Featured

MAF Training review – Part 6 When You Need MAF

My previous articles about the MAF Method discourage using the age-related formula for low heartrate training. But in this post I’m taking a more positive angle because there’s a reason people went to Phil Maffetone and he was able to help them. So while, I’m not a fan of the age-related formula, I am a fan of building good endurance which relates to what Maffetone refers to as MAF – Maximum Aerobic Function. While I’m not going to advocate using his formula, I am going to detail and explain the circumstances where a block of endurance training could be useful.

A parkrunner I know is a very capable runner yet, in a decade of running, his progress has been very limited. In fact, he’s barely knocked a minute off his parkrun time. When we first met he’d been running again for perhaps six months. He’d been a talented youngster, quit and now returned to running as he approached forty. It hadn’t taken much training to achieve a twenty minute parkrun yet in all the running since he has barely scraped under nineteen minutes. Despite training five days per week, six at one stage, he really hasn’t made much progress.

His years of running have been blighted by Achilles’ problems. Whenever he starts to train harder with speedwork his Achilles becomes sore and limits his running. He then backs off the pace until long after the Achilles has healed, only to restart the speedwork and go through the same issues. Until recently he was able to run a 19:30 parkrun at full effort but over the last year he’s developed a hamstring injury and is struggling to break twenty minutes. On the tougher local courses, he can’t even break twenty-one minutes!

If he could go to Phil Maffetone, I’m sure MAF would get him back to health and restructure his training to help him improve. I’d still argue against using the age-related MAF formula because he’s over fifty and training at 125 (further five beat reduction for recent injury) isn’t going to produce decent longterm results. Yet, as you’ll see in the next section, he’s clearly not getting the aerobic development Maffetone would encourage and is running around almost every day of the week at heart-rates which are too high.

A typical week’s training when you need MAF

He typically runs five days per week – three midweek, a parkrun on Saturday which is always a faster effort, a Sunday run which is his longest of the week while the Wednesday run tends to be slightly shorter. He gives himself two rest days which, being on Monday and Friday, space the week’s training out nicely. All in it’s not a bad training structure to follow. Here’s the heart-rate graphs from those five days of training.

I’ve put a yellow line to indicate where a heart-rate of 150 occurs and you can see that on every run he is reaching and surpassing it for a decent portion of the time. In fact, at parkrun the heart-rate reaches 170+ and most days he’ll be hitting the 160s at some stage of the running. He’s not just exceeding 150bpm but exceeding it significantly on almost every run.

I consider the overall amount of time spent running each week to be an issue. Totalling about 25 miles per week in 3hr 20mins it’s not enough for a distance runner. Of course everybody leads different lives and has different priorities so I can’t be too critical. Yet at less than an hour the Sunday run isn’t long enough and it should surely be possible to find more time for it. If he was an 800m runner, an hour might be long enough but he isn’t; he describes himself as a 5K / 10K runner. Apart from a couple of ten mile races and a half marathon; 10Ks have been the furthest distance raced in all these years. This overall lack of training volume is part of the problem.

The average pace for the week is 7:45/mile and the Wednesday run is the slowest at 8:11/mile. Given a parkrun time that is just breaking twenty minutes, Jack Daniels’ VDOT tables suggest Easy runs should be somewhere around 8:30/mile pace. So again, alongside the evidence of the high daily heart-rates, we’re getting an indication that there isn’t enough genuinely easy running taking place.

There’s two more problems these stats don’t reveal. On each of the training runs he stops to cross roads which give him one to three minutes recovery on any run. There’s over nine minutes of stops built into these runs. It may seem picky but anyone who has done distance training knows a break is refreshing. If you’re running anaerobically those breaks allow you to recharge the batteries and keep pushing (too) hard. Now you may argue it’s impossible not to stop but, with good timing and route choices it can be avoided. I often go weeks without needing to stop on any of my runs simply by running on roads with low levels of traffic, early in the morning and being flexible about when and where I cross roads. I will happily run an extra fifty paces up a road to let traffic die down before crossing it. But obviously do the safe thing.

The other unseen problem in these graphs is there’s some decent hills on the routes. He’s trying to maintain the same pace up and down them but that pushes the effort up which explain some of the higher heart-rates.

Graphing all those runs differently we can see the time spent in a MAF-HR zone of 130 or less; a middle zone of 131-150 which is usually safe for older runners to train at and a 150+ zone where the training effect is large but also takes time to recover from.

It’s clear he’s running hard five days per week with heart-rates hitting the 150+ mark. You would think the two rest days would be enough but they aren’t. What’s actually happening is the muscles are being trained anaerobically. The days after the rest days (Tuesday and Saturday) are faster runs because the muscles are refreshed but all that allows is for him to go out hard and reinforce the anaerobic training. There is no aerobic development. One of the benefits of day-in, day-out training is it leaves the legs somewhat fatigued to the point where they have to go slower and that helps the aerobic development.

The main consequences of this approach are that he’s getting injured and not improving.

What good training looks like

Injuries were the sort of thing Maffetone was happy to dive in and sort out. As I have stated repeatedly, I’m not a believer in the age-related formula but I am a believer in what Maffetone was trying to get his clients to do which is stay healthy and get faster by building an aerobic base through good endurance training.

My own training during this period saw me run nearly double the training our Needs MAF runner was managing. I was just shy of fifty miles taking 6hr 24mins yet we had the same average pace for the week at 7:45/mile. Despite all this extra mileage I’d been training every day for almost three years without illness or serious injury. While I picked up a couple of glute strains along the way (which came from trying too hard in speedwork) neither lasted more than a week and I was still able to run. While our parkrun times are similar, my base endurance is improving and I am positioning myself to go faster in the longterm.

You can see I run every day but only push harder on two days (Tuesday and Friday). There’s a few little glitches on my heart-rate monitor particularly Wednesday which highlights the problem of accuracy with heart-rate training but otherwise I’m comfortably well below 150HR on my recovery days. My Sunday long run sometimes scrapes into the red but the training effect I’m interested is in building endurance on those runs. Even a good ninety minute run is still only a hard, aerobic effort. Where the Needs MAF runner has to take two rest days every week, I’m getting out there and running on them too.

Another intriguing detail of our training weeks is that we accumulate the same amount of 150+ ‘red zone’ training time but my extra running accumulates time and fitness in the supporting zones while allowing the body to recover from the harder sessions. If I tried to run hard every day like he does, I’m sure I would be getting injured too.

We’re both fifty years old and Maffetone would like us to be doing all our training to a heart-rate of 130 or below. I don’t believe in that but I do total over an hour of my weekly running at this level and it’s usually in the first couple of miles of the runs while my body warms up. This is important – I’m listening to my body to get an indication of how it feels and whether I can push hard. Maffetone talks about doing warm-ups in his book but the people who think he’s only about low heart-rate training miss this.

On days following a harder effort I find my legs don’t want to do too much and it is a struggle to get the heart-rate up. My legs can be glycogen-depleted so I just jog along to aid recovery. If I tried, I could probably push to higher levels especially if I’d had a day off but I don’t try to push it every day and that was Maffetone’s message.

80-20 training

Much of Maffetone’s work occurred in the 80s and 90s when heart-rate monitors were still new. The science of exercise physiology has progressed a lot in recent years. What we now know, due to the work of Stephen Seiler, is that elite athletes tend to split their training into 80% below lactate threshold and 20% above it.

Throughout this post I’ve referenced a HR of 150bpm. Be careful – 150HR is not THE definitive value to use; it’s the data that was available to me. That the Needs MAF runner trains somewhere around this level most days shows it is probably somewhere around his own.

One hundred and fifty is close to where my lactate threshold heart-rate usually lies and I calculate I have a 76-24% split above and below it. That’s within the bounds of 80-20 training. On the other hand, the Needs MAF runner’s training split comes in at 54-46%. It begins to explain why he’s failing to make progress and getting injured when he starts to do even more intense work!

Arguably it may be wrong to use 150HR to split his training but it’s clear he’s training too hard every day because his body is letting him know through injuries and lack of progress. You can also see when he runs 30secs/mile slower on Wednesdays, he has lower heart-rate so it would be easy for him to include more genuinely easy-paced runs. Doing that, as Maffetone outlined is the key to staying healthy and injury-free.

Although I’ve been explaining all this using data you don’t need a heart-rate monitor to know whether your training is going well. Just a bit of common sense and listening to your body will tell you. When it creaks and groans it’s time to back off.


My six posts on MAF training are among the most detailed and honest articles about it on the internet and well worth reading. I’m trying to help runners get past the idea that training to a single number on a heart-rate monitor is the answer to all their problems. Good training involves scheduling the right mix of sessions at the right times. A block of endurance training like Maf suggests is just one part of what you need. My years of training and coaching allow me to know what to do and when to do it to help runners get fitter, faster and healthier. If you too would like me to help you then please contact me with details of your running and how you think I can help you.

MAF, Hof and Cerutty

Percy Cerutty is one of the forgotten coaches of the 20th century. His most notable protégé was Herb Elliott who won the 1,500m gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics and knocked six seconds off the world record for a mile, that’s pretty good to have on your resume. Cerutty’s methods were consider eccentric and bizarre yet I found some commonality between what he coached and the work of Wim Hof and Phil Maffetone. It’s useful to understand their common ground as, while Hof and Maf aren’t specifically coaching runners, the underlying principle is important to all distance runners and building health. Let’s begin by recapping Maf and Hof!

Phil Maffetone

I’ve discussed Maffetone’s work at length previously. While he wasn’t a running coach, his work as a chiropractor helped many long distance athletes improve their times. His main concept is to build the aerobic system so exercise becomes fuelled by burning fat. Athletes do this by training to a heart-rate calculated using their age, muscle-testing for weakness and changing the diet to eat fewer processed foods, grains, dairy products and animal fats while eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

Coming up with a definition of health is an interesting conundrum, because when you when try, it ends up being defined by a negative. The negative being the absence of illness, injury or any other way the body may be malfunctioning. Just saying health is the perfect functioning of the body doesn’t say much.

Maffetone’s method is about eliminating or reducing, to an allowable level, those things which cause ill-health. When many athletes train they often do so with too much intensity which causes the parasympathetic nervous system to rev up, create adrenaline and generally cause the body to become unhealthy due to the waste products caused by anaerobic metabolism. Maf focuses them on improving the aerobic system to delay the anaerobic system from kicking in and lower its overall use.

While he never specifically coached athletes, he helped them get healthy by improving their aerobic base. His best known success is Mark Allen, who went from runner-up in multiple Hawaii Ironman races to being a five-time winner.

Wim Hof

I recently read and wrote about Hof’s book “The Wim Hof Method” and the three core tenets of his system. Improving the aerobic system by taking cold showers, breathing deeply and mentally focusing to achieve goals. Like any good system of improvement, his method starts off with small challenges and gradually increases so you can contend with more.

Hof is not a running coach either and while he has run a marathon barefoot up Mount Everest and swum 200m under sea ice; I consider his most impressive achievement to be the story of how researchers injected him with E-coli virus. In 16,000+ previous trials participants always developed mild flu-like symptoms from the injection – yet Hof didn’t. A subsequent experiment then saw him train twelve people in his method who also remained healthy despite the E-coli injection. The scientists were amazed yet it seemed natural to Hof.

Like Maffetone, Wim Hof explains the benefits of his method as coming from building the aerobic system up. He talks about how an improved aerobic system keeps the body functioning in its naturally alkaline state whereas anaerobic metabolism pushes it into an acidic state. He explains how deep breathing suppresses inflammation and cleans out waste products in the lymphatic system.

While their descriptions of the specifics may differ, the underlying principle is the same of improving the aerobic system to maintain health and create a strong immune system.

Percy Cerutty

So that’s an outline of Phil Maffetone and Wim Hof’s methods and rationales towards keeping your body healthy. Now we look at Percy Cerutty and how through his own experiences he discovered similar principles and put them into action to turn Herb Elliott into the world record holder for the mile and 1,500m as well as remaining undefeated in thirty-six mile races.

Herb Elliot and Percy Cerutty running barefoot strides

In Beyond Winning, Gary M. Walton writes “Born in 1895, Cerutty grew up in a working-class suburb of Melbourne. He was a weak, sickly, and underprivileged child. When he was six years old, he contracted a case of double pneumonia that caused partial paralysis of his left lung. For years, heavy exercise and especially running caused sever discomfort. He suffered from chronic migraine headaches and was usually sick after races. [Cerutty entered mile races, winning ten – one in 4:32] When he quit running in his early twenties, his health continued to slide. By the time he was 43, he had suffered from a nervous and physical breakdown requiring a six-month leave from his job as a telephone technician.”

This is a man who was clearly struggling with his health but during his six-months off, Cerutty decided to challenge his mind and body. It was do-or-die. He rebuilt his confidence by building up to diving off the high tower at St Kilda Baths, took up weightlifting, hiking and swam in the icy Yarra River near his home. He was beginning to develop his back-to-basics, no comfort Stotan philosophy – a mixture of Spartanism and Stoicism.

He created a weekend training camp at Portsea where runners would come to live in bunkhouses, run up sand dunes and eat raw foods. Walton states breakfast was “rolled oats, nuts, dried fruits, bananas, raw cabbage, brown bread and cheese”. But it wasn’t just about physical exercise, in the evenings they would talk and read books of philosophy and poetry, a purification of the mind.

A typical day at the camp:

  • 7am – 5 mile run before breakfast wherever they wanted to go
  • 8am – breakfast (as detailed above)
  • 9am – swimming, surfing or outdoor chores like chopping wooding, painting, carpentry
  • Noon – training and lectures followed by another swim
  • 2pm – lunch – fish and fresh fruit
  • 3pm – siesta
  • 4pm – weight training (a new concept in the 1950s)
  • 5pm – 10 mile run along dirt roads ending at the sea
  • 7pm – tea and general discussion on a variety of topics led by Percy
  • 11pm – lights out

One of the features of the Portsea half-acre training camp was a 60⁰ sand dune rising 80ft which the record to run up was 11 seconds and which Elliott had run up and down forty-two times on a another occasion. There was the Hall Circuit – 1mile 285yds – which Elliot had covered in 5min21 – as well as a ¼ mile Stewart Circuit which ended up a steep hill. Training wasn’t solely around the camp but also took in the local dirt roads, parks and golf course.

While Cerutty trained Elliot and other runners to world records, his aim was not specifically to win titles or run times. It was about getting the absolute maximum out of oneself. His Stotan creed was about removing the crutches and supports that people of the era were beginning to let creep into their lives. When he toured America, Cerutty was appalled at how Americans were flabby, drinking and smoking too much. While this may have been judgemental and critical we should remember he believed in what he preached and went from constant ill health in his younger years to being able to run a sub-3 marathon at age 50 which set the Victoria state record at a time when the world record was 2hr26.

All information on Cerutty taken from Walton’s “Beyond Winning” published in 1992.


It’s clear there is a similarity between Wim Hof Method and Cerutty’s training camp using nature to harden the mind and body. Swimming in cold water is used by both as a way to strengthen the will; but Cerutty probably never realised, unlike Hof, that it is strengthening the aerobic system as well. Even so, running on sand, up and down dunes would have had Cerutty’s runners breathing deeply just as Hof recommends. The overlap between their methods seems notable.

While there is less immediate commonality between Cerutty and Maffetone, both recommend a careful diet which involves natural foods and avoids processed ones. Cerutty’s diet though tended to be more carbohydrate-based whereas Maffetone’s doesn’t. But Cerutty was training runners like Herb Elliott for middle distance events where carbohydrates are the primary source of energy whereas the Ironman triathlons Mark Allen took part in need fat to be a key fuel source.

What Cerutty was discovering in his training camps was how to build the aerobic system through a combination of daily distance running at a time when these things were rarely understood. The daily regimen of running for half an hour in the morning, another hour in the evening as well as cross-training with sea swims or surfing would certainly have left athletes tired but improving their aerobic system. The overlap with Wim Hof’s Method is clear and Hof’s method has clear overlap with Phil Maffetone.

All distance runners will improve their times and capabilities by building their aerobic capacity and endurance. While the Stotan approach of Percy Cerutty is no longer necessary, it is easily achieved with a committed approach to modern training methods. If you’d like to me to help you become a healthier, better runner – please contact me to discuss online coaching, training reviews and plans.

Wim Hof – The Iceman

Wim Hof has gained increasing amounts of attention in recent years for his remarkable feats of endurance which include running a marathon barefoot on Mount Everest, standing packed in ice on the streets of New York in January and swimming 200ft in freezing waters beneath ice. He claims his method can help you sleep better, improve your cognitive and athletic performance, boost your mood, lose weight and alleviate your anxiety simply through some breathing exercises, exposure to the cold and power of the mind.

While his method isn’t going to make you a better runner, I took a look at his book (“The Wim Hof Method”) to see how it might resonate with my own experiences of health. The little I already knew was about that it helped avoid illness and I’ve rarely been ill, perhaps ten working days missed in my life, even then, I could still function. I’ve had an iron constitution over the years and attribute it to keeping physically fit and the power of my mind, just as Wim Hof does.

Although his claims may sound a little far-fetched, his book details on pages 65-68 how researchers injected him with E. coli bacteria which had given flu-like symptoms to all previous subjects. Yet, unlike those 16,000+ people, Wim had none – he remained perfectly healthy. Then afterwards, using his method, he was able to train a group of 12 new subjects in four days and they subsequently experienced no issues with the E. coli injection.

I’ve generally avoided looking into Wim’s method until now. I’m not sure why other than I thought I would get angry or frustrated because his method would be a distortion of what I already know. That it might be a complicated way of achieving what I do simply by going for a run. But reading his book, I’ve found myself nodding along and seeing the overlap between his method and everything I’ve learned about health and incorporated in to my running.


The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is based on three things:

  • Deep breathing. This brings oxygen into your system, removing carbon-dioxide thereby lowering stress, anxiety and inflammation.
  • Exposure to the cold. You turn your shower onto cold after your usual warm wash and then progressively increase how long you endure it, until you are able to bear doing this for two minutes. It shocks the body to improve your vascular system to be able to handle heat or cold quickly as well as getting the blood better at transporting energy and removing waste products.
  • Concentrating the mind on what you want to achieve until your body is aligned and ready to do it.

Deep Breathing

My thoughts on the deep breathing exercises which involve take deliberately inhaling and exhaling to fill the lungs for twenty minutes at the start of the day are limited. It’s very much something that people who meditate do. When I’ve tried meditation and counted my breaths as a guide, I find the speed of breathing slows down which seems to  be due to the body becoming more relaxed and perhaps a little more efficient at using the oxygen it has.

Typically I’m a deep breather anyway as I learned how to breathe with my diaphragm after reading John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Spirit” book. For a while I did yoga which focused on holding or moving through positions in time with the breath. Sun Salutes are a good example of this.

Typically, while sat at rest, I complete a breath cycle – breathing in, exhaling – in about five seconds (about twelve per minute). The moment I begin to focus on how I breathe and keeping it slower and deeper, it expands to take eight to ten seconds (six or seven per minute). What I tend to find is that the gap between exhaling and the next in breath involves a pause lasting a few seconds. Although I’m not a regular meditator there have been times when I’ve tried and, by the end of a forty-five minute session I’ve found I might be taking up to twenty-five seconds for a single breath cycle! It’s never forced just a consequence of everything slowing down.

I’ve never particularly felt there were any great benefits from breathing, only that it must be preferential to quick, shallow breathing. WIm Hof says that deep breathing will help you alkalize the body (p. 38). It’s quite possible I didn’t realise the benefits I was getting by already doing the right thing.

Cold Showers

The daily cold showers are the aspect of WHM that everyone’s heard about. The idea behind them is to improve the vascular system. By stimulating the skin from a warm environment to a cold one, the body has to react and start pumping blood to these areas to help heat them up again. Wim says this can be achieved within ten days and when I think about the opposite process – acclimatising to a hot environment – the science says this takes two weeks, it’s a similar timeframe.

WHM believes it is this improvement of the vascular system and its ability to work more aerobically that provides more health benefits. There is a crossover here with Phil Maffetone and his work on Maximum Aerobic Function and ensuring the body burns fats rather than sugars anaerobically while training. Too much anaerobic work causes the parasympathetic to rev up, create adrenaline and generally causes the body to become unhealthy due to the waste products caused by anaerobic metabolism. I am in agreement with both Wim Hof and Phil Maffetone about the benefits of building a stronger aerobic system for good health. I’m going to explore their similarities in a future post.

It occurs to me that one of the benefits of Hof’s cold showers is you stimulate the body’s largest organ – the skin. Every inch of the skin has to improve its vascularisation to be able to learn to withstand the cold. When I compare this to running, the majority of the aerobic benefits are found in the legs because that is where the running muscles are located. The best track and road runners in the world have been measured to have a maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) of around 85ml/kg/min yet higher values have been achieved.  Ultrarunner Kilian Jornet who specialises on mountain trails is measured at 92. The highest VO2max ever recorded is 96.7 by cyclist Oskar Svendsen closely followed by Nordic skier Bjørn Dæhlie at 96. Here we get some insight into why they have higher values – because they are using more muscle. They develop their upper bodies as well as their lower bodies. So, if you challenge the whole body with cold, you are improving your aerobic system significantly. It’s a workout for your body which doesn’t quite seem like exercising. Yet there are strong similarities – anyone taking up an exercise programme knows it hurts in the beginning; likewise the first days of standing in a cold shower is not pleasant.

Of course taking cold showers to improve your aerobic system isn’t going to turn you into a champion runner but Wim is not trying to teach you to become one, only to improve your health.

Using the Will

The final pillar of WHM is using the mind. When you do the cold showers, it is not a case of instantly feeling warm and the experience being comfortable. Every time you set the shower to cold and the water comes out there is a short period where the cold gives you discomfort. It becomes bearable as the body responds but you still sense the cold is there, but you don’t necessarily feel it as uncomfortable.

Another of Wim’s exercises is Horse Stance (p.118) where you standing feet wide and squatting down. There comes a point where the body begins to tell you to stop. You have a choice, quit or go through it. This is the essence, of using the mind; it may tell you it wants to stop but you can keep going. As I’ve experimented with this, I’ve found I could go for a minute or longer from the time when it began to get difficult.

The power of the mind to achieve more has interested me throughout my life. When I played sports almost daily in my twenties, my mind drove me to overcome pain and keep playing and training hard. I was fascinated by the idea that sport psychology might enable me to go further, reading all manner of books. What I didn’t realise is sport psychology books are generally written for the people who give up at the first hint of difficulty. I was already pushing my limits and there was no sports psychology that would enable me to go further.

Sports psychology and motivation have become big areas of research over the past twenty years. It’s one of the areas left to look at with runners with Tim Noakes’ Central Governor and Samuel Marcora’s Psychobiological Model trying to explain what causes runners to slow down.

Wim Hof – guru?

Hof says he is not a guru and yet because of his life story and approach it is easy to mistake him for one. In the first chapter he tells how doctors never realised his mother was pregnant with twins and so, once his brother had been delivered they were dismissive of her belief there was another baby. But having already delivered four older babies she knew what she was experiencing postbirth wasn’t normal. Even though Wim was in deep, she pushed through the fear to push him out. Wim was born in a cold hallway, purple because of near suffocation. Then he took his first breath and it’s hard not to see the parallels between all this and his work on breathing, the cold and overcoming fear as almost a missionary would. In fact just prior to his birth she yelled “Oh God, let this child live! I will make him a missionary!” (p.2)

So although Wim says he is not a guru, quotes like “Love will restore the beauty of life to your consciousness, and then you reflect it.” (p.103) or “I’m here because of the light. It has guided me on a mission to reveal the true nature of humanity, which is love. It’s time to wake up to that love.” (p.148) do nothing to dispel this idea.

WHM for performance

Chapter 8 is about using the WHM for performance and starts to explain how the training will give you more energy, reduce recovery time and therefore athletic performance. I know if this book had been available when I was in my twenties, I’d have been following it to the letter. That’s because I read John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” which promised to make your exercise “jet-fuelled” and help you get in the zone. Where Hof has deep breathing as a key pillar of his method, Douillard uses diaphragmatic breathing to the same effect, breathing through the nose to fill the lungs to their maximum and a deliberate expulsion of air to empty them. Where Douillard learned this from yoga and Ayruvedic medicine, Hof discovered it for himself perhaps through similar routes as he was something of a hippy. Both methods ultimately taking you to the same place of having an improved aerobic system to support a healthy body.

For performance, Hof has athletes sit and do 3-4 rounds of power breathing (sixty inhalations/exhalations each round) before going for a long distance run or cycle. Douillard take the approach of making the warm-up active using yoga Sun Salutes and then starting exercising very slowly, listening to the body and only increasing pace when it is comfortable to do so. Personally, I follow Douillard’s approach of starting slowly but don’t bother with Sun Salutes or nose-breathing.

By Hof’s own admission he isn’t a genetic freak or special, he is simply listening to his body to get the best out of it, the same as Douillard suggested in the 1990s. There is nothing new in either method, it’s simply that most runners or athletes don’t appreciate the benefit of a controlled warm-up. When you come down to it, the idea of building the aerobic base was popularised by New Zealand’s great coach Arthur Lydiard and led to the jogging boom when he explained it to Bill Bowerman.

Caution

The danger of books like this is they talk in generalised terms that depend on where you’re coming from. For the average couch potato, the promises are great. When I read Douillard’s book it seemed to promise that I could become a great athlete or runner, partly from how he talked but also the cherry-picked examples he used. At times, within the WHM for Performance chapter I began to get a similar feeling but, of course, I’m better able to contextualise and more self-aware than I was and Hof explicitly states “This isn’t to suggest you will become Lionel Messi or LeBron James, but you will see a marked improvement in your endurance” on page 155 to dismiss any delusions of grandeur.

When I look back at the Douillard book and how physically fit I was in my early twenties, it would for the most part have been difficult to make many gains solely based on aerobic fitness. Wim states you’ll see your resting pulse drop by 30 beats after a few weeks as you remove the stresses and anxiety in your body. I hope that’s not the case because my heart-rate has been measured as low as 28 !! But, this is my point, I’m already a fit, healthy person through running so I can’t expect to see much change. The average couch potato often has a resting pulse of 70-80 if not higher and if they follow the method perhaps it can lower it.

The other area where I struggled with WHM is that he likes the idea of science. His book talks about “aerobic dissimilation”, “vascular system”, “interoception”.  He thinks it’s very important to get the backing of science for his ideas because modern people are inclined to trust science. This is not a bad strategy as, prior to research, people saw him as a genetic freak or simply disbelieved his claims. But I’m also aware science only ‘believes’ what it can measure. While this seems sensible, in running the science focuses on the three variable of VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy yet in truth you cannot successfully train to be your best simply by focusing on these three measurables. There are so many things science cannot prove because limitations of the method make it impossible so we’re left measuring what can be easily measured which can easily miss the nuanced stuff that matters.

“Breathe mother****ers”

“People come up to me with questions like, “Should I breathe through the nose?” or “The diaphragm this or that,” and I just say “Yeah, breathe mother****ers! Don’t think, just do it!” (p.45)

This quote resonated with me because every new runner feels they need a plan or guidance or the right kit before they can run. I’ve never understood it. You want to run? Just lace up your trainers and go round the block. If you can do one lap, go a little further the next day. If you feel tired, maybe leave it and go out the next day. That’s how I got started – a simple 15-min run to the bottom of the road and back as fast as I could, breathing hard from start to end.

There was no end goal of “running a 5K” or a marathon, it was just train to get fit and it seems to me this is the case with WHM. There is no measure of fitness or goal to his method. He’s not setting you a target of being able to sit in ice for an hour or get your pulse down to 35; it’s not goal-oriented, it’s health-oriented. It’s done at your own pace with a commitment to twenty minutes of deep breathing and a couple of minutes of cold showering each day.

I believe, especially in the modern world, there’s a lot to be said from doing things as part of a routine rather than to achieve a goal.


Having picked up a copy of “The Wim Hof Method” because I needed an extra item to get free delivery from Amazon, I was actually quite pleased to have read it. Like the Maffetone method, I think WHM is open to bastardisation. People cherry pick the headline bits and don’t dig further. Or don’t commit to it longterm. I spoke to one running friend who said he tried the cold showers for a few weeks but didn’t feel it did anything for him and gave up. I suspect it’s the case that because he’s already fit and has a good aerobic system, it’s unlikely to help him.

I appreciate the candidness and straightforward approach of Wim Hof, his book is less about marketing and selling a method for profit than about helping everybody become healthier.

In the next post I’m going to tell you about what happened when I tried two of Hof’s experiments over the past month.

MAF Training review – Part 5 Why MAF why?

This post is the 5th in a series of six. Other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab.

My previous posts on MAF training are among the most popular I’ve written. Recently I’ve been wondering WHY people keep raving about this method before going quiet on it. It seems like every three or four months there’s someone on Strava or Youtube giving it a go. That I get so many people reading my posts about it is an indication they’re researching it.

Although my experience of Maffetone training was relatively recent, my first experience of low heart-rate training dates back to 1995 using the method in John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” book. I trained to a heart-rate max of 130bpm for a few months and got nowhere. I came back to it on at least three more occasions in the next decade and a half, still no success. I’ve been trying to remember back to when I first picked up Douillard’s book and what enticed me to give his method a try. While he’s not MAF, the premise is the same – build an aerobic base to get faster using low heart-rate training.

1) Grand promises

When I first read the Douillard book I was seduced by the grand promises it made. The story of Warren Wechsler, a 38-year-old guy who easily ran a 2hr53 marathon within eighteen months of starting the programme and could run six minute miles at heart-rates below 130bpm. Or the high school girl sprinting the last half mile of a cross-country race with her heart-rate maxing at only 140bpm. There was other stuff in the book about getting “into the zone” which tempted me and it all sounded great.

While MAF is never quite as brazen as this, his method also uses testimonials to make grand promises. Here’s a story straight out of his Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing (p.93-94):

Marianne Dickerson was a 23-year-old marathon runner who’d won the silver medal at the 1983 World Championships in a time of 2hr31.  She struggled in the following year with a lower back injury until meeting Maffetone. Using the aerobic heart-rate he calculated for her, she found she couldn’t run a mile in under eleven minutes. Over the next eight weeks she changed her diet and kept her training to MAF-HR. She picks up the story “Each week, I noticed my pace became quicker as I was able to run faster within my aerobic limits. After eight weeks of base building, he had me enter a 10K race. I was shocked at how easy the race felt. And my finish time was a personal record of 33:02. Miraculous, I thought, given that a mere eight weeks ago, I could barely run a mile under eleven minutes aerobically and now I was running 6.2 miles at an average pace of 5:18/mile.”

Wow! Who doesn’t want to be running 10K races in thirty-three minutes off a couple of months’ training?

2) Endurance not speed

MAF training is a method that will get you running faster. But what does the word “faster” really mean?  When you hear faster, you imagine your parkrun going from thirty minutes to twenty minutes or even quicker. (Fill in whatever a major improvement is for your level). After all, this is the hope which the Marianne Dickerson story is giving you. Except, this isn’t really what MAF training can do for you.

The actual benefit of MAF training is that it will build endurance – which is being able to hold onto a pace for longer. Let’s say your thirty minute parkrun has kilometre splits beginning at 5:30 and slows down by fifteen seconds each subsequent kilometre thus 5:45, 6:00, 6:15, 6:30. All MAF training will enable you to do is run every kilometre at 5:30 pace and therefore reduce your time to 27:30.

It’s not a lie or incorrect to refer to this as helping you get faster because your parkrun has improved and many would be happy with knocking two and a half minutes off. The problem is continuing with MAF training from there isn’t going to help you get any faster because it won’t add any speed i.e. your fastest kilometre will continue to be around 5:30/km.

To add speed you need to do some interval work or hills and these require you to exceed your MAF-HR which, by definition, is no longer MAF training. If you don’t do the speedwork, you’ll be running around to a limited heart-rate for months and seeing no further improvements.

The reason it worked for Marianne Dickerson is she already had her top speed in place and simply needed to refresh the endurance to get back to running 10K races quickly in a matter of months.

3) Simplicity

The simplicity of the age-related formula is a big temptation. It all sounds so easy – “All you have to do is take your age away from 180 to get your MAF heart-rate then avoid going over that number when you run”. It couldn’t be easier. People like things which are easy.

When I first bought a heart-rate monitor it came with an instruction guide to setting zones. 60-79% for aerobic, 80-90% hard workout, 90-100% hard anaerobic or some such. But you needed to know your maximum heart-rate and do some mathematics to set those zones. Then you needed to structure your weekly training to train within the appropriate zones and it was all beginning to get complex and need some thought which is one reason I never did it.

The encouraging simplicity of MAF is you just go out and do every run using the same MAF-HR.

4) Science and technology

The technology of using a heart-rate monitor suggests this is science and therefore it must work.

The reality, as I stated in my The Good, the Bad and The Ugly post is there is no science behind MAF’s formula and the heart-rate monitor can’t identify when you’re going aerobic or anaerobic to help you train effectively.

There is no science behind MAF’s age-related formula, only coincidence.

5) MAF training gives people who train too hard a break.

It’s a revelation to many people how easy an easy run should really be. I reckon many people who take up MAF training find it gives them a chance to have a break from their usual training regime. Amateur runners are notorious for pushing sessions too hard, week-in week-out, so when they discover the formula with all its promises, and find out how easy the runs feel it’s a revelation.

6) It avoids coaches and planning

Many runners have a routine or follow the training of the people they run with. When they’re not getting faster, they’re looking for a quick fix (as MAF promises) and don’t want to plan training sessions or ask for help. The simplicity of MAF training avoids both these things.

7) “It’s going to take a while to see results”

Many MAF trialists start off patiently because they’ve been told it takes a while to see results. This is both true and false. If your endurance training is working, you should see some kind of change within weeks. When I’ve gone back to base training, I start to see or feel some kind of improvement within two to four weeks. Training begins to feel easier, my legs get their spring back, heart-rates on similar runs can go up (“yes up!”) or down, you might begin to see better pace at the end of longer runs. These things begin happening within a matter of weeks if you’re getting it right.

On the other hand, if you’re an established runner building your endurance base from scratch, it will take a while for it to impact your races. There’s probably a big gap between your aerobic pace and your race pace. Arthur Lydiard stated it takes three years to see a marked improvement, but you will see an improvement in the first year and a greater one in the second but it’s later that you begin to see the major benefits.

8) Get rich quick

Like a pyramid investment scheme or multilevel marketing sales, you only hear from the people saying how great it is in the beginning. This encourages others into the fad. When they’re starting out on their get-rich-quick scheme they’re enthusiastic and motivated until they realise it’s not working and slink off quietly into the sunset.

There are rarely dissenting voices who say “I tried this and it didn’t work”. Even then, outside of my own posts, I’ve never seen anyone lay out what they did in their training, detail the ineffectiveness of MAF training and give solid explanations for why it didn’t work.

There’s many people talking about MAF training and what it promises but rarely do you hear from those same people when they’ve given up on it.

NB This isn’t to say well-executed endurance training is a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s not. I honestly believe Phil Maffetone was able to help athletes improve their endurance and times using his methods. I just don’t believe those methods are as simple as the age-related formula has people believing.

Why do they give up?

They get bored of jogging around at low heart-rate numbers doing the same thing every day and waiting for results. Ironically the simplicity of the system becomes its Achilles Heel as lack of variety leads to boredom. For most runners, a month of training is a long time and if they haven’t seen improvement by then, they start to lose interest (and rightly so in my opinion). If they have a race coming up, it takes priority and they go back into speedwork or workout mode.

For some people, the low heart-rate number has them jogging at excruciatingly slow places. There are issues of ego and embarrassment about being someone who usually clips along at seven minute mile paces having to slow down to barely quicker than walking pace. They start to fudge the numbers either stating the formula must be wrong because they have a high maximum or allowing themselves to regularly go over the limit as long as the average is lower than their MAF-HR. If they don’t see quick results, they bail on the method.

Ultimately the main reason runners give up is because it doesn’t deliver the grand promises. I’ve never heard of anyone successfully using MAF training outside of the books. Maybe there is someone for whom it works but I’ve not met them.

If you’ve given MAF training a go – please comment and let me know of your experiences – success or failure. Why did you give it a try? How long did you try it? What caused you to give up on it?

MAF Training review – Part 4 The Myth of MAF

This post is the 4th in a series of six. Other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab.

When I tried MAF training I ran for 5+ months, logged 200+ hours of training where only 4½ hours was spent above a heart-rate of 138bpm. This heart-rate was determined using Maffetone’s age-related formula that I can see no scientific basis to explain. I can’t say I got any notable benefit from the training as I could run a 21-min parkrun before I started and, at the end of it I was running 20:39. In the midst of it, I did run 19:52 but regressed after doing some sprints and drills on a coaching course.

The training itself was demoralizingly slow and I was always fearful of the heart-rate monitor beeping at me to slow down because I’d exceeded the maximum heart-rate. I said I’d never train with it again because it was so unenjoyable and because there are better ways to train.

Today I’m going to prove there are better ways to train to get the same benefits.

Six months of non-MAF training

Let’s roll back to November 29th at the end of last year when I ran my standard Sunday long run in 1:39:26. It’s an average pace of 8:31/mile and my heart was pumping away at an average of 148 beats per minute. Six months later, May 30th, I ran it again, a minute slower, but my heart-rate was now only 131bpm. That’s a drop of 17 beats and an indicator I’d improved my aerobic system.

Regular readers will know I’ve spent the intervening six months training for 800m following a plan from one of Jack Daniels’ books. Although I know much about coaching and how to train I’ve never tried middle distance before, so I decided to see how one of the world’s best coaches approaches it and see what I could learn.

As I’ve documented in monthly updates – January, February, March, April  – I logged 40-45 miles per week with a mix of easy runs, long runs, intervals and threshold runs. The training got tough in the depths of winter but I got through it. I ran every day and while I got tight at times, I never got ill or injured. By April I was ready to test out my new found fitness and was highly surprised when I only achieved a 3-second improvement!

Nonetheless a few days after a second 800m time trial I ran my long run a minute faster (1:38:38) than in December and was now averaging a heart-rate of 140 – eight beats lower. So I’d done nothing like Maffetone training and improved by his measures.

I suspected the poor time trial results were due to a lack of endurance and embarked on six consecutive weeks of nearly fifty miles through April and May as I documented in my May 800m update. When I ran another 800m time trial it was still about the same at 2:53, a five second improvement over six months ago, but the rest of my running was feeling easier. My easy runs had sped up but more notably I broke 1hr30 on the long run in training. An improvement of ten minutes for a nearly twelve mile run.

What would MAF suggest?

Seven years ago at age forty-two, when I tried my MAF training experiment, I calculated a MAF-HR of 138. But actually, given I was coming off an illness, I should have taken ten beats off and used 128bpm which would have made things even harder and certainly slower.

Being older, Maffetone would suggest I now train to a lower heart-rate than I did last time around. At forty-nine this gives an initial MAF-HR of 131 but I’ve been running daily since late 2019 without issue. According to MAF you need to have trained for two years without issue to be allowed to add a further five beats, but for this comparison I’m going to do it anyway and analyse my recent training against a MAF-HR at 136bpm. This may sound like a cheat but if I used the lower figure, the stats would skew even more against MAF training.

If you’re wondering why I’m calculating my current MAF-HR when I said I was never going to use MAF training again, it’s purely to analyse the recent training I did and show I improved despite not following any of the low heart-rate training that MAF recommends.

Recent training

What follows is a look at my training for the six weeks after my mid-April time trial. There are one or two miles missing where I was coaching or giving a Personal Training session, as well as a couple of days where I didn’t wear my heart-rate monitor but the bulk of the training is shown.

The general format of each week:

  • Eight mile Steady runs on Tuesdays and Fridays with a ½-mile warm-up / cooldown aiming to run at my threshold.
  • On Sundays the long run, usually at the crack of dawn, again pushing it along and throwing in some strides along the way.
  • The other four days of the week I aimed for a forty minute recovery run.

With six consecutive 50-mile weeks, this block of training totalled 300+ miles and 42 hours.

Yet when you break down all this running, twice as much time was spent running in excess of my MAF-HR (136) as below it. (Note: there is a small issue with the software I used to total the Above-Below durations because it double-counts heart-rates of 136-137 into both categories. The actual figures were 28 hours above MAF-HR, 14hr45 below it but only 41hr50 total run time).

You can see in the graph below the length of each run in time and the proportion of it spent above or below MAF-HR. The yellow is the time spent exceeding it and accounts for 65% of running time. Almost every day I was exceeding MAF-HR for some of the run – that can’t be good according to Maffetone.

Now take a look at the graph of 2014’s MAF training where I only exceeded the MAF-HR for 2% of the time. You can barely see any yellow in the early weeks and it doesn’t increase a whole lot. In the graph above, I often spent more time above MAF-HR in a single run than I did in a week then.

Graph of MAF weekly MAF training in 2014

It’s not even close. It’s very clear I was constantly breaking the MAF-HR in my recent training and not just by one or two beats as happened back in 2014, but by large margins.

Here’s a graph of the time I spent in excess of 150HR on those runs. You can see I was regularly running for over 45-mins with heart-rates on the Steady and Long runs that were nowhere close to MAF-HR. I was effectively training to the MAF-HR of someone over twenty years younger than me.

Recent training – blue lines showing time spent running at 150+ heart-rate

What’s amazing is I accumulated twelve hours of running at over 150HR which isn’t much less than the nearly fifteen hours I ran below my recommended MAF-HR of 136. Yet somehow I got exceedingly better results than when I trained to MAF-HR in 2014.

Getting faster

Not only was I seeing improved heart-rates, my effort runs were improving too.

The November run was my fastest time on the long run course at 1:39:26 and with the 800m training this had reduced to 1:34:03 by March. On 2nd May I reduced it to 1:32:55 then on May 23rd took it down further to 1:29:15. The average heart-rate on this final run was 149 which is only one beat higher than when I was running it in late November. Then my fastest single mile was ripping along down Gravel Hill at 7:52, by late May I was sub-7 with a 6:58.

On the Steady runs I only have one comparator. Back on November. I ran a local 7 ½ mile course round Merley which took 58min52 at an average pace of 7:54/mile and the fastest mile was 7:33.  In mid-May, during a spell of high winds I decided against going to the beach and opted to run the local route in 20mph winds. The run came in two minutes quicker at a pace of 7:38/mile with the fastest mile now at 7:08 along with a couple more showing in at 7:18 and 7:21. At the beach, I’ve begun to see miles in the 7:05-10 range. There’s no doubt I’m speeding up and if I were racing longer distances I’d certainly see better times.

Better ways to train

I’ve loved the past six months of training for all the reasons I hated the MAF training. I got to run fast, sometimes I even got to sprint as fast as I could. I rarely looked at my heart-rate while I was running and I certainly didn’t have the heart-rate monitor beeping at me to slow down. The variety of paces and training sessions kept me interested as well as nervously excited on occasions.

I haven’t cracked the 800m yet but I’m confident training is going in the right direction to get there. I’ve seen improvement and I’m running faster than six months ago with heart-rates at slower speeds being lower. That’s an indication the body is improving its fat-burning capability. I’ve been sleeping deeper, got leaner, faster and remained healthy and injury free which are the sorts of reasons Maffetone puts forward for following his method.

The premise of MAF training is that to improve fat-burning you have to run at low heart-rates and stop eating carbs. I did neither of those. Across six months I regularly hit higher heart-rates and I never restricted my diet or stopped eating carbs – if anything I’ve eaten more during the winter months with two bags of Doritos each week and regular cakes from the bakery. Yet I proved it’s possible to achieve the promised benefits of MAF training despite regularly breaking the heart-rate that it suggests a man of my age should use.

None of this was achieved by sticking to a heart-rate calculated from my age and is why I put no stock in MAF training as a system in itself. I believe there may be applications for it in certain circumstances but not general training.

I’d love to hear people’s comments and questions about this block of training and my MAF training review. All reasonable scepticism or thoughts are welcome!

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

This post is the 3rd in a series of six. Other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab. So far, 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.


Update – since publishing this, I wrote a further post proving my point about there being better ways to train. In it, I detail how I trained regularly breaking my proposed MAF-HR, often training to one the equivalent of someone twenty years younger than me yet still made progress. Read Part 4 – The myth of MAF here.

After pondering what encourages runners to give MAF training a try, I wrote Part 5 – Why MAF why, which tries to explain their motivations. If you’re considering giving it a go maybe you’ll recognise yourself in some of the descriptions!

Recently I published Part 6 – When you need MAF which looks at the circumstances that might indicate a block of endurance training focused on lower heart-rates might be useful. But, as I point out in Part 4, low doesn’t mean age-related.

MAF Training review – Part 2 My Experience

This post is the 2nd in a series of six. Other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab.

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.

Miles525647615656328
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
MAF-HR
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
Friday
 – 
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
MAF-HR
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
Friday 
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.

MAF Training review – Part 1 An Overview

This post is the first in a series of six which originally began as a trilogy – other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab.

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 to avoid being too 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 during the run, 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.