MAF Training review – Part 1 An Overview

This is part one of a three part series on MAF training. This week, I’ll explain who Dr Phil Maffetone is and outline the basics of his MAF Method and training system. In part two I’ll tell you how it went for me the summer I trained to it for five months. In part three I’ll give you my critical analysis of MAF training as a training method.

Occasionally I come across runners on Strava or Youtube waxing lyrically about MAF training. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a heartrate-based formula created by Phil Maffetone that focuses on building the aerobic system. As well as being a shortening of his name, he says MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function.

Phil Maffetone is a retired chiropractor who treated athletes from the 1970s onwards including triathletes like Mark Allen, runners like Marianne Dickerson and ultra-runner Stu Mittelman. Chiropractic is described on Wikipedia as being “concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system” and this is the basis of the Maffetone Method.

While there are many articles around the web and Maffetone has an extensive website promoting his methods, the information in this series of articles is mainly drawn from his “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”. It’s an attractive 500-page tome going into detail about training, its effects on human physiology and giving many examples of athletes he helped. It manages too avoid being to technical even though there is a good dose of biology thrown in. If you want insight into the human body and keeping it healthy then it’s worth a read.

Low heart-training with MAF

The core of the MAF Method, as others promote it, is low heart-rate training. At its simplest the MAF heart-rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 180 to give a maximum value that shouldn’t be exceeded. It’s not an average heart-rate to run at, it’s the heart-rate you aim to never go above. If you’re thirty years old, your MAF-HR is 180 – 30 = 150 and you try to never go over 150HR on your runs.

Depending on your recent health and training you tweak your MAF-HR by adding on, or subtracting, a few beats. For example, if you’ve been training for two years without injury or illness you can add on five beats to raise the MAF-HR you’ll be working to.

There’s a couple of exceptions anyone under sixteen should use MAF-HR of 165bpm, anyone over sixty-five may add ten beats if they’re in good health. This means almost everybody training to a MAF-HR is doing so between 125-165bpm.

The MAF test

For those who really get into MAF training there is the MAF test. Once every month, you run five miles at your MAF-HR and record the mile splits. The splits will gradually get slower but over the months you should see the overall numbers improving and your runs getting faster as the following example shows:

AprilMayJuneJuly
Mile 18:218:117:577:44
Mile 28:278:188:057:52
Mile 38:388:268:107:59
Mile 48:448:338:178:09
Mile 58:498:398:248:15
Example results from a series of MAF tests (p. 82)

Ideally you go into each test rested, warm-up prior to the test miles and run the same course under similar conditions every time to keep the comparison valid. Of course with seasonal variations, results can be affected by cold, heat, humidity and high winds but as long as you allow for this, you should see a year-on-year improvement.

The real MAF Method

Training to MAF-HR is the appealing “Train to a low heart-rate and your running will get faster” headline of MAF training. To the Youtuber and Strava disciples promoting MAF training, this is all it entails to get clicks and views.

In reality this is a cherry-picked aspect of Maffetone’s training philosophy which has the following four key points:

  1. Build a great aerobic base
  2. Eat well
  3. Reduce stress
  4. Improve brain function

As a chiropractor, his focus is on healing people and helping them to stay healthy, so he comes at this from a holistic perspective as the key points show. The focus of his training method is to get the body fuelling its exercise by burning more fat instead of carbohydrates. By staying away from sugar-based anaerobic exercise, stress remain low and the two halves of the autonomic nervous system stay in balance. Too much anaerobic leads to high levels of stress, the body kicking into “fight-or-flight” mode and all the negative effects which are seen in overtraining syndrome.

Certainly the low heart-rate training is a major aspect of the Maffetone Method but once the aerobic system is building up, it doesn’t preclude you from doing some anaerobic exercise. Beyond the evaluating what you eat and how you train; he also gives advice on foot strengthening, shoes, exercising to music, as well as how to reduce stress by setting better boundaries, staying in the present and learning relaxation techniques. To an extent, I’ve only scratched the surface in my summarising it’s a big book, that’s why it’s called “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”.

Ultimately the true Maffetone Method is an extensive set of guidance aiming to help you find what will keep you healthy while training extensively. Like any good health system, it’s about learning how your own body reacts to training, to nutrition and identifying any weaknesses that need building up or eliminating. Low heart-rate training is simply the headline being attached to it.

Part 2 can be read by clicking here.

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