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!

Update on my 800m training – May 2021

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

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

My schedule for this block of endurance was:

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

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

Steady improvement

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

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

20-Apr23-Apr27-Apr30-Apr04-May07-May11-May14-May18-May20-May25-May28-May
108:1007:5507:2907:4407:3707:1107:4507:2307:0607:0807:0907:31
208:1507:5907:3607:5107:4407:1807:4907:2407:1007:1807:1107:35
308:3108:0007:3707:5207:4607:2607:4907:2607:2207:2107:2807:45
408:4208:0907:4508:0108:0107:3307:5207:3507:3007:3907:3107:53
508:5508:3307:5008:0309:0907:4707:5507:3808:0407:4808:2807:58
608:5608:3907:5508:0309:1508:0708:1707:4808:2007:5508:3308:00
709:0208:5407:5908:0609:2908:1508:2007:4808:2007:5708:3808:01
809:0508:5708:0308:0709:3008:1608:2107:5308:3108:0008:4208:03
             
Avg08:4208:2307:4707:5808:3407:4408:0107:3707:4807:3807:5807:51

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

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

Changing run form

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

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

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

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

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

Another time trial

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

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

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

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