this place for a good long time, bouncing back takes a bit longer. For some people that could be months or years of taking a major step back. For me it was nearly 18 months. You have to understand that the body is incredibly smart, and it’s job is to keep you alive. When it gets to a place where it feels like that it’s in jeopardy then the body starts shutting down to protect itself. It eliminates “non-essential functions” to conserve energy, and it’s pretty hard to run well when the body locks down.
So I’m feeling tired, unmotivated, sore and run down. Am I over-trained?
I think a majority of athletes are probably in the non-functional overreach limbo and therefor not making positive adaptations, but they are not hormonally compromised with a fried nervous system. So release the reigns and take a week off. And I mean off. No running, no cross training. Go for walks, not power hikes, and not longer than 45 minutes at a time. Yoga is probably fine. If you’ve been feeling fatigued for a longer stretch of time than you can remember, take two weeks off right now. I think it’s really hard for runners to take time off unless they are in a boot for an injury and physically forced to back off.
Overtraining might not put you in a boot, but think of it as a metabolic injury and own it. This is 100% the type of injury where taking the time off now might save you months or years of training and racing later.
Does nutrition play a role in your training? Can it help remedy the signs and symptoms of overtraining?
As far as overtraining goes, nutrition plays a huge role in it! Energy imbalances add additional stress to the body, so that when you’re not eating enough, you’re not fueling your muscles and therefor not able to make any physiological adaptations. There’s a ton of research out there linking low energy availability with overtraining. As athletes (and ultra runners) I think it’s incredibly important that we are eating enough.
What does your diet look like? Do you follow certain, “rules,” or do you look at nutrition in an certain perspective?
I’m predisposed to disordered eating so I really don’t like to put any rules on my nutrition. This even includes bigger classifications/styles/diets that add restrictions to my dietary intake like vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc. I do think our bodies do a pretty good job of telling us what they need so I do my best listen to those cravings.
If you could warn against one mistake when it comes to training, what would it be?
I love that quote “Comparison is the thief of joy”, and I also think it could be the thief of satisfaction and success. With apps like Strava publicly tracking what so many people are doing it’s really easy to pass judgement. If you spend all your energy focused on what everyone else is doing you forget to focus on what you need as an individual. It’s good to remind yourself that you know what your body needs and that you have to do training your way.
Lastly, if you could have dinner with anyone on the planet, alive or dead, who would it be and what would you guys be eating, starter, main and dessert?
This might seem kind of funny but it would totally be Terry Gross from NPR’s FreshAir. It’s super dorky but I listen to podcast’s when I run so I feel like Terry has legitimately been a training partner over the years. I’m blown away by her interviews and would love to share a meal with her.
I’m totally in a “summer” eating mood so we’d start with just a bunch of little snacks like grapes, cheese, and really awesome crunchy garden peas. I love lots of little things to munch on with a drink. Then for dinner we’d have a big salad with lots of fresh greens, pea sprouts, quick pickled onions, avocado, feta, and a really great homemade cilantro mint dressing, all served with locally sourced meat and pineapple grilled kabobs. So, so tasty!
For dessert I’d use the grill again and do a bunch of grilled peaches served with ice cream, and since it’s summer there would be Rosé. Obviously.
Running or Skiing? It’s like choosing a favorite child! Seasons are important for consideration.
Avocado toast or smoothie bowl? Avocado toast.
Favorite distance to compete in (running)? Not a distance so much as the terrain is what gets me. Lots and lots of vert would be a must.
Favorite place to ski? The Beartooth wilderness.
Last book you couldn’t put down? Better by Atul Gawande.
Favorite injury prevention tool or stretch? Legs up against the wall!
Last time you laughed so hard you cried? Yesterday? A good mountain biking friend was trying to get into a road cycling skin suit over the rest of his clothes.
Favorite mantra or quote you follow? It’s kind of a yoga breathing mantra “(Breathe in) I am, (Breathe out) here now.”