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Former Top-Ten Ranked Fighter Paul Felder On MMA Versus Triathlon

The retired lightweight American fighter dishes on why he’s giving tri a try, talks about the brutality of MMA workouts, and compares his old fight training against his new tri training.

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As Paul Felder prepares for 70.3 Atlantic City on September 10, he’s not just using the event as a farewell to the half distance before jumping to full Ironman in 2023. The former top-ten ranked mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter is racing simply because he loves a challenge.

“I may do it a couple times just to do it, because I like the half distance,” he said. “I think 70.3 is just long enough where it is a war of attrition as well as a speed game.”

If there’s one thing Felder knows better than most, it’s the war of attrition. For nearly a decade of his life, the Philadelphian competed as a professional mixed martial artist—the last six-plus years spent at the height of the sport in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). There, he built a reputation as not just one of the best lightweights (155 pounds) in the world, but one of the most exciting, someone willing to give it all on fight night.

But when it was all over and Felder officially announced his retirement in May 2021, he needed to fill that competitive void. He found it in triathlon, which he had already started dabbling in before his final fight against Rafael Dos Anjos in November 2020. “Dabbling” may be the wrong word, since Felder is unsurprisingly all-in on everything he does.

Paul Felder kicks Rafael Dos Anjos of Brazil in a 2020 Las Vegas UFC Fight Night. (Photo: Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

“When I first started, I wanted to have something that was just kind of fun to do in between MMA training and something that was going to keep me a little bit fitter in life,” he said. “Then I stumbled upon triathlons, and I was like, I’ll do this for fun. And then like anything, since I had a bit of pro sports experience, guys took me under their wing and would chat with me, and I just got sucked into the culture of it. And these guys are way more badass than people give them credit for. The s*** they’re doing is grueling. It’s brutal.”

Now the 38-year-old is one of them, all-in on his new sport while also doing commentary for UFC events, acting (he recently appeared on HBO’s Hacks), and spending family time with his girlfriend and their two kids. And while nothing is easy about triathlon training, there is one benefit to having hung up the gloves.

“The difference off the bat is the impact,” Felder said. “Your armor has to be different in MMA. You’re conditioning for damage and your durability has to be locked in. You might not have the same gas tank as a triathlete, but your ability to grind and push through circumstances for survival purposes, it’s a whole different level of cardio when a guy’s trying to choke you out versus me trying to run this mile really hard.”

Paul Felder at a triathlon
(Photo: FinisherPix)

While fighting, Felder would only run three days a week, which was supplemented by three days of sparring and grappling practice. Today, a typical day might see him focus on his running, followed the next day by a visit to the pool, and, of course, bike work. None of which includes getting punched, kicked or choked.

And though swimming was an early issue, once he hit the Ironman 70.3 course in Virginia in June, he was a natural, finishing in 5:27:26, good enough for 135th overall and 23rd in his age group. He’s continued to improve in each of the four 70.3s he’s raced since, and he’s hoping to PR in Atlantic City this month.

“I want to do 29 to 32 minutes on the swim, bike right around two hours, maybe 2:05. And I gotta hit at least 1:28 for the run,” said Felder, who is coached by David Tilbury-Davis, who is also the former coach of Felder’s inspiration and training buddy Lionel Sanders, with whom he raced at May’s PTO Pro AM. “I raced this race last year and this is always one of my ‘A’ races because it’s close, it’s flat, it’s in Atlantic City, I fought there so many times, and it’s easy for me to go and do. My PR is 4:42 for a half, so I’d definitely like to get sub 4:30 for AC. And if I want to come close to the top five, I’m gonna probably have to do that even closer to 4:12-4:15, which might be a bit pushing it, but f*** it. If you don’t have a crazy goal, why am I even doing this stuff?”

Paul Felder Lionel Sanders
Paul Felder (center) poses with relay team members Haven Shepherd (R) and Lionel Sanders (L) at May’s PTO Pro AM in Los Angeles. (Photo: Donald Miralle/Challenged Athletes Foundation)

Sounds like Paul Felder the fighter, not just Paul Felder the triathlete. And that’s precisely the point.

“I like that feeling of overcoming stuff and I’ve always preached that,” he said. “As a fighter, you’ve got to just dig your feet into the ground sometimes and go for it. And that’s how I am with this sport. If I quit, everything I’ve ever talked about is just BS. Sometimes it’s really scary and it really sucks, but you’ve got to persevere.”

Title Card: MMA Vs. Tri – A Look At Felder’s Training

A Week In The Life Of Paul Felder, MMA Fighter Turned Triathlete

“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in [MMA] camp I would do a very specific lifting program with my coach – lots of Olympic lifts combined with explosive movements,” Felder said. “Deadlifts straight to box jumps or broad jumps.

“On Fridays, we would do a circuit focusing on high levels of intensity – 30 second, one-minute bursts of ball slams, farmer’s carries, sprints, and lots of sled pushes. Sometimes we would mix in pad work with these workouts, as well.

“On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends I would swim or run. On Saturday, I would do a hard treadmill sprint interval with lots of uphill work. Mixed in with this would be all of our MMA work.”

RELATED: Strength Training for Triathletes

Monday Lift in the AM (fasted), eat after
90 min hard kickboxing drills followed by 5x5min rounds of full-contact MMA sparring
90 min bag / pad work at night
Tuesday Five-mile fasted run in the AM
Team MMA grappling - 90 min drills followed by 5x5min rounds of hard grappling with MMA gloves
90min pad/bag work at night
Wednesday Lift
90 min MMA sparring with little (four-ounce) gloves on
Pads at night
Thursday Five-mile fasted run
MMA grappling like Tuesday
Pads at night, or some more grappling
Friday Circuit and sprint work (fasted)
90 min wrestling practice
Pads at night, includes jump rope and shadowboxing
Saturday Sleep in a bit
10 rounds of Jiu-Jitsu in the gi, or kickboxing rounds
Swim or treadmill sprints
Sunday Run, swim, or rest
Sometimes a 24-hour fast to make weight easy

Paul Felder’s Triathlon Training Workout

“My favorite workouts with triathlon have to be the longer brick workouts,” Felder said. “I love my days when I have a very long bike workout followed by a short hard race pace run. I also love open-water swimming. I train anywhere from 10-20 hours for 70.3 races, usually 15 hours. But with my travel sometimes that dips off.”

MMA fighter Paul Felder rides a bike in a triathlon
(Photo: FinisherPix)

Sample – August 14 Workout

“My workout was a 20-minute warmup, I ran it relatively easy at anywhere from 8:00 to 8:15 min/mile, and then it was a mile above threshold, so almost all out, and I ran that at 6:02,” Felder said. “And then I had to do five times a mile, so five miles with a minute break in between each one. I had to do all those at race pace, which is 6:30 to 6:40 for the half. And then I had to do another mile above threshold faster than I did that first threshold mile, and that’s when I got 5:51.

“Triathlon training is absolutely brutal, but I can recover from it and go back to it. I ran those paces yesterday, and today I swam 3,500 yards at threshold paces for the swim, so I was doing sets of 300 yards, and then I ran six miles easy around the neighborhood and that was at 7:55 pace, heart rate at 140.”

So What’s Tougher: MMA Fighting or Triathlon?

“(During an MMA training camp) I would only run three days a week, but I would spar three times a week,” Felder said. “And each one of those sparring sessions, the next day, you’re like, ‘Oh my God,’ but you have to get up and then you gotta go grapple. Muscularly, I would say MMA crushed you, but as far as that digging deep mentally sometimes and pushing your lungs to the limit, I say triathlon takes it. When you’re running 13.1 miles and you’re trying to do it at around 1:30ish to below that, you’re cooking. 13.1 miles is a long time to run after a bike ride and a swim to try to run a six-something, seven-minute pace. And the pros are doing that at a 5:30 pace. They’re sprinting, uphill sometimes, on these courses.”

RELATED: The Pros and Cons of Fasted Workouts