Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Maffetone Method: A Breakthrough?

Continuing a recent theme on this blog....

Today marks my fourth day of practicing the Maffetone Method. The Maffetone Method was developed decades ago by Dr. Phil Maffetone. World-class endurance athletes like Mark Allen and Stu Mittleman have seen remarkable results with the Maffetone Method. But it's not just for top athletes; Maffetone is practiced every day by thousands of endurance athletes--from runners to triathletes to cyclists.

I'm still learning about the Maffetone Method. Here's what I know: It revolves around heart-rate monitoring based on the "180 formula," which determines your maximum aerobic function or MAF. This is the zone you want to train in while base-building because it's all aerobic and low-stress. The formula goes as follows:

1) Subtract your age from 180.
2) Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
So, for me, since I'm 39 and very experienced, my formula goes as follows: 180-39+5=146. My MAF zone is then 136-146 beats per minute, meaning I want all of my training for the next few months, while I base-build, to be between 136-146 without exception. If I stay in that zone, I'm within my aerobic zone. I'm within the "safe zone."

Here's why I like MAF. When we're aerobic, we're mostly burning fat for fuel--and we have lots and lots of fat even if we're lean like I am--and it's very low-stress compared to anaerobic training. When we go anaerobic, like in a tempo run, we start burning a lot of glycogen and ask a lot of our muscles and endocrine system and that can stress our bodies and ultimately put us in the overtraining hole (check out this blog by Lucho for more info on that). When faced with diminishing returns because of overtraining, usually I just train even harder (I am, after all, a determined runner). This is not a good situation, especially in high-altitude places like Colorado. By trying to push through instead of listen to my body's signals, I'm basically burning the candle on both ends. MAF can keep you from doing that.

That's not to say going anaerobic is bad; quite the contrary, it's essential to peak fitness. But it has to be done at the right time. When base-building for the upcoming racing season, it's vital to first establish aerobic strength, which in turn will provide a solid foundation for some purposeful anaerobic strength-building running later in your training. Without a solid aerobic base, doing anaerobic training is in essence like building a house on sand.
Whereas lots of people get frustrated with MAF in the early stages because they have to run so slow to stay within their MAF range, I'm really enjoying it. Armed with my heart-rate monitor and some residual fitness from the Phoenix Marathon, I'm finding that I can run as fast as 6:30 pace within my MAF range, but on average I'm at 7:20-7:40/mile while at MAF. I haven't yet tried MAF in the mountains, and I'm due for a bona fide MAF test once the snow clears. Sometimes you literally have to stop running and start walking in order to stay within your MAF range. That can frustrate folks. The good news is that, with patience and firm commitment to MAF, your speed will increase as your aerobic capacity improves. You'll also lose some body fat. Or so I've read.

The kicker for me is that not until I dug in and started to learn about MAF did I realize that I used to train pretty much exclusively in my MAF range without even knowing it. From 2004 to the spring of 2008 I'd say 95% of the miles I ran were at MAF. I didn't do tempo runs, save the occasional fast mile here and there. I ran at MAF and I was pretty satisfied and rarely injured. In the spring of 2007, while training for my first 100-miler, I dramatically upped my mileage to 100+ miles a week (from 50-60/week), pretty much all of it at MAF! And I got a satisfying result on race day.

In the spring of 2008, I adopted intensity as part of an overall high-mileage program. Within weeks of 100-110 miles I was doing tempo runs along with intervals, meaning I was going anaerobic quite a bit. And in 2008 and most of 2009 I was mostly healthy (save a minor knee issue in 2008 and some tweaks following a 131-mile performance in a 24-hour race in 2009) and I still did some MAF training on "easy" days. I attribute my fairly good health in that time span in part to relative youth but also to the fact that for all those prior years I'd built up a super strong aerobic base that carried me to some good performances in 2008 and 2009. In short, those performances were due to years of MAF training. Or so I now believe.
Over the past few years--really since we moved to Colorado in April of 2010--I've been injured a lot. I've done a lot of soul-searching around why I've been injured. Is it age? Have I just broken down? Am I training wrong? Is my body not reacting well to the altitude? Last week, while reading Brad Hudson's book (he, too, advocates a base-building stage), it hit me that I've done a poor job of building a solid aerobic base at the start of the year. I've asked too much of my body and I've habitually plateaued too early, only to go stale or get injured by race day. Last year, for example, I had clearly gotten myself into good shape by late April, but by July I was injured and that set me up for the DNF at Leadville. My training wasn't well-timed; I had no base-building stage and zero progression except for a simple mileage build-up! I also think going anaerobic at 6,200+ feet is really tough on the body (don't know how guys and gals much higher up do it). You have to be smart about it and go anaerobic on the right days, when you're recovered. For me, many East Coast running rules don't apply to Colorado! These are lessons I'm just now learning as I become more and more familiar with MAF.

Poorly timed anaerobic training has paradoxically weakened my body and made me susceptible to injury--severe plantar fasciitis in 2010, tendonitis in my shin in 2011, Achilles issues in 2012, metatarsalagia in late 2012/early 2013, etc. Of course, age has only worsened the situation. Now 39, I'm losing muscle and that, in turn, stresses my tendons and ligaments when I'm running a lot. The weight-training I'm now doing is intended to reverse muscle loss and in fact add raw strength. I'm already seeing results, not only in how my legs feel but also in how they look. The good news is that my body weight remains around 167.

So for the next eight weeks I'm going to dedicate myself to MAF training (up to 70 miles a week) while also continuing my weight training amd regular mountain trail running. Fortunately, I'm already in decent shape; I can run a MAF mile after a four-mile warm-up in 6:30! I'm starting in a good place and over the next two months I'm going to lay a solid foundation upon which I can train for Leadville. After these two months, I'll start to introduce some steep hill climbs and lactate threshold training to build strength, gradually increasing the duration of anaerobic training as Leadville approaches. But the bread and butter of my training will be lower-intensity running. In many respects, I've gone back to what I used to do.

I really believe I've stumbled onto the holy grail of training for me. Only time will tell if it really works, but so far I'm liking it.


  1. If you really are getting into MAF you need to get the Big Book of Endurance. By the way the MAF test is a 5 mile test with your MAF pace being the average of those 5 miles. Get that book and dig in.

    Here are some links you might enjoy.

  2. Two questions:

    Why "without exception?"

    Why only a 1 mile MAF test?

  3. George: My understanding is that to fully benefit from MAF you have to stay within MAF without exception. If you go beyond MAF you're going to undermine the benefits. After a few months at MAF I'm going to introduce some LT training to get ready for the big race in August.

    My 1M MAF "test" on Wednesday really was an experiment. If you look at that workout on Strava, I did 4 miles and then did the 1M at max MAF on the track just to experiment, and then ran at MAF on the way home. I'm going to do a full MAF test tomorrow if the snow clears, or on Saturday morning.


  4. I have questioned the without exception part for years. While there may be some benefit in maintaining that discipline (beyond mental, the possible lower risk of injury), I have yet to see any evidence that it only works if adhered to without exception.

  5. The key for the test is constancy - do it under circumstances and a setting that you can easily duplicate/repeat on a schedule (usually once a month).

    Also, with your current base, I would do two tests, one now and one in a month. If there's little to no variation or, more importantly, improvement, then you probably don't need to be in a base building phase. My feeling is that you're beyond that phase.

  6. As with all training methods, the MAF method is nothing but an unproven training theory that is similar to other training theories (Daniels, Hudson etc.) Everybody always uses Allen and Stu as examples, but I have known several athletes who followed this method who had pretty crappy seasons.

    So I agree with GZ, why the "without exception?" Ultimately, this sport is about having fun, pushing your limits and enjoying ones self (and drinking beer). If you apply all these self-imposed rules you ultimately are going to burn out.

    I think a huge part of not being injured is being able to listen to your body. If you follow all these "programs" you force your body to do things it may not be ready to do on those certain days (ie. tempo at a certain pace, etc).

    Also, wouldn't weight lifting be anaerobic?

  7. Gangels: First off, I agree with your comment about beer. Good beer is essential, especially when it's amber or IPA. I have a cold one waiting to be enjoyed tonight.

    The reason I think MAF is the ticket for me (note I said for me) is that it's what I used to do without realizing it and I was healthy and satisfied with my results back then. I'm not good at listening to my body, which is why MAF is good for me. I push myself to the brink (which can sometimes be good but often it's bad) and MAF can help keep me honest. Also, it's not like it's a radical change for me. I'm able to run at MAF in the low to mid 7s. My #1 goal is to stay healthy, after a few years of being injured a lot. I believe MAF will help me do that.

    In pouring over my old running logs, it occurs to me that when I do too much anaerobic running here in Colorado I pay for it with overtraining syndrome and injury. Others may be able to go anaerobic a ton at elevation and get away with it. I can't seem to get away with it. I think a strong aerobic base will help me in my health. I'm going to introduce some anaerobic running in a few months but it's going to be very gradually done and there will be some insanely hard workouts in the mix. All other days will be at MAF.

    Yes, weight lifting is anaerobic, but it's a critical need for me. I'm going on the advice of my sports medicine doctor on that one (he recommended weight-training), but it's also just the right thing to do. Weight training can pay big dividends for ultrarunners.

    We are all an experiment of one. MAF seems to work well for me but it might not work for you or someone else. And that's great. I know some guys who swear by it, so long as you don't go overboard. But this I do know: It's essential for all of us as runners to have strong aerobic bases. How we do that may differ.

    Keep rocking!


  8. More broadly, I am curious as to where you have journeyed in your thinking to this approach specifically and without exception from where you appeared to be not too long ago (considering specific mile pace for a 100 as a training strategy).

  9. GZ: My recent thinking about 100-mile goal pace training is directly connected to my adoption of MAF. That thinking was based on my realization that I seem to do better with mostly lower-intensity training (read: MAF zone training). But then I realized training in the 9s or 10s just wasn't practical given my mindset as a runner and probably wasn't smart, either, if I want to run well at Leadville. That led me to MAF, which I knew a little about because of the ATU and ATC podcasts but hadn't ever tried because the thought of going so slow horrified me (I've since learned that it's not slow for me). On my first MAF run (this past Monday) I quickly realized that this is exactly how I used to train, when I was fairly healthy and happy with my results. The beauty of MAF is that it adjusts to how you're feeling that day. On a day when I'm feeling fresh my MAF pace might be 7:10. If I'm tired because I didn't sleep well then my MAF pace might be 7:50. If I'm going up a big climb then my MAF pace might be 9:00 or slower. Etc. I like it because it keeps me in a safe zone, or so I think. My #1 goal right now is to stay healthy and I think MAF will allow that. After 8 weeks of MAF hopefully I'll be ready for some gradually introduced anaerobic work.


  10. Another question: is there a reason for the 70 mile limit? I think if you are doing the lower intensity stuff, you could get more benefit with more volume.

  11. GZ: 70 miles/week is where I'm going to start and I'm going to gradually build up my mileage over the next few months and then maybe reduce it a bit (not too much) as my intensity goes up in June and July. I don't want to add too much too soon. Again, at this point I just want to be healthy. Also, my foot is finally starting to get better and I don't want to set that injury back. Patience.


  12. Here's a recent interview with Dr. Phil about his approach:

  13. I'm following MAF training too, although with exceptions (races - most at tempo effort, now and then all-out). Did well with 'Hadd training' in '07, which is similar. Interested to see how you go

    One problem I have with MAF is that as I improve I need to run faster to stay in the MAF HR zone and often the legs aren't agreeable to this (cardio is ahead of the legs?). I'm presuming that continued improvement under MAF depends on doing as much running as possible in that zone, preferably at the upper end of that zone.

  14. Ewen, if the legs are not following, that mean you might need some more strength training too !

  15. Nicolas, I'm sure leg strength or plyometrics training would help. In my case though, looking back on 6 months of MAF training, I think my main problem is inadequate day to day recovery. Which, for myself could be improved with more sleep, fewer work hours and better nutrition. Running tired some days makes it hard to hit the upper end of MAF HR.

  16. It works very well if you make sure you begin at a low enough heart rate and are patient. How well does it work, you ask. I'm a 4:41 miler / 16:38 5K runner at agd 53.

    1. That is smokin' fast! Thanks for sharing. In MAF we trust!

  17. Hi there

    I am back to the maffetone method, after not running for 18 months or so. Last time, I saw some good progress, going from 11:30 min miles at my MAF level, to around 9:20 min miles after a couple of months. I was running around 40 miles a week at that time. Now, I'm going to be combining some strength training into the mix, so not quite so much time to run at present, 4 times per week most likely.

    How are you finding it now, considering you are experienced, seeming any increase in pace?