Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reader Question about Maffetone Method Training

Question: I came across your blog today while researching MAF training. Are you still using this method to train? I read about it a few months ago and just got my heart rate monitor for my birthday so I am just beginning. How long have you used the MAF method? Do you think it has been effective? I am running my first marathon in May 2015. My current plan is to use the heart rate training to buildup my aerobic base for 3-4 months then to begin incorporating intervals for speed. I am hoping that a book or other resource will help me identify better training principles. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated. ~ Kristin
Thanks for your question, Kristin. I get lots of questions about MAF so I'd like to answer yours on this blog in order to share what I hope is helpful information with other readers.

It continues to feel strange to me to answer questions as I don't consider myself a running expert. I have dabbled in coaching over the years but I feel like there's still so much to learn. I guess I just don't consider myself enough of an expert to really helps others in a meaningful way. And yet I do think I know a few things about MAF (not as much as Lucho), so I'm glad to share my own story and help as best as I can.

I am a big believer in MAF, having taken it up as an official training practice in 2012. I don't have much time to read so much of what I've learned about MAF over the years has come via podcasts, websites and experimentation. I've heard great things about Dr. Maffetone's Big Book of Endurance, and you can also hear from the man himself via Endurance Planet (search for his past podcast interviews or click here). Anyway, depending on what kind of intensity you're going to bring to the marathon in May, about 95% of the effort will be aerobic. That means you really need to build a super strong aerobic base, which MAF can help you do. Use Dr. Maffetone's 180 Formula to determine your MAF range. Or, if you have the resources for it, get your zones tested so you know what heart rates correspond with which zones. Dr. Maffetone would always advocate personalized testing over his formula but, in the absence of personalized testing, his formula is usually pretty spot on. 
MAF does a few things for you. First, it helps you develop a very strong aerobic base, which you're going to need in the marathon or just about any endurance activity. Second, it helps you become an efficient fat burner (more on that below). And third, it helps you prevent injuries and over-training. Your body likes to use fat when in an aerobic state. As you develop aerobically, your body will also develop its fat burning--critical to endurance. When you're running at higher intensities (beyond MAF), your body will use more sugar for fuel. But in MAF your body is mostly burning fat. Even the leanest of athletes have 20,000-30,000 calories of fat ready to burn. And yet we have about 2,000 calories of sugar stored in our liver. It's far better to train your body to prefer to burn fat than sugar. That means you can run longer without "hitting the wall." The way to do that is through aerobic training (MAF) and diet (fewer carbs). I have a friend who's a MAF athlete and low-carb guy and ran a 2:50 at Boston taking in not a single gel. 
The great triathlete Mark Allen used MAF to win several Ironman World Championship races and also notch a 2:39 marathon split at Kona in 1989--a record that still stands. MAF works for those who are patient and use it at the right time(s) in their training. Patience is critical. It can mean you might have to walk hills at first to stay in your MAF zone. Do it. Be patient. It is so frustrating to see people abandon MAF because they're too proud to walk hills at first. Having to walk hills and run at a slow pace to stay within MAF means you're aerobically inefficient. MAF will make you super efficient IF you stick with it, check your pride at the door, and remain patient. In time, your MAF pace will get faster and faster and you'll be able to run those hills. When I'm in shape, I can average 6:30 pace over 5 miles on the track in a MAF test, losing maybe 1-2 seconds between mile 1 and mile 5. Not to stereotype, but women tend to be more patient than men. In that vein, I've seen MAF work well for women whereas guys get all prideful and abandon it because they want to run "fast." Then they blow up at races and wonder why. 

MAF is super important for base-building and easier days but you want to periodize your training. So, as the marathon gets closer, do some track intervals (staying aerobic, which means 1200s and stuff like that) to build your speed. Also--and this is critical--do tempo runs at about marathon pace or slightly faster. You want to get more and more comfortable at marathon pace. The tempo runs will build strength, helping you stay on pace in that last 10K when so many people's races fall apart. As far as periodizing your training, check out Brad Hudson's book, Run Faster. Renato Canova and Jack Daniels are also great resources. They all use different terms but basically they all agree on the MAF stage and periodized training. Again, it all depends on your goals. Also, check out Lucho's blog (link above) and enter MAF into the search box. You'll pull up tons of great content.
I cannot emphasize enough how important patience is with MAF. It is not long, slow distance, as some claim. People who dismiss MAF as LSD are ignorant when it comes to proper training. MAF will make you faster and more efficient. It'll help you build an aerobic fortress on rock, versus a fortress on sand as many runners today do because they lack patience and discipline. As Yiannis Kouros says, conquering endurance is about patience and then doing solid training.
You have the requisite 24-odd weeks to go through a proper training cycle to get ready for the marathon and kill it. Good luck!


  1. You cannot have a conversation on this topic without a direct reference to Lucho's famous rant on quality vs quantity :) http://joghard.blogspot.com/2012/09/thoughts-on-quality-vs-quantity.html

    The short answer is that it depends, primarily on the goals and background of the runner. I've referenced this here before, but Hudson's survey of your background/goals in his book is worth going over. My experience has been that people that want to be competitive in marathons (sub-4 hours, AG awards, etc...) probably need to consider volume of at least 50 miles per week, with 85% of that being MAF/Easy. Possibly more.

    My PR came at a time when I was doing barely any speed work, almost exclusively MAF and aerobic work. In fact, I did a 30 mile run two weeks before the marathon all at super easy paces (like 11 min miles), some walking even. (I was also training for some ultras that summer.)

    My opinion here, but I think intervals are really for the super advanced athletes and athletes training for shorter distances (10k and 5k). I think Fartleks (mini-intervals with LOTS of recovery in between) and tempo runs are better for the average athlete/weekend warrior. Tempo can mean two things depending on who you talk to. Pfitzinger defines it clearly as a short run (25-40 mins, plus w/u and c/d) at or near Lactate Threshold pace. The other way you will hear tempo referenced is in terms of a marathon specific long run. In other words, a long run with pace! This is more what you mentioned, Wyatt. In this context, the plan is to run some miles (5-15) at or near marathon pace as part of your weekend long run. I think either type of tempo run is good for a marathoner. But, again, only 15-20% of total miles, and only after a proper aerobic foundation is built.

    1. Great thoughts, AJ, and thanks for adding that link to that legendary post.

      Yes, tempo pace means different things to different people. I honestly think it depends on the race you're training for. The key to the marathon, beyond aerobic efficiency and proper pacing, is having the strength to hold pace and ideally speed up in that last 10K.

      Yesterday I read an article about speed development versus speedwork. Whereas speedwork involves intervals and can be very taxing, speed development might include all-out sprints of 50-150 meters with tons of recovery in between. They build pure speed that can benefit the marathoner. It was interesting stuff and I may dabble a bit in it as I've noticed my leg speed doesn't match my aerobic capacity. I do think intervals are really important but not as important as aerobic work and tempo runs. As you said, you have to first develop that solid aerobic basis on which everything else is built.

    2. I totally agree on the all-out sprints. Some call them Fartleks (usually a bit more structure). Some call them strides. Either way they are not intervals, but I do think they are great. Related, short hill sprints are great for strength and pure speed too.