Thursday, June 8, 2017

Aerobic Training - The Maffetone Method

If you read my year in review I mentioned there in 2017 I was going to try to put to bed one of my first fitness goals from 2014.  Run 3 miles in under 21 minutes (7 min/mile pace).  In 2014 the closest I got was 2 miles in under 14 minutes and I also ran a 5K at a 7:15 min/mile pace.  So how was I training at the time to complete this goal?  Well like most people I thought the best way to train was to go out and run as hard as I could for 3 miles, seems logical right?  I was running a race pace every time I went out, always trying to better my fastest time.  This means I was always putting my heart rate into an anaerobic zone and I was never actually training my base aerobic system.  Not only that but running this way for every run is putting a lot of stress on the body and putting it into a fight and flight response.  The body doesn't know if I'm out training or if I might be running from a tiger.

Long term this can have all sorts of deleterious effects on your body from your hormones to your thyroid and beyond.  I would also hazard a guess and bet that most people are training/running like this in an anaerobic state and not even realizing it.

Ok so lets back up a bit.  First what is the difference between aerobic vs anaerobic training.  In simple terms when you train aerobically you have sufficient oxygen to produce all the energy your muscles need to perform.  You can utilize fat as your energy source and can sustain this pace for long periods.  Anaerobic training is when there is not enough oxygen present and glycogen (carbs/sugar) is used as fuel.  Muscles will also produce lactate acid.  Another way to think of it is aerobic effort is like a marathon and anaerobic is like a sprint.  There is certainly some debate on how much of each you want to do but every expert talks about building a strong aerobic base and I was doing nothing to train the aerobic system.  This was a huge change in the way I was doing things.  So how do you train the aerobic system?  Enter the Maffetone Method.  The Maffetone Method is training at a specific heart rate to make sure you are in an aerobic state.  It uses a simple heart rate formula of

180 - Age = Aerobic Target Heart Rate

So for me

180 - 44 = 136

Basically you will never let your heart rate go above this number and always train at or below this number.   This pace should be easy, you should be able to carry on a conversation while you are running.  And boy was this an eye opener for me.  In order to train at this number when I first started I was at almost walking speed this immediately showed how aerobically unfit I was despite being "fit".  Keep in mind when you first start training this way you are gong to have to swallow your ego and exercise patience.  You will be getting passed by everyone in sight but its important you maintain your heart rate and keep plodding along.  You are likely going to have to walk up inclines but you must always adjust your pace to keep at or under your target.  Also I was extending the time I was training, think long and slow.

The great thing about this method is you can also quantify your progress in aerobic capacity.  All you do is periodically time how long it takes for you to complete a mile at your target HR.  We call this a MAF test.  Warm up until you are at your target HR then run the mile staying at your target HR and record the time.  Use the same mile each time, preferable on a track but if not just stay consistent.  I have a loop I do at the gym that is almost exactly a mile.  Overtime this number should come down.  You should be able to run faster but maintain the same HR, this is a good sign your aerobic engine is improving.  Below is my 1 mile MAF Tests.


Now as you can see despite using the MAF method for all my aerobic training apart from some initial progress I wasn't really getting anywhere.  The real wake up call was my first 5K run this year where I made no improvement at all after a full winter of training MAF and increasing my time and distance.  This was really disappointing as I was actually slower than 6 months ago.

7/31/20142 M14:007:00Training
8/31/20144 M31:107:47Ripple Effect
9/13/20145 K22:327:15Heart Walk
10/13/20165 K23:037:25Ripple Effect
11/24/20164.58M33:387:20Drumstick Dash
5/26/20175 K23:097:27Schools out 5K

I went back and listened to every Phil Maffetone interview on the Endurance Planet Podcast.  What I realized was I was doing it wrong.  You are supposed to build your aerobic engine without any other anaerobic input.  Basically he suggests doing the MAF method by itself until you stop seeing improvement, maybe 3-6 months depending on the person and then at that point you can start to sprinkle in some anaerobic work.  I kinda knew this already but what I failed to consider is that weight training is anaerobic.  I was still doing 2 heavy lifting days plus various gymnastics strength training mixed in on the weekends.  As you know I'm training for the Spartan Indiana Sprint race this year and I've got basically 2 competing goals.  I have to build strength and mobility for the various obstacles but at the same time become more aerobically conditioned to be a faster runner.  I was trying to do this all together and I was probably over training myself or at the very least hindering my aerobic training.  I've decided to commit myself to the MAF method and remove all anaerobic training including weight training for a bit and see if I can truly build that aerobic base with this method.  I only have 1 month until the Spartan Race so I don't expect much in that time but after that race I'm going to really commit to the MAF method and see if I can break that 22 min 5K barrier at the Ripple Effect 5K on 10/5/2017.  Hopefully I don't lose too much muscle over this base building period but I'll be taking my MAF test every week to access progress.  I will experiment with adding a very small amount of weight training and based on my MAF tests see if I can get away with that or not.

There is a very good FAQ for this type of training over in the Low Heart Rate Training Forum.  In there is shows what times you can expect for a particular MAF test time.  Here is the breakdown for a 5K.

MAFEstimated 5K Time

Based on this I would need to complete a MAF test of around 9 min/miles to achieve my goal.  We will see how I progress with my MAF test times and if that will correlate to a faster 5K pace.

Now you are probably thinking I need a fancy heart rate monitor.  Well yes and no but you don't have to spend a ton of money.  There are plenty of deals on Ebay if you don't want the latest greatest.  One word of caution, I have one of those newer running watches with the optical heart rate sensor built into the watch and in my opinion it is not accurate or consistent enough for this type of training.  I still use an external heart rate strap (Polar H7) that is paired to my watch (Tomtom Runner).  Garmin is another great brand in this segment.  Failing that just use the talk test, if you can't carry on a conversation while running you are going to fast.  Alternatively just breath only using your nose.

So based on this you might be wondering when do you go anaerobic in your heart rate.  Just add 10 for a rough estimate.  So 136 + 10 = 146.  If my heart rate is over 146 I'm probably training the anaerobic system.  The takeaway should be that the vast majority of your running should be aerobic and you should probably just slow down.  Running at my MAF heart rate also is frankly more enjoyable as you aren't trying to kill yourself with every run.


Aerobic and anaerobic exercise what is the difference?

Runners Connect - Aerobic vs anaerobic training

Richard Diaz Website

The Maffetone Method

nytimes - men is exercise putting a damper on your sex life

Endurance Planet - Podcasts with Dr Phil Maffetone

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