Short sprint – Streaking on

Somehow, I’ve created a run streak that goes back into the 2010s. Admittedly it’s only just a decade ago as my last rest day was December 7th 2019 but it’s still a streak of over eighteen months. It’s been 5K every day often more.

It sounds impressive to anyone who isn’t a runner.

It sounds impressive to people who are runners.

No-one has asked me about it but I imagine the sort of question I’d get is “How do you motivate yourself to keep getting out there?”. Well, motivation has rarely been something I had to think about. I have running goals and to reach those goals, I have to get out and do the training, but equally I make it manageable so it never becomes a strain.

My seven day week splits into three workouts and four recovery runs. The workouts are the exciting part of the week where I get to do something that’s different, that’s exciting and which I know will progress me towards my goals. How can I not be motivated to go do those?

The recovery runs are more mundane but they’re usually only around forty minutes long. Once you’ve been running consistently for a while it’s the sort of run that seems to be over before it’s started. If I were a less experienced runner, I’d probably only do twenty or thirty minutes until the fitness expanded to make them feel achievable.

But it’s the pace of the recovery runs that makes them, and therefore the streak, achievable. I always keep them very easy. Some of them have been closer to ten minute miles even though I can run much, much quicker. I focus on my breathing from the beginning and never put in any undue effort on the hills. I never try to speed up, I just let my body take me along at the pace it wants to go. Sometimes there are days when I have to stumble through the run because the legs are feeling hollow but, more often than not, it’s a chance to get out, look around and think about life.

It wasn’t always like this. When I trained a decade ago, I pushed myself harder on every run but that then lowered my motivation for getting out there frequently. Your body is good at telling your mind when it’s had enough but, while people hear it, invariably they don’t act compassionately towards themselves. Some days I turned round after a mile because I knew my legs couldn’t handle the run. It’s just not possible for a poorly trained runner to run hard every day and not need the occasional break. I haven’t been taking rest days but that doesn’t mean I have been taking a break.

Fast and furious

A decade ago I was simply someone who ran to keep myself active and occupied. The majority of my runs were completed quickly. Under half an hour. Occasionally I’d enter 10K races or half-marathons and put in more training to get ready but when I wasn’t racing, it was mostly short, fast runs.

As an eighteen-year-old, my first attempt to take up running was to go out of the door, run to the bottom of our road and then back as fast as I could. It was a 1½ mile round trip with a long uphill finish which, I think, took me around seventeen minutes. I tried to run every day but contented myself with doing six runs each week and kept up the regime for six weeks until other activities (like drinking, Christmas and training for the local Swimarathon charity event) distracted me.

In his book, Running to the Top, legendary coach Arthur Lydiard states:

“The stranger to jogging or running will follow his medical check by running easily out for, say, five minutes and then turning for home … That five minutes out-and-back routine should occupy a few days to accustom leg and arm and body muscles to the activity. The beginner can then start adding time on his/her feet … When you can do 15 minutes every day, at least every other day, step up to 30 minutes, followed by two days  at 15 minutes, another 30, another two 15s and so on.”

Now I’ve paraphrased and left out bits but what I find relevant is that he’s telling people to start out with ten minutes running and to get out doing it almost every day.

In my first job at Chase, when they opened an onsite gym I joined because it was a good deal at £6 per month! Other people recognised that too and its membership quickly grew to the point where they expanded the size of the gym by knocking down a wall and building into the restaurant. During busy periods we were limited for how long we could use the cardio equipment; so my treadmill runs were no further than fifteen minutes. More often than not, it was only as long as I could last running at full pelt. The machine would whir away at 9.5mph, I’d gasp for breath and push myself to hang in there for a nice round ten minutes. My best ever performance was putting the treadmill at full speed and running three miles in 18:10. Those extra ten seconds were spent getting it up to full speed.

Eventually I tried a 10K race which was a big step up and had me going out to do some overdistance training in the lead up but then it was back to short runs. If I was bored at home, with nothing decent to watch on TV, a quick run round the local streets was often a solution and I’d only be out for 20-25 minute.

It was a few more years before I started entering half marathons and to complete those I went through a period of doing longer runs from Bournemouth pier to Shore Road and back. But once my interest in those died down I was back to the 20-25 minute runs round the block.

Off this relatively low level of training I could run 10K in 47-48 minutes and half marathons in 1hr50. I was getting decent results off 10-20 miles per week.

All of this is counter to what I see among the modern influx of runners. Most of them have graduated from the Couch25K so have a mentality of goal-setting for distance. Once they can do 5K, they set their sights on 10Ks and then onto half marathons and marathons. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, to an extent I did it myself, but my earliest beginnings were to start with runs that simply lasted as long as I could run. If I ran round the streets, I ran a route I knew was only going to last twenty minutes or so.

There now seems to be a mindset that every run has to last the better part of an hour; the idea that anything less than a 6-8 mile run isn’t worth doing. This turns it into something that needs scheduling rather than being fitted into the day wherever it can.

No planning’s needed to nip out for fifteen minutes while dinner is cooking, twenty-five minutes during lunch hour, twenty minutes round the block in the morning before a shower. A quick run boosts fitness and keeps everything ticking over between more meaningful workouts, sessions and parkruns. It’s a lot easier to get out more frequently when the runs are short.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of promoting this mentality. In my “How to Improve” series I say one of my running rules is to make runs last thirty minutes. But I’m beginning to rethink things. If you’re committed to improving then aiming for a minimum of thirty minutes is a good idea but I suspect most people are struggling to commit in the first place, and I suspect it’s because they don’t have the time or haven’t found enough joy in running.

One of the ways you find joy is by getting fast and clocking decent times. Another is by blasting out the door for ten minutes, hammering round the block and arriving home feeling reinvigorated. This sort of run triggers all sorts of positive hormones and changes in your fitness. Shorter runs equal less to dread, less to go wrong and less to plan. The hidden benefit is there’s also less recovery needed. I reckon the more you do them, the easier it becomes for running to become a habit and you to stay motivated. Secretly you’ll discover you’re building the fitness in the background that filters down into your longer races.

Update on my 800m training – May 2021

In April’s update I talked about the surprise of seeing no improvement in my 800m time despite seeing myself get fitter, faster and leaner over the course of training. After the time trials, I slipped into a six week block of endurance training taking me through to the end of May.

At the height of training back in January and February my weekly mileages were in the 40-45 range. As the April time trials approached I eased off to let the legs freshen up and recorded a couple of weeks in the high thirties. With the return of endurance training and the bigger runs midweek, the totals for the six week totals were 49, 49, 50, 52, 47, 48.  May alone comes in at 220 miles.

My schedule for this block of endurance was:

  • Monday – 40min recovery run
  • Tuesday – 8-mile Steady run (with warm-up / cooldown)
  • Wednesday – 40min recovery run
  • Thursday – 40min recovery run
  • Friday – 8-mile Steady run (with warm-up / cooldown)
  • Saturday – 40min recovery run
  • Sunday – 11.7-mile fasted Long run

I adapted it once or twice, threw in some strides occasionally but always two Steady runs in the week with a Long run at similar effort level on a Sunday. Recovery runs on all the other days.

Steady improvement

Across the six week I did twelve Steady runs. May was unseasonably poor weather so the conditions varied from complete calm to 20mph winds. All but one was done at the beach where the wind doesn’t always blow in the same direction. I have a 9-mile out and back route from Durley Chine to near the end of the prom at Hengistbury Head. I always just allow the runs to get faster but the first half mile is taken carefully and I discount the split for this, then run four miles out, four miles back and run the last half mile back as a warmdown. This eight-mile exertion takes a little over an hour which is perfect.

Here’s a table of those eight mile runs at the beach. For ease of reading I’ve ordered the miles from fastest to slowest for each run as it allows you to see how the quickest are getting faster.


You can see in the first week I couldn’t even break 8-min mile pace on these runs whereas by the final week, every mile was faster. If you track across the fourth mile row, you can see it was beginning to consistently be around the 7:30 mark a solid improvement from the early weeks. The final run was a backslide but I suspect the legs were tired from the excellent 7:38/mile paced Sunday long run preceding them.

This table also highlights how improvement isn’t a linear thing. It can be two steps forward, one step back while you recover and consolidate but if you can stay injury-free there should be an improvement over time. Some of the ups and downs in the table are due to windy days!

Changing run form

In April, I began thinking about my form again. I’ve probably been looking at aspects of my form since 2013 when I bought a cadence monitor and started improving that. It’s a real work in progress and last year when I was doing hill sprints and bounding I began to feel some sense of how to get quicker. In the summer when I strengthened up my core I found it made a difference to my running but I still feel there’s been something missing from my sprint speed.

I reread some of my books which talk about technique and watched some Youtube videos of sprinters and how it is something of a difference action to how most distance runners run. I found some drills and exercises that began to improve my knee lift and instantly I could feel more drive when my feet hit the ground. At my coaching sessions, I do these drills as part of the warm-up to try and help the runners to improve.

Over the course of this training block, I’ve slowly been integrating this new knee drive action into my running and when it’s going well I feel like I’m running on air. My upper body seems to become almost still (other than armswing) and my lower body begins to feel like it’s doing all the work. It feels like I’m running from the hips and every step is driving me forward. My cadence is slightly up and I’ve even begun to notice quieter footfalls at times.

I still haven’t seen this translates to increased speed in my sprints as I haven’t done many strides but I think it may be responsible for the increased pace on my steady and long runs. I’m looking forward to when I get back to the speedier portions of 800 training as I’ll be hopefully be able to further ingrain this new action.

One small downside is that the outsides of my shoulders have ached towards the end of runs. I think this is because as my armswing is becoming freer and driven by running it’s causing muscles that haven’t previously been used to get involved.

Another time trial

Coming off the six week block of endurance I knew I’d speeded up on my easy runs and hoped it would transfer to my 800 time. It didn’t. At the start of June I did another time trial this time clocking 2:53 – so overall five seconds quicker than in December.

It’s possible that my legs weren’t ready for this recent time trial. The final week of the endurance training saw the paces pick up noticeably and this can sometimes lead to what I call a VO2max lull; a 10-14 day period where the body is adapting and takes a step back.

Truth be told I’m somewhat frustrated by the lack of significant progress in the 800 time, especially as I feel fitter and faster but also because I’ve been quicker following my own methods in the past.

I’m going to stick with JackD’s plan for a second go around and throw in the strides he suggests doing to see if this improves my top-end speed. I suspect there’s a missing link waiting to be filled in that will connect my general endurance to my speed and ability. Let’s see what happens.

MAF Training review – Part 3 The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In this final part of my series on MAF training, I’m going to give you my thoughts on it as a way of training. In part 1 I discussed how the real Maffetone Method is a holistic system for living but most people are only interested in the low heart-rate training formula. In part 2, I plodded through my experience of nearly six months’ worth of MAF low heart-rate training. Now I look at what’s right and wrong with this as a training system. Let’s get critiquing …

My own experience with MAF training was not very positive and within this post, I’ll explain why. But my aim is not solely to run MAF training down, I don’t see Maffetone as some kind of salesman selling snake oil or a “get quick rich” scheme – he knows about health. As a chiropractor of many years’ experience there are some good things to be learned from his book and there are certainly some athletes who have had success working with him. So let’s begin by seeing what we can gain by understanding his work.

What MAF can teach you

Benefit 1 – Understanding Aerobic and Anaerobic training is very useful

Maffetone explains training can be fuelled in two ways – aerobically and anaerobically. Aerobic uses oxygen and is very efficient, anaerobic works independently of oxygen which causes fuel to burn quicker and creates waste products that limit or fatigue you.

While anaerobic energy enables you to hit your top speeds – after all sprinting uses it extensively, Maffetone explains the detriments of training anaerobically. It increases the acidity of the body, requires more energy and can have major downsides in terms of poor sleep, appetite, weight among other things.

Understanding that too much anaerobic training at the expense of aerobic training is an important concept to grasp and is quantified these days in Stephen Seiler’s 80:20 rule. Perhaps because Seiler’s research only appeared recently, the older MAF low heart-rate training is proposing something closer to a 100:0 ratio.

Benefit 2 – Understand the Aerobic/Anaerobic threshold

Scientists will tell you there is no definable “Threshold” where you cut over from aerobic to anaerobic mechanism. Your exercise is always fuelled by a mixture of both. While this is technically true, the reality to you as a runner, is there are times when it’s clear you’re relying on one type more than the other. Stephen Seiler found research indicating most sub-elite runners are training anaerobically 70% of the time and need to bring this down to 20%.

Benefit 3 – The premise behind lower heart-rate training is right

I remember while running Bournemouth Bay Half Marathon in April 1996, commenting to a chap running alongside me that my heart-rate was averaging 177bpm and he replied “That sounds rather high”. We were only running at about eight and a half minute miles and I went on to finish in 1hr51. This is exactly the sort of heart-rate that people Maffetone met were always training at, and what MAF training is designed to address and bring down. Had I been successful in getting lower heart-rates, I would have seen my half marathon times begin to improve. That’s what MAF low heart-rate training is all about and why the premise is right.

At the other end of the scale, I’ve run at nine minute mile pace with my friend Simon, who is a 2hr34 marathoner and his heart-rate was only 110bpm. That’s the heart-rate of a man who has built his aerobic system and is burning fat.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the aforementioned threshold between aerobic and anaerobic where you want to do much of your training. MAF suggests this occurs at a heart-rate that is calculated using your age but as I’ll explain later, I don’t. The premise is correct, very low heart-rates e.g. 110bpm are burning fat; heart-rates up in the 180s are burning sugar, or more correctly the glycogen and glucose that is sugar-based. Training somewhere between these two endpoints will lead to effective training.

Benefit 4 – Warm-ups are great

Maffetone devotes a section of the book to getting athletes to spend at least twelve minutes warming up. Genuine warm-ups are one of the most under-rated things in distance running training.

Most people start their runs quickly and then slow down to a pace which feels comfortable. The problem is that by starting fast they activate lots of anaerobic, sugar-burning muscle fibres which are then able to kick in every time they’re needed. This is one of the reason why people say they can’t run slowly. Those anaerobic muscle fibres are the thing that cause high heart-rates.

If you start a run slowly, you only use as many muscle fibres as you need to get the job done and can stay aerobic much more easily. This is reflected in lower heart-rates and focuses the training on building the aerobic system.

Benefit 5 – Low HR training can teach you the feel of Easy runs

Most coaches agree “running your easy runs too fast” is the number one mistake runners make and it’s not even limited to amateur athletes. Even elite athletes can do it and send themselves into a spiral of overtraining and underperformance.

If you pay attention to how easy your low heart-rate training runs feel then you can begin to understand just how easy they need to be. Remember easy is a feeling not a pace.

Benefit 6 – MAF Method would probably help with the “obesity crisis”

While MAF makes no claim on this I found when I built my aerobic base up (using my own method) I stopped being hungry. I still ate carbohydrates but I could return from an 18-mile early Sunday morning run at 8min/mile pace, eat a bagel and banana and then not get hungry until the afternoon. I actually found myself having to schedule meals to avoid missing them! My lifelong desire for cake, crisps and sweets which had been a large part of my diet naturally ebbed away. It returns whenever I start to train more anaerobically.

When you consider there’s a sizeable proportion of the population who don’t do regular exercise, and they get out of breath quickly when they do, it suggests their aerobic systems are underdeveloped. If their aerobic systems are underdeveloped then they’re going anaerobic in even the simplest activities and they’re burning up sugars from the muscles which need to be replaced. This leaves them hungry and prone to eating quick-fix sugary food to sate their appetite.

If people were to develop their aerobic system then they could go about their day-to-day activities without ever needing to dip into anaerobic energy at all. This would give all the benefits Maffetone details around not revving up the central nervous system and getting stressed. It would lead to better fat-burning for fuelling activities and avoid hunger.

My doubts about MAF training

I’m looking here almost exclusively at training to a heart-rate determined by the age-related formula. That’s the part that’s grabbing most people’s attention and they’re promoting as MAF training. (It occurs to me as I write this that I’ve been referring to it as “low heart-rate training” which of course it probably isn’t for anyone in their twenties but allow me that indulgence).

A) The science behind the formula is debateable at best

At its simplest the MAF formula is suggesting that as you get older, you get better at burning fat. But, to my knowledge, there is no known mechanism to suggest all 20-year-olds will burn fat at 160HR, 30-year-olds at 150HR, 40-year-olds at 140HR, 50-year-olds at 130HR and 60-year-olds at 120HR. Even with the small 5-10 beat adjustments these numbers have no scientific basis.

I’m inclined to believe he’s substituted age for experience.

Typically a 50-year-old runner with thirty-plus years of experience will have a bigger aerobic base than a 20-year-old runner and this is why training at lower heart-rates may be better for them. The latter’s youthfulness does give them the ability to engage high levels of muscle which push the heart-rate higher than an older runner who, with the natural decline from ageing, has lost some top-end speed.

While the human body declines with ageing, it is not so abrupt that a forty year-old needs to train at twenty beats lower than a twenty year old. At close to age fifty, I’m running aerobically at 150HR where the formula predicts I shouldn’t run quicker than 130HR.

B) Maffetone defines aerobic exercise as fat-burning and anaerobic as sugar-burning

While this is a good simplification, it’s nothing like the science. It’s accurate to say the anaerobic system is sugar-burning but the aerobic system is a mix of fats and sugars. It’s possible to build an Aerobic system that is burning high levels of sugars – this is a process called Aerobic Glycolysis (also known as Slow Glycolysis) and generally equates to your marathon pace.

In fairness to Maffetone he does hint that some of the aerobic system’s energy will come from sugar – for example on p.23 he shows Mike Pigg running at 127HR as getting 30% of his energy from sugar. It’s when Pigg gets to 153HR that he’s beginning to go 50-50 between fats and sugars.

It’s difficult to get the body to pure fat-burning other than by being careful about what you eat. This is why a significant part of the bigger Maffetone Method (not just low heart-rate training) has you looking at your nutrition and trying a two week no refined carbs regime. But if you change your diet to remove most of the sugars then you don’t need to train to a heart-rate as you only have fats available to burn.

C) Fat-burning is only required for long distance events

Building the aerobic system is important for all distance runners but fat-burning (remember the aerobic system can also be sugar-burning) is only useful for racing events lasting longer than 1 – 1½ hours. That means twenty mile races, marathons and ultras.

Fat-burning can be useful for half marathons but when your times are closer to the top end of the field then you’re unlikely to run out of glycogen stores. If you’re running middle-distance, parkruns or 10Ks fat-burning isn’t going to help your race times.

It can be useful to develop your fat-burning for training runs as this leaves your glycogen stores in tact for harder efforts. This is especially true for cyclists and triathletes who do many more hours of training and therefore find it easier to deplete their glycogen stores (i.e. bonk or “hit the wall”) and these athletes seem to have made up a significant portion of Maffetone’s clientele.

Basically, fat-burning is unnecessary for racing the shorter distances but building a strong aerobic system, mainly based on aerobic glycolysis, is important.

If you’re a young runner training to a high MAF-HR then you aren’t solely working on fat-burning, you’re working on improving aerobic glycolysis. The MAF training will work but not because you’re fat-burning as he suggests.

D) Older runners can struggle with low heart-rate training

When I was forty-two, I trained to a MAF-HR of 138bpm which usually meant running no faster than 9min/mile. As I’ll show in a future post, my current training has progressed by running at heart-rates in the high 140s and 150s which are far in excess of my MAF-HR.

To progress you have to train at the point just before you start to increase the use of anaerobic energy (reread Benefit #2). This has variously been called the Anaerobic Threshold, Aerobic Threshold and Lactate Threshold among other names. It doesn’t matter what it’s called but it does matter that you’re training at it if you want to get faster.

As she approached age thirty, Paula Radcliffe was setting the world record for the women’s marathon, an event which is run almost exclusively using aerobic energy. She was running at heart-rates in excess of 180 where a MAF-HR would have limited her to 160-165 bpm.  Imagine therefore how limiting it can be for the oldest runners expected to train at 120-130 heart-rates but won’t see any improvement if their threshold heart-rate is higher.

E) It’s tough on Fast-Twitch runners

You may have heard of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle which are respectively good for speed and endurance. While slow-twitch is perfect for aerobic exercise, fast-twitch naturally works anaerobically and requires extensive development to improve aerobically. Even then it is less efficient than slow-twitch muscle and can easily switch back to anaerobic mechanism. This is the reason why after a weekend of sprints and drills, my own MAF training went backwards.

Of course, this is why heavily fast-twitch runners are better suited to sprints and shorter distance events. But even a mile world record holder like Peter Snell could run a marathon in under 2hr40 despite sitting down at the side of the road and taking a rest break after the first twenty miles! It’s not impossible to build a good aerobic base with fast-twitch muscle just harder and it’ll usually incur higher heart-rates which makes the MAF age-based formula less appropriate.

Naturally fast-twitch runners will retain FT muscle longer into old age so when you combine this with the previous point (D) you can see why I struggled with MAF training and why others may too.

Note this is why MAF training will likely work very well for slow-twitch runners who naturally run with low heart-rates and actually struggle to get their heart-rates up. They can push harder on all their runs without exceeding MAF-HR (unless they’re Paula Radcliffe) without going particularly anaerobic. But then they don’t particularly need a heart-rate monitor to hold them back.

F) Female runners may struggle with it

The female runners whose training I’ve observed tend to run with higher heart-rates and certainly this was the case for Paula Radcliffe (see last paragraph of point D).

In his book “Better Training for Distance Runners”, Peter Coe states that women tend to have higher heart-rates because their hearts are physiologically smaller and therefore pump less blood with each stroke which is compensated for by beating quicker.

Maffetone makes no distinction in his system for male or female runners or those who have higher maximum heart-rates. He’s very clear that maximum heart-rate don’t matter.

G) MAF training is not a system for training a beginner

It’s likely that if you try to run below a MAF-HR as a beginner runner you will quickly be exceeding it at all but the slowest pace. This could especially be the case if any of the previous three points apply.

At age 47, I got injured and after a three month layoff I resumed training. In my first week I was barely able to run ten minutes per mile without finishing runs at heart-rates in the 160s. I generally took my runs as easy as I could and my parkrun time was under twenty-four minutes after a month but I was rarely running below my MAF-HR. If I had stuck to a MAF-HR, there’s no way I’d have been at that level after a month and running sub-1hr40 half marathons six months later.

H) MAF training says nothing about volumes of training

While the book focuses on the intensity of your runs, it doesn’t give any concrete information about how much training to do; only in broad terms about “less is more”.

I dived in and did too much relative to my ability with 8-10 hours each week but I’d read elsewhere that low heart-training allows you to do as much you want. It turns out I simply didn’t need to be doing that much training.

How much you should do depend on what your body can take. When you’re beginning, you only need relatively short runs to create a training effect. A couple of hours spread out through the week will have a big effect. I currently train from 5-7 hours each week and get decent benefits from it. My friend Simon, the 2hr34 marathoner trains closer to 10 hours each week.

I) MAF training is not a speed system, it is about creating speed endurance

Although MAF training promises to get you faster, more often than not it’s helping you to race longer distances faster. It’s a subtle distinction. What I mean is that while you might be able to run one mile all-out in eight minutes, MAF training will simply enable you to build the endurance to do a parkrun or 10K at this pace but you won’t necessarily be able to run a single mile faster. That will only happen when you do some speed training. If you only ever do low heart-rate training, you’re eventually going to come up against a brick wall of no improvement.

This is why my first three months of Maffetone training saw no improvement in their average pace but why after I did a parkrun, it picked up – the parkrun acted as a speed session because I went all-out at it and my natural fast-twitch muscle kicked in.

If you never work on your speed side you’re never going to reach your potential. Maffetone does allow for some anaerobic interval workouts but you’ll only know this if you read the book. There’s not much details on these intervals and speed workouts or how they relate to different race distances.

Real world problems with MAF training

I’ve observed many runners who get enthusiastic about MAF low heart-rate training but I struggle to think of anyone who has benefited from its long term possibilities. This isn’t necessarily because MAF training is flawed but because the runners following it, don’t really follow it. Here are the common issues I see.

i) Runners don’t follow MAF training long enough to see the benefits

The aim of the MAF training is to build the aerobic system and this happens by the body improving the aerobic capabilities of slow and fast-twitch muscle. Biologically, muscle fibres start to grow more mitochondria which improve the use of oxygen; meanwhile the capillary network that supplies oxygen from the arteries to the muscle fibres becomes more extensive. It is these changes that allow cells to extract and use more oxygen from each beat of the heart hence why it then needs to beat less frequently to deliver the same oxygen levels.

The process for growing new mitochondria and capillaries takes six weeks so this is the minimum timeframe you should be focused on MAF training if you’re to get its benefits. But it’s not necessarily a one-off hit as you’ll usually be growing these on a rolling basis. So while the training you do in week 3 is reinforcing the growth that started a few weeks ago, it is also initiating further growth that will be realised in week 9. This is why the elites can stay in a base period for months.

However if you start racing or doing heavy speed workouts during your MAF training period, which is what I tend to have seen, the full benefits may not be realised. Often there’ll be a small improvement but not as good as they might have been had they committed. I’ve even seen suggestion that capillary beds can be destroyed if too much speedwork is done but I’m not sure how true this is.

The people I see raving about MAF training on Youtube, the web or Strava never seem to follow the system for a period of months like I did. It’s a fad for them. Invariably they follow it for some of their runs each week but then throw in a race or workout regularly. This is contrary to the idea of MAF training which, I believe, is supposed to be a continuous process.

They might as well go follow a marathon training plan and get the same benefits from high mileage and minimal speedwork

ii) Runners don’t actually stay below the calculated heart-rate

When I MAF trained I was dedicated to staying below the MAF-HR. I don’t see the same zealousness from other runners. Most of those I’ve seen trying it are capable of running decent times e.g. half-marathon in 1hr25 but to stay below their MAF-HR might require them to go back to nine minute miling aka “running too slow”. So they tend to slow their runs down to about eight minute miles and be content if their heart-rate averages the MAF-HR. Occasionally they will stop, walk or go up hills slowly but mostly they jog along doing an approximation of MAF training that doesn’t bear close scrutiny.

iii) Runners don’t use a decent heart-rate monitor

Until a decade ago all heart-rate monitors were chest straps which were usually accurate. You could get inaccuracy at the start of runs which was usually solved by giving it a lick before putting it on but otherwise they tended to be accurate.

The new generation of wrist-based heart-rate monitors are highly unreliable in their accuracy despite the manufacturers’ claims and any inaccuracy is usually put on the runner for not wearing the watch correctly. I’ve seen countless examples where runners have heart-rates in the 180s while jogging and then when they start doing fast intervals the heart-rate drops to the 140s. That’s a physical impossibility. The wrist-based monitors often lock onto a runner’s cadence but there may be other reasons behind their inaccuracy.

Whatever the reason I would only trust a chest strap heart-rate monitor from the current technology available. It may improve and there may be some which are already reliable so if you choose to go wrist-based, test it before you rely on it. And do that test under a variety of conditions, not just sitting on your sofa or walking to the local shop.

iv) Runners don’t do the warm-up

Runners who try MAF training almost always start their runs fast, only slowing down after a minute as the anaerobic boost runs out and they start to puff. The problem is they’ve then engaged more muscle than they can run aerobically with, this makes it much harder to stay under MAF-HR.

To compensate for increased anaerobic energy usage, the body invokes lactic clearance therefore that’s what they’re training rather than signalling to the body a need to adapt aerobically. Once lactate clearance kicks in, it’s possible to be running anaerobically and still see lower heart-rates.

A secondary issue of starting runs without a warm-up is heart-rate monitors can read inaccurately at the beginning of runs and this causes big headaches if the heart-rate monitor is constantly beeping say you’re running too fast. It often takes 8-10 minutes to settle down and has disrupted your rhythm if you’re trying to stay below a certain heart-rate. I used to worry on my MAF runs if my heart-rate was up in the 140s early on not knowing whether it was me running too fast or the monitor reading wrong.

As I explained earlier, Maffetone recommends doing a fifteen minute warm-up which helps to avoid these issues. Many of the MAF training advocates don’t have the patience or knowledge to do this.

The BIG flaw to MAF training

Heart-rate monitors don’t show the levels of lactate in the blood.

As I wrote back in Point D (and will reproduce here to save you scrolling back up): To progress you have to train at the point just before you start to increase the use of anaerobic energy. This has variously been called the Anaerobic Threshold, Aerobic Threshold and Lactate Threshold among other names. It doesn’t matter what it’s called but it does matter that you’re training at it if you want to get faster.

Most people understand the principle of Threshold training so I won’t go into depth about it. What I will point out is while there are various ways of identifying what the heart-rate at threshold is, only Maffetone suggests it is related to age. And quite simply – it isn’t.

It can vary drastically depending on your training. I have seen myself running at Threshold heart-rates of 127bpm after doing excessive amounts of speedwork yet two months later it’s up at 150bpm. There was no relationship between my age and Threshold heart-rate in those numbers and there won’t be in anyone else – other than by coincidence.

In well-trained runners the Threshold heart-rate is more consistent. Mine is usually somewhere around 152-153bpm when I’m running well. Coach Peter Coe said lab testing shows it’s usually around 150bpm in male runners but higher in women. Mike Pigg, who I mentioned earlier appears to be around 153bpm. I would be very careful about using a generic value like this to specifically define the Threshold but with experience you may be able to define where your own starts.

There are very few, if any, elite runners these days who train to heart-rate. If they do it’s usually to ensure their recovery runs are slow enough. If they are doing workouts by heart-rate, it’s likely they’ve derived their numbers either by taking lactate samples or by using heart-rates experienced in races. An age-based formula won’t identify it.

In my opinion, if you really want to train to heart-rate, you’re better off going with a catch-all number of 150 (or 160-170 for a woman) and see how your body reacts to it. I would aim to run recovery runs at least fifteen beats lower than this but not get too tied into staying exactly below or on the numbers. I’d look to do a warm-up that takes at least ten minutes to get close to my target heart-rate but I’d let my body guide me on how it wants to run. If I began to go over the target heart-rate then I wouldn’t be too concerned by a few beats but I would look to ease off and get back under target. I would aim to run the 150HR rate efforts no more than three times per week with the low heart-rate recovery runs on the other days.

That’s if I was going to train to heart-rate which I don’t.

Summing up MAF training

The idea of training to build an aerobic base is a good one for anyone involved in endurance sports. Whether this needs to be fat-burning or sugar-burning depends on the distance(s) you intend to race.

But the fundamental concept of using an age-related formula to decide on what heart-rate to train at is high flawed. There is no proven mechanism that reliably explains why a 40-year-old runner should train twenty beats lower than a 20-year-old runner.

Remember Phil Maffetone was a health practitioner who treated all sorts of endurance athletes so being a running coach was never his speciality. What the MAF method does well is to (re)build a healthy aerobic system. This allows runners to peak their training with anaerobic training for better race times, but MAF training itself is not a system for building top end speed. You will only go as fast in races as your top end speed allows. If you spend months creating a super-efficient aerobic system, it opens up the space to access speed at the top. If you never do speedwork you won’t be any faster over short distances but you will improve over longer ones.

While many of his clients found great success from following his methods, the success stories he details are of already-elite athletes in their respective long distance events. They were already fast and well-developed, MAF training just took them the final steps of their journey. For example, Mark Allen was placing in the top 5 of the Hawaii Ironman before he met Maffetone. He became a six-time champion when he improved his aerobic system because fat-burning is crucial in an event lasting over eight hours.

What Maffetone showed these athletes is how to build the aerobic system which is the foundation of endurance. That is half of running. The other half is the anaerobic system which helps create speed. Following the Maffetone approach as a complete running system is like listening to researchers who tell you that you can get faster by building VO2max through High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). It’s only half the job. Good running coaches already understand how to combine these two halves of aerobic and anaerobic training to create endurance and speed to maximise the potential of a runner. It’s often self-coached runners who have fixated on one half or the other who profit when they introduce the other type of training.

If you go through Maffetone’s Big Book you will find all the athletes he gives specific details for are elite (i.e. they already have top end speed) and they are under thirty which gives them a higher MAF-HR to work with. It’s for this reason I repeat my belief that the Maffetone formula is a blunt instrument which could as effectively be replaced by a catch-all heart-rate limit of 150 beats per minute for male runners and perhaps 10-20 beats higher for women. The specific value you use would likely need to be individualised and decided upon once you’ve got used to your own typical values.

There are better ways to train than MAF training to be the best runner you can. These involve mixing periods of short intervals, long intervals, continuous runs, long runs and easy runs at a variety of paces to develop both speed and endurance.

Short sprint – Do it for yourself

When I was twenty-two the gym I went to held monthly challenges. These rotated around the cardio equipment with one month being who could run the most miles, the next being to climb the highest on the versa climber, the the stationary bike, the stepper and so on. Typically the same people won the challenges because they were willing to get in the gym every day and train. I’m certain there was one woman who turned up twice a day to ensure she won the stepper challenge. I often didn’t participate because I wasn’t committed enough and I wasn’t into cardio for cardio’s sake.

The October challenge was to row as far as you could over the month. As I enjoyed the rowing machine and felt I was quite good on it, I gave the challenge a go. This was in the days before the Concept2 machine and there was a blocky graphic display showing your avatar rowing but the machines were technical enough to allow you to go head-to-head with someone on the other machine. I’d done this with Gary, who I played volleyball with, and there was something of a rivalry between us; so I went at the challenge full pelt; I wasn’t going to let him beat me. Fortunately the challenge rules limited you to fifteen minutes rowing each day on the six days of the week the gym was open, so it couldn’t get out of hand.

I suppose the aim of the challenges was to give people a reason or motivation to come to the gym. It was early gamification of the sort you see on Strava every month now. Badges for running 5K, 10K, a half marathon, cycling, swimming or whatever every month. These Strava challenges are participatory and while there is a leaderboard it’s about doing it for yourself rather than beating other people.

But back in the day I was interested in beating Gary, if not winning the challenge, so I made sure of going to the gym every day to max out my rowing allowance. All-out, hard effort for fifteen minutes to log as much distance as I could in my quest to be the best and beat Gary. I’d probably then go off and lift some weights and play volleyball or basketball.

I lasted two weeks before I fell sick. It was so bad I went home from work on Thursday lunchtime, took the Friday off work and stayed in bed all weekend to recover. I was back at work on the Monday but I’d learned a lesson about overdoing things. I often say I’m never ill and the Friday was the only day I took off in eight years working there.

The real consequences of that lesson came a couple of weeks later. November rolled around and the gym staff were looking for people to sign up for the next challenge. I declined. I realised I’d made myself ill from a meaningless challenge. My ego took part in the challenges because I wanted to be part of the gym but more so because I wanted to be at, or near, the top of the leaderboard. There was no reward, only bragging rights to be a big fish in a little pond. More so I realised the challenge was the gym staff’s thing not mine. They were signing up people to try and keep people motivated and have as many names as possible taking part to make it an interesting competition but so what? Those were their goals not mine. My goals lay in a different place, in particular on the volleyball court and staying fit and healthy enough to keep training, playing and improving at that.

I never signed up for another challenge again.

MAF Training review – Part 2 My Experience

Today I continue my in-depth review of MAF training with a look back at how it went for me in the summer of 2014. In part 1 of this series, I explained most people promote the Maffetone Method as low heart-training, but it’s actually a holistic system including re-evaluating your diet by taking a two week break from refined carbohydrates. I too was in the heretic camp and went with the low heart-rate training only. I didn’t change my diet or try any of the other things Dr Phil Maffetone recommends, partly because if I gave up carbs I wouldn’t have anything left to eat. I read a copy of his book while I was doing the training and was trying to make sense of it as I was going along.

This wasn’t my first experience of low heart-rate training, that occurred over twenty-five years ago as I recounted in this post about John Douillard’s Body, Mind and Sport book. Using “Darth Vader” diaphragmatic nose-breathing, while running to a sub-130 heart-rate, I saw no success at getting faster or achieving the effortless flow state he promised but I kept trying. It was only when I got good at running through pace-based training that I began to see the low heart-rates promised by Douillard. But the idea of low heart-rate training stuck with me and somehow I read about Maffetone training and when the opportunity arose I decided to give it a dedicated shot.

My first two years of committed running (2011-13) saw me recording personal bests at all distances raced but something was missing which was stopping me from hitting the heights I hoped for. I didn’t quite know what it was but the combination of The Redgrave Paradox, a return from a winter virus and wanting to try new things led me to give MAF training a try.

The winter virus knocked my training back for two months and while, I’d missed the half marathon I was aiming for, I was still running capable of running twenty-one minutes at parkrun. With the virus over I began to bulk up training with four mile runs in the morning and another thirty minutes of barefoot running in the evening.

In early May I clocked forty-three minutes at Lymington 10K. A week later I jogged round Bournemouth parkrun in 25:43 with heart-rate averaging 141bpm but hitting a max of 155bpm. I’m not sure why but, that evening I decided to try MAF training. I was 42-years-old, the formula gave me 138bpm and in the past I’d always found my running felt very comfortable at this level. When I was building my first aerobic base three years earlier it was where my heart-rate naturally seemed to fall on easy runs.

Beginnings – May and June

I followed the MAF low HR regime religiously. The first Sunday long run was hellish because I picked a hilly route. I must have stopped and walked thirty times to keep my heart-rate down on the hills but I managed the twelve miles without going over the limit. It was slow at 10:24/mile with the fastest mile being 9:40 and the long uphill into Broadstone taking over eleven minutes. The following week was even slower but I stuck with it. Like all spiritual adepts there were times where I unintentionally fell off the pew and I did have one deliberation exception; at the end of some runs I would do a 150m sprint back to my house. It sent my heart-rate soaring and those moments are not included in any of the stats that follow.

In the first six weeks of training I ran, on average, for eight hours and fifteen minutes covering fifty-five miles yet only spending 1min35 above my MAF-HR of 138. I’m doubtful it’s possible to do any better than this. By the end of June I’d accumulated fifty hours of training but less than ten minutes of it exceeded MAF-HR.

Total time8hr 18min8hr 44min7hr 18min9hr 23min8hr 48min8hr 36min49hr 34min
Above MAF-HR1min071min013min272min193 secs1min289min25

Most days I was running morning and evening yet what’s incredible is, while I was accumulating all this, I still took Fridays off as a rest day. I’m sure that helped parkrun to feel good on a Saturday morning. Monday to Thursday mornings were a shoed run with a barefoot run round a local field in the evening. At weekends, the evening run was shoed. Here’s a sample week from this period.

Time runMileageAvg paceTime above
Monday00:41:414.5Morning run9:22 / mile
00:30:383.6Evening (barefoot)8:31 / mile
Tuesday00:41:064.5Morning run9:14 / mile7 seconds
00:31:033.6Evening (barefoot)8:38 / mile
Wednesday00:41:354.5Morning run9:21 / mile
00:30:273.6Evening (barefoot)8:27 / mile
Thursday00:43:104.5Morning run9:42 / mile8 seconds
00:30:523.6Evening (barefoot)8:34 / mile
Saturday00:31:154.5Bournemouth parkrun9:42 / mile11 seconds
00:34:393.6Evening recovery9:36 / mile
Sunday01:59:5111.7Morning long run10:16 / mile35 seconds
00:34:283.5Evening recovery9:50 / mile

Going further – July into August

In July I decided to change tack. I was still going to train to MAF-HR but the arrangement of my week would be different. The barefoot running had to come to an end. It was a long, hot summer and through June the ground began to harden up. It eventually became like running on concrete and my body simply couldn’t handle it. One thing I’ve haven’t yet been able to sort out in my running is not being a loud and noisy runner who hammers their feet into the ground. I know one guy who can run half marathons comfortably in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on tarmac but I can’t do it for more than a few yards.

Part of my experimental mindset also wanted to see what would happen if I ran longer distances so rather than splitting my training day into two runs, I usually only ran once but much further.

Below is a training week which totalled 67+ miles and 10+ hours while only exceeding my MAF-HR for nine minutes. This particular week, my Bournemouth parkrun time scraped under twenty-seven minutes compared to the thirty-one minutes when I started. This was as fast as it ever got during MAF-HR training and it stabilised in the twenty-seven minute range in the following weeks.

Time runMileageAvg paceTime above
Monday01:15:478.1Daily run9:18 / mile1min 23secs
Tuesday01:50:4411.7Daily run9:30 / mile4min 15secs
Wednesday01:14:228.2Daily run9:07 / mile12 seconds
Thursday01:52:0911.7Morning run9:37 / mile
00:36:374Evening recovery9:09 / mile12 seconds
Saturday00:26:525.7Bournemouth parkrun8:39 / mile2min 15secs
00:32:383.8Evening recovery8:35 / mile
Sunday02:11:5914.1Long run9:22 / mile44secs

Many people who try low-HR training say they can’t run slowly. Part of it is they go off too fast but sometimes it’s their ego complaining. I never cared if people saw me running slowly. If anyone asked why I was jogging round at the back of parkrun I’d patiently explain the MAF training system with its focus on improving fat-burning over sugar-burning and then get on with doing my thing.

One of the reasons I stayed motivated was I knew the general approach of the elites is to do a block of ten weeks building their base. Sometimes they do this for longer but either way, the idea of replicating this helped me to overcome any doubt I was feeling when results weren’t showing up plus I had a reward in store to delay the gratification. When I’d completed three months of MAF training, I’d go to Poole parkrun and run all-out.

Even though I was completing Bournemouth parkrun 3-4 minutes faster, over those three months there was barely any improvement to my average weekly pace – it was always a few seconds faster or slower than 9:15/mile. The graph below shows this and the one notably slow week was when I totalled 77+ miles!

The reading I’d done suggested it would take three months for the aerobic base to be built. Not knowing better and not seeing any gradual improvement, I took it to be a timeframe where new speed or pace would appear at the end of it.

It therefore came as vindication when I ran Poole parkrun in 19:52 and I was very pleased to break twenty minutes. I’d been running twenty-one minutes before I started and I’d knocked a minute off with training. I now had the encouragement to continue on and see where this system could take me.

Peak experience – August into September

In the week following the parkrun my average pace improved to 8:51/mile – almost thirty seconds quicker. And it stayed there for the next three weeks. I thought I was finally beginning to see the promised gains and even put in occasional barefoot runs around the field again. These were proving quite efficient and I could run nine minutes with heart-rate averaging 115bpm. At my best I ran a sub-25 5K barefoot round the field without exceeding MAF-HR.

My Sunday long runs to Pamphill and back, which had originally been over ten minute miles, were now breaking nine minutes and I was even seeing a sub-8 mile on the downhill into Wimborne. The MAF training all seemed like it was going in the right direction.

Part of my year’s plan had been to do my UK Athletics coaching courses and I’d become a Leader in Running Fitness in May. The next level up, the Coach in Running Fitness course began with a full weekend in Exeter and meant I wasn’t going to be able to do my usual MAF training runs but I wasn’t too concerned as I figured a short rest would help. Over the two days we did many short practical sessions, both coaching and being coached by our partners but nothing extensive. We weren’t sent on one hour runs or anything, just technical drills, jogs and sprints and while my heart-rate was higher on the Sunday morning I thought nothing of it. I couldn’t get out of doing the practicals but I thought it would also be a test of MAF training’s effectiveness, no runner should have to be so perfect in their training if a system works.

Collapse – September into October

On the Monday morning I woke up … eventually. I’d slept for twelve hours, 10pm – 10am, and still felt exhausted. I played it safe and took the day off from running and resumed the next day. While the first couple of miles were ok, by the end of the run I was slowing my pace drastically to avoid breaking the MAF-HR.

Over a weekend I’d gone from being able to run over eight miles in 1hr10 to barely more than seven. In pace terms it had dropped by a minute per mile (8:38 to 9:40/mile pace). It clawed back slightly over the next four weeks but never back to where it had been. It was still an improvement over where it had been in June and July but not at the late August peak. I was still putting in the effort with weeks of 65, 63, 59 and 58 miles but the pace was often the wrong side of 9min/miles.

Enough – October into November and December

I was beginning to lose faith and needed to know where I was at, so in mid-October I went back to Poole parkrun. I’d run 19:52 nine weeks earlier but now I could only achieve 20:39. It had all fallen apart with one weekend of non-MAF training. I felt disheartened and ready to give up. I’d never truly seen the improvement that seems to be promised by low heart-rate training and I couldn’t see myself shuffling through months of my watch beeping at me.

I was scrabbling around for explanations and diving back into the Maffetone book I began to wonder if the increased heart-rates I was seeing were due to overtraining. It can be one of the signs and MAF’s recommendation for overtraining is to cut your training volume back. So this is what I did. All that happened was it became increasingly harder to run to MAF-HR off less and less training.

I was left wondering whether the previous winter’s virus had flared up again even though I otherwise felt fine. I took more and more rest days logging only 55-60 miles in each of November and December; mileages which had once been my weekly exercise had now become monthly. I was done with MAF training. I’d started it in May, shuffled around for months and not got anywhere closer to the best running I’d done in the preceding years. I felt like I was always waiting for it to come to fruition and it never did.

Looking back

Within this post, I’ve tried to sum up my training for people to understand what I experienced while avoiding getting bogged down in the details. Even now I feel it’s quite stat-heavy. Every run I did that summer is recorded in Garmin and on spreadsheets. So many of the runs are virtually identical in their splits, heart-rates and times that there’s little to be gained from reproducing them, a summation seems enough.

I’m split between saying MAF-training worked and saying it didn’t. Unfortunately I didn’t have an outright benchmark to compare between when I started training and the all-out August parkrun that clocked in at 19:52. I think it was an improvement but I’d been capable of running this sort of time in February before I got hit by a virus.

The first question mark is when you look at my average weekly pace over those first three months it doesn’t change. It’s always somewhere around 9:15/mile. It’s hard to make a perfect comparison because I changed routes from the beginning of July but whenever the opening miles were along the same paths, the splits were very similar. It suggests I wasn’t getting any improvement from the MAF training.

It was after the 19:52 Poole parkrun that things picked up. The pace of my Sunday runs were notably quicker than they’d been in May when I was trudging up hills taking over eleven minutes for a mile.

The trouble is the fast parkrun seems to have been the trigger for this improvement and that isn’t part of the MAF training. The whole theory of MAF training is that you will get quicker simply by running below MAF-HR. [It should be pointed out the book allows you to add in some Anaerobic Intervals from time to time, but if you follow what the Youtubers say it’s simply about low HR training. Once you start mixing aerobic and anaerobic work you’re heading back towards conventional training methods.]

The second big question mark about my MAF training is what happened after my run coaching course. I went backwards and never reached the same heights of the 19:52 parkrun again. If you look at it over the whole five months of training there was no improvement – I was capable of running 21-mins at parkrun before, I ran 20:39 after.

I believe I adhered to MAF training as well as anyone could or should be expected to. I logged hundreds of miles in over 200 hours of training at slow paces. In almost six months I only totalled 4½ hours above a heart-rate of 138bpm and that includes two 20-minute parkruns where it was averaging high 160s. The graph below shows the time running with the yellow blocks representing the small percentage of time spent in excess of my MAF-HR. You can barely see any yellow in the first six weeks which reflects how well I was following the system.

What my stats don’t include are the occasional 30-second sprints I did at the end of training runs two or three times each week, or what occurred on my run coaching course. If this were a true scientific experiment they would be question marks against the validity of what I did, but with over 98% of my training as MAF expects I don’t believe they should be the difference maker to its effectiveness.

The biggest disappointment of having followed the MAF training system for all those months is that any gains I did make, didn’t last. I ran 1,345 miles to try and build the fat-burning system as Phil Maffetone suggests. By the time I ran parkrun on Christmas Day I was only able to achieve 21:45 with notably higher heart-rates than they’d been in August. Where I’d averaged 165 then, now I averaged 169. Where the maximum had been 174, now it was 181. In a matter of months, I’d gotten slower and my fat-burning had got worse. While I trained less in November and December, I’d have hoped the conditioning would last for longer.

But perhaps more importantly, whether I think my experiment proved MAF training works or not, here’s how I felt about it.

My overriding memory is of how much I grew to hate it,

I grew to dread the watch beeping at me to slow down.

Many hours were spent each week trudging along at paces close to 10min/mile. There was never any chance to break out and run fast, I was always trudging along barely lifting my knees or opening my stride. I was always waiting for the watch to beep. Not just a single tone but an irritating diddle-iddle-eee like a demented doorbell from the Seventies.

I enjoyed the evening runs much more but that was more down to the novelty of running barefoot laps round a field and feeling the ground fly beneath my feet. The lack of footwear reduced the energy-cost of running and my heart-rate stayed lower so I got to run faster.

But too many hours were spent trudging along in the mornings; automatically slowing down to trudge up hills; forever aware and vigilant for the beep of the watch ordering me to slow down.

While I was highly motivated to give MAF training a good shot, grasping for any sign of improvement, the slow pace meant my legs barely got out of first gear and I was repeatedly trashing the same muscles day after day. Running so many miles left them feeling hollow and lacking spring, and the lack of variety just made it unenjoyable. The only redeeming factor was that this all took place in the warm of the summer months. I’m doubtful I could have stuck with it through a cold, windy, rainy winter.

The one bright spot was the 19:52 parkrun at Poole and that was it. I believe you need more intrinsic feedback and enjoyment when you’re training hard to stay motivated through the tough times. If, for some reason, you aren’t getting that feedback then this is where having a good coach helps out. They will reassure you that you’re on track to achieve what you’re aiming for. They find ways to say “Don’t worry, it’s going to work out”, to point out any successes you haven’t noticed, or explain why the slump you’re experiencing is normal. In this respect, my years of coaching enabled me to self-coach and keep giving positive messages and reinforcement.

Knowing how my running improved in the years after, I realise I’d never use MAF training again. Its monotony and the age-related MAF-HR meant it didn’t work for me.  Becoming a slave to the beep of a watch and heart-rate monitor sucked the enthusiasm out of me.

I know, as I can show to anyone I coach, there are better ways to train. Endurance miles are an important part of the equation but not the only one. It’s possible to mix up bouts of fast and slow running in ways that allow you to get the best out of yourself and see intermediate improvement while the training comes together.

In part 3, I’ll talk further about what I believe the pros and cons of the MAF training system are. When it can work, what you can learn from it and what the issues are.

Short sprint – Sleep

I noticed in recent years I was beginning to sleep less. There were some nights where I found myself waking at 3-4am and having to use the toilet. Occasionally I’d be awake for an hour or two only dropping back off at 5am. Shortened sleep is something older people often find happening and apparently comes with ageing. At least that’s the received wisdom but since I recommenced training hard with more sprints and workouts, yet doing no more mileage, I’ve started sleeping very deeply again.

Growing up I was always a deep sleeper. Some of that was because I wanted to stay up late as a teenager; I was often up until gone midnight, then struggling to get out of bed the next morning. Waking me up for school was a nightmare for my parents and I would often go in still half asleep. When I began working, I still stayed up late and slept deeply but always got up to be on time for work. I’d make up for lack of sleep at the weekends, often sleeping in until almost midday, sometimes a nap in the evenings.

For a short period I kept a sleep diary. Or rather compiled a list of how much sleep I got. There’s probably an app you can get to do this automatically on your phone now. But, back in the late 1990s, I was bored in my job so one small way I passed the time was to log an estimate of how much sleep I’d got the previous night.

What fascinated me was that after collecting three months’ data (yes I really was bored enough to do it for three months) my average sleep for the first month came in at 7hr45, the second month it was 7hr50 and the third it was 7hr40. My body knew what it needed and that was just under eight hours sleep each night. In the week I was working 8-6; so long sleep-ins at the weekend were the adjustment to get me back on track.

It’s apparent to me that the body is doing a lot of rebuilding and healing work between training sessions. I was all-out when I played sport in my twenties. I pushed every session to the limit to the point where it would actually leave me very moody and antisocial and on the verge of depression. The body’s chemistry is in fine balance and sleep is one of the ways it resets itself. The long hours of sleep were a necessity rather than a luxury.

I remained a deep sleeper until a few years ago. I reckon I started sleeping lighter when I figured out how to train aerobically. Even now, despite sleeping deeply because of the 800m training, when I run back-to-back recovery days on Friday and Saturday, I need less sleep on the second night. Somewhere within this is a lesson about the interaction of hard training, speed, miles and sleep. It seems logical to me that if you’re not sleeping deeply the body hasn’t got much to repair in which case you’re not training to get faster.

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:

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.

It’s all about hard work?

I grew up believing in hard work. I was doing a Sunday paper round from age 11, a morning one at 13, I had a part-time job at Broadstone Sports Centre at 15 and my mum told me that if I ran out of work, I should always ask for more! After the Sports Centre I did a year at Tesco on Fruit & Veg, where I believe Brian and Dave, the managers, considered me hardworking enough to entrust one side of an aisle to me while three did the other.

When it came to playing sport, I brought the same workhorse mentality and desire to do everything I could. That stood me in good stead when I played a solo sport like squash where I’d run myself into the ground, but it could be less positive playing team sports where you have to have the discipline to sometimes do nothing more than allow your teammates to do their job.

Nonetheless when playing I would squeeze every ounce of effort out of my body. Running on and off-court to get lost balls, chasing after opponents who’d broken away for one-on-one opportunities in football, diving after every volleyball that came in my direction, man-marking opponents and jumping to block every basketball shot. Playing volleyball I picked up an array of minor injuries which included jumping into the post while trying to hit an errant set, running full speed into a crash barrier at an outdoor summer tournament trying to reach a ball that had caromed ten yards off-court, and repeatedly diving on sports hall floors to which my hip still bears the scar of testimony. Whenever I trained or played, I would always walk off court dripping with sweat. My effort was as good as you could ask for, even if my performance wasn’t what I hoped for.

When I became a runner, I brought this wholehearted approach with me. I charged off down the road at full speed from the beginning of runs. If I reached a hill it was maximum effort up it. I wanted to get faster and ended up gasping for breath for however long I was running. The only exception was on long runs when, knowing I would be out for two or three hours, I tried to ration my effort. But at the end of it all my legs would still be tired and lacking energy. This approached lasted with me until 2011 when I started learning how to train. Even since, as I learned about the benefits of high mileage, I’ve been willing to put in sixty mile weeks despite relatively mediocre race performances.

What I now realise is that, for me, all that hard work was a mistake.

Having read the biographies of Ron Hill, Derek Clayton and Steve Jones, it’s easy to conclude miles make champions. The overriding message that comes from each of them is how hard they trained. Ex-marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe is another who talks about training hard.

Steve Jones was the world record holder in both the marathon (2:08:05 – Chicago 1984) and half marathon (1:01:14 – Birmingham 1985). He was the pre-eminent marathoner of the mid-1980s with two wins in Chicago, one at London, another at New York. He talks about how he never wore a watch or heart-rate monitor, how he didn’t think about his diet but focuses on putting in hard work to be able to run hard from start to finish.

Derek Clayton ran 150 miles per week on his way to becoming the world record holder for the marathon during the 1970s. Ron Hill ran as much as 130 mpw when he was running world class times similar to Derek. Paula Radcliffe’s success and notoriety came when she moved up to the marathon distance and set incredible world records that lasted for over a decade. Like Steve Jones, Paula liked to race from the front and go as hard as her body would allow.

Each of them credit their running success to hard work.

But I believe there’s a catch to this. The marathon is at one extreme event of the running spectrum. If you’re interested in running the longest distance in the fastest time then working hard to convert all your muscle fibres to become more efficient at fat burning and aerobic metabolism is a good way forward. Forcing yourself through long, hard training runs to handle the pain of running for over two hours, while feeling depleted, is going to make a difference.

For all their talk of success through hard work, none of these world class marathoners was as successful at shorter distances. Steve Jones was a 5,000m – 10,000m specialist before he took up the marathon. His results in the 10,000m major championships are less prolific. No world record, 12th place at 1983 Helsinki World Championships, 8th place in 1984’s Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Paula’s track career resulted in a single 10,000m silver medal at the Seville World Championships in 1999. Ron Hill placed 18th and 7th in the 10,000m at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Derek Clayton never tried shorter distances once he realised the marathon was where his talent lay.

I’m trying to highlight that while these runners tell you how hard they worked to achieve their notable successes, what goes unsaid is how all that hard work wasn’t any use in shorter distance races and it’s a lesson I believe we can all learn from.

A key part of training is to figure out where your own strengths and weakness lie with regards to your physiology. It’s something a coach should be doing as they get to know your running. Some people are built for speed, others built for endurance. The more you’re built for speed, the fewer miles you need to run in training whatever the event. This was the lesson I never understood until recently. Even two years ago, I was running sixty miles per week to achieve the same 21-22 minute parkruns I was running ten years ago on only ten miles per week. Yet ten years ago when I upped my mileage from ten to thirty I began to run faster times so there’s a paradoxical element to it. Mileage helps when it’s well-aimed.

Finding the sweet spot between speed and mileage is the key to running success. If you’re a complete beginner, it is obvious you only need to do a small amount of exercise to start getting fitter and faster – one mile per day might be enough. If you’re competing at the Olympics, it takes many miles of training each week simply to maintain your fitness before you squeeze out more. You have to find the sweet spot that is right for your level.

Short sprint – “Run as fast as I can”

Recently the BBC ran an article on Emer McKee, who’s set a 5,000m world record for a twelve year old with a time of 16min40. She’s quoted as saying “Normally I’m just running as fast as I can and just waiting for it to be over,” which is pretty much how any all-out 5K or parkrun should feel.

Emer McKee – world record holder in the 5000m for 12-year-olds

Emer started at parkrun when she was nine and joined a local running club, Willowfield in East Belfast, and has been improving ever since, competing in a range of events from 60 metres up to parkrun but also including long jump and cross-country.

Three points I want to highlight from her story:

  1. As a member of a running club, she is getting decent structured coaching and sessions that enable her to make progress. Although the headline from the article implies she “runs as fast as she can” this refers to her races. It doesn’t necessarily apply to her training. Just going out and running the fastest you can every day in training will bring short term results but eventually you’ll see the gains stop.
  2. It’s taken her three years to reach this stage. She began running parkrun in 2017 and quickly made good progress twenty-nine minutes down to twenty-one by year end. Since then it has taken three years of training to build on that and get down to a sub-17 time.
  3. Being part of a club limits the amount of racing she does and gives time for training to develop. While she’s a regular parkrunner, unlike typical adult runners, the rest of her year is not spent entering 10Ks, half marathons and marathons. The club events she does are all completed within twenty minutes (usually significantly less) and therefore don’t require much recovery. By contrast, adults regularly enter distance races that require more recovery and therefore cut into their ability to train to improve.

The great thing about being twelve years old is she’s got her whole running career ahead of her. She turns up to her club and the coach has already decided what the session is and how it will help her (along with her clubmates) to improve. For the most part, her running priorities are defined by the club’s season.

The coaching of juniors is usually very good because the focus is on developing them, through a structured approach to training, for when they are adults. This approach is one I try to replicate for adults attending my Big Red Running sessions. Sessions build on previous weeks to enable progress in the long-term. If you would like to come to my session then please do. Check the homepage for details and if you have any questions by all means contact me for further info.