MAF Training Review – Part 5 Why MAF why?

This post is the 5th in a series of five. 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?

Bad loser

As a kid I was a bad loser. I know this because my parents would point it out when I went stomping off with my arms crossed, a big scowl on my face and tears streaming down my cheeks! Certainly there was much whingeing and while I don’t recall any particular moments, I know I didn’t enjoy losing.

I played all sorts of sports over the following years, some with more regular commitment than others. I played badminton for a year, squash for two, volleyball for many years as well as basketball and 5-a-side football with work colleagues and it didn’t really matter which I was playing, I never enjoyed losing.

That “hate-losing” temperament powered me to try and get better at any sport I tried. If it was a team sport, I would stew for hours about how we’d lost. I’d pick holes in my own play and that of my teammates. I could never understand how they took losing so lightly and would turn up to the next training session and put in low levels of effort. I guess some people are better at rationalising and making up excuses.

Watching televised sport, I’ve often wondered how I would come across if I had to face a post-match interview. Very badly I suspect. Somewhere along the way I at least managed to find the social grace to say and do the right things after matches. I could shake hands with the opposition and congratulate them if they’d won. But if you were actually to ask me to talk about my thoughts and feelings after a match it would be messy and miserable. Once in a while we could lose but if I saw everyone had given their utmost, I could accept losing with good grace.


This hate for losing died down over the past couple of decades. For one thing, I learned losing was an essential skill for getting along with others in life. You can’t win every argument without breaking relationships. Taking up golf helped because the competitive aspect isn’t immediate enough to trigger my competitive instincts. With running I knew I was never going to be good enough to win so my expectations were always low and I always knew I’d run the hardest I could.


Now all of this suggested that being a bad loser was mostly genetic and a state of mind, but as I got further into running I came across an interesting fact about speedwork. If you do too much of it, it turns your system more acidic. Now, we’re not talking like the Xenomorph in Alien whose blood dissolves the floors in spaceships just mildly acidic.

If you ever studied Chemistry at school, you’ll know of the pH scale which runs from 0 – 14 with 7.0 being neutral. Acids are 0 – 7, alkalis are 7 – 14 with the extremes being, as you would expect, very acidic or alkaline. Usually your body usually has a pH value that is the alkaline side of neutral which is something akin to chalk.

Typical pH values for fluids within the human body are 7.35 – 7.45 for blood; 7.4 – 7.6 for saliva and 4.6 – 8.0 for urine. Quite why the latter can be more significantly in the acidic range I’m not sure other than urine involves fluids which have passed through many other areas of the body including the stomach where there are high levels of hydrochloric acid involved in digestion.

If, however, you do high levels of speedwork you can push the body across to the acidic side. The pH value of blood can drop towards the low sixes (e.g. 6.3 – 6.4) and be part of a general imbalance within the body. This is one aspect of overtraining identified by Phil Maffetone. While I don’t like his age-based training formula, his book highlights these sorts of issues with the body and anaerobic training revving up the central nervous system and all the issues that can bring.

Now the whole point here is not to know exactly what pH value your body is at, only to understand that it usually runs in a mildly alkaline state but repeated high intensity training can push it into an undesirable mildly acidic state. This is one reason why recovery runs on the day before and after speedwork, or any other effort session are recommended.


When I ran my first 800m time trial last December it was tough. By the end, I was breathing very hard and I coughed for almost an hour afterwards due to acidosis. But I also found I was in a very bad mood for the rest of the day. When I did my next time trial in April, while I didn’t have the postrun after effects quite so badly, I did get into another black mood. For sure the results of the two time trials weren’t too my liking but they didn’t specifically bother me. The first was simply setting a benchmark, the second was so below expectations that I couldn’t get angry at it. Yet I was grumpy following each of these big runs.

Back in August when I ran my first all-out parkrun for two years, I once again noticed I wasn’t happy afterwards. I’d offered to write the Run Report and fortunately, having pre-prepared it, needed only to fill in a few details before sending it off for publishing within a short time of arriving home. It was strange though because I’d been so enthusiastic earlier in the week with it and then simply submitted it with the minimum of remaining effort.

It would be tempting to put all this down to disappointment at the runs but the depth of moods hinted at something more. When younger me got moody, I assumed it was down to hating to lose and not understanding how to handle it. With a more mature outlook and the rarity of these recent moods, it was clear they were more physiological than psychological.

This came home to me over the past weekend. Once again I ran a fast parkrun. Again I wasn’t overly happy with the time but my mood was ok. I chatted to a couple of friends then nipped into the supermarket to pick up some items on the way home. There was no mood until much later in the day. When I think about it, I did some strength and conditioning when I got home which seems to have tipped me over the edge. I slept badly for the next two nights – another sign of possible overtraining.


When I think back to my black moods in the nineties, I always thought it was down to immaturity and poor psychology. I’m sure to some extent this is correct. But I cannot escape the fact I used to train and play sport a lot harder than I ever do these days. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be playing sport on a lunchtime and again in the evening. Sprinting up and down a basketball court, jumping up and down at a volleyball net, lunging around a squash court or simply doing thirty minutes worth of high intensity effort at circuit training. I was constantly revving the engine playing sport, working a 9-5 job and socialising at clubs and bars on evenings or weekends. No wonder I would sleep for ten hours or more on a weekend. I could be moody, depressive and unable to snap out of it.

I’m sure I was guilty of pushing my pH values into the acidic side of the scale regularly. I was probably young enough to cope with it to some extent. given the younger body recovers quicker. And by training so hard, so frequently, I expect my body had learned to cope better with it. At least able to cope with it until it couldn’t and then my mind would go off down the rabbit hole and see things through the worst possible lens.

MAF Training review – Part 4 The Myth of MAF

This post is the 4th in a series of five. 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!