Phil Maffetone is a medical doctor and a highly respected coach of endurance athletes in the USA. He has published several books and is probably best known for his association with Mark Allen, the six-time winner of the Iron Man world championships.
Conventional training plans are often focused around loosing weight or achieving a particular performance target. They tell you how many miles you should be running a day and how fast, or how many reps and sets you should be doing etc. This can lead us to believe that it doesn’t really matter how we are feeling during or after exercise, so long as we do as we are told and tick the boxes.
Maffetone training is different in that it incorporates Biofeedback methods. These are tools that we can use to help us measure how much stress our body is under at any given time and understand how this is impacting our health. This stress can come from many sources such as poor diet, problems in our personal lives or at work, poor sleep and from excessive physical exertion. A certain amount of training stress is important as it is the stimulus that causes our body to adapt and improve but if we put ourselves thorough too much of it, we risk limiting our performance and compromising our health.
The optimal amount of training that we can safely cope with during a given session is dependant on the overall stress that our body is under and not just our current level of physical fatigue or fitness. For example, this means that if we train too hard following a frantic day at work, a bout of poor sleep or illness, we run the risk of doing more harm than good and may actually reduce our levels of health fitness.
It’s great to have things like performance goals and weight loss in mind but when you use biofeedback, your training choices are primarily dictated by your state of well-being prior to and during each session. By taking this approach, you will be ensuring that you not only reach your goals, but that you do so in a healthy manner.
Aerobic Respiration provides us with energy when we are at rest and during low-intensity activity. This process relies mostly on fat for fuel and it can keep us going for hours on end when it is working efficiently. A well conditioned aerobic system is important for our overall health and in allowing us to perform well during endurance exercise. For example Maffetone states that it caters for around 99% of our energy demands during an event like a marathon.
Anaerobic Respiration occurs during higher intensity activity when we put greater demands on our body. It relies on carbohydrate for fuel and burns through energy quickly. It is used for relatively short bursts of intense activity but cannot be utilised for extended periods of time as this puts significant stress on our body and the risks of over-training and injury become high.
Our heart rate is a reflection of whether we are primarily working in our aerobic (lower HR) or anaerobic (higher HR) ‘zones’and the level at which activity becomes anaerobic can be increased / improved through proper training. From an exercise perspective, this means that if we develop our aerobic system, we can become faster whilst putting less stress on our body and using less fuel than if we were operating at an anaerobic level. From a health perspective, we reduce our chances of injury and improve our body’s ability to deal with the stresses of everyday life.
Aerobic efficiency is not only important for health and performance during endurance exercise. It is the slow slow-burning fire that forms our foundation and supports us as we utilise our more dynamic energy systems to explosively lift, sprint, jump and climb.
Whilst most people associate aerobic fitness with things like running, cycling and swimming, in actual fact, many athletes who participate in these activities have inefficient aerobic systems because they spend too much time training at too high an intensity and heart rate.
Crucially, Maffetone emphasises the point that the stress produced by regularly spending extended periods of time at an anaerobic heart rate is a major cause of over-training, health problems and injury among endurance athletes.
To develop our aerobic system, we must spend time exercising at an aerobic intensity. Heart rate monitors are an excellent biofeedback tool that can help us do this.
Most Heart rate training methods use figures like maximum heart rate and lactate threshold heart rate as a starting point for calculating ‘zones’. Once these zones have been established, training sessions are targeted at improving performance at each distinct intensity level. The problem is that the methods used for calculating zones are often generic, inaccurate and can only be verified by lab testing which most of us don’t have access to. We are all different and approaches of this kind pay little regard to our individual constitutions.
Dr Maffetone has developed a completely different method that he calls the ‘180 formula’ which provides you with your MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function). The MAF heart rate is the maximum zone at which your body will be performing at an entirely aerobic level. The 180 formula is a simple method for calculating this which considers your recent health, fitness, injuries, age and training history.
Once you have calculated your MAF heart rate, you should then spend several weeks and months training at or below this level until your aerobic fitness has improved. During this time, higher intensity anaerobic activity, including competitive events, should be avoided as this can actually hamper your aerobic development. For most people, this means that to start with you will need to rein yourself in and slow down. A LOT.
To develop your aerobic system, first of all it is important to measure it and periodically chart your progress. To do this, Maffetone has designed a simple procedure he calls a Maximum Aerobic Function Test (or MAF Test). The test can be used whilst swimming and cycling (see his books and website for full details) but for the purposes of this introduction, I am going to briefly describe how to do a MAF test whilst running.
First of all, you need to calculate your maximum aerobic heart rate using the 180 formula. Next, you need to design a flat course that will take you around 45 minutes to run. It is important to limit the number of potential variables that could influence your performance when you come to repeat the test, so the course should ideally be flat and on the road or better still a running track if you have one nearby.
After a proper warm up of around 10-15 minutes or so, you should complete the course whilst keeping as close to your MAF heart rate as possible and record how long it takes. If you know how far your course is, you may wish to calculate your average pace in minutes per mile. I would reiterate that you need to keep an eye on your heart rate every few seconds to ensure that it does not go above the MAF level or below it by more than 5-10 beats per minute. If you have been honest in your 180 formula calculation, this should feel like an easy pace where you could maintain a conversation without getting out of breath. Once you have completed the test, you should carry out a steady cool-down.
Once you have done this test, you have a benchmark to track your future progression and it should be repeated, probably every 3 to 4 weeks on the same course and ideally, in similar conditions to minimise the variables.
If your training and lifestyle habits are working, you should notice a steady reduction in the time it takes you to run the course at your MAF heart rate as the weeks go by.
If despite your efforts in training the time does not improve or if it increases, this suggests that there are stressors in your life that are preventing your aerobic system from developing so you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what they are. This may also mean that you also need to look again at your 180 formula calculation and further reduce your training Heart rate.
Sometimes, a plateau in MAF test results may indicate that your body is ready to cope with some higher intensity work to get you to the next level. This should only be undertaken if you are otherwise healthy and you are not exhibiting signs of stress or over training. See the section below on periodisation for more information on this.
The thing that really surprises most people when they first use this approach is quite how slowly you need to go to keep your heart rate down. Many runners will be reduced to a slow jog or even a walk, especially when encountered with a hill. I’m not just talking about ‘unfit’ people either, as I’ve said above, poor aerobic conditioning is surprisingly common in endurance athletes as many of them do most of their training at an anaerobic level.
This can be difficult to start with, especially if you are used to running at a faster pace as your pride and ego will be begging you to speed-up but the key thing to remember is that the slower you need to go to keep your heart rate down, the greater your need for aerobic conditioning. I think that training in this way requires quite a different mindset to other approaches. For example, rather than thinking ‘I am going to go out for a run for an hour’ you have to think ‘I’m going to go out and train below my MAF heart rate for an hour and that means that I may have to walk from time to time’. There are no shortcuts and this method can be challenging if you regularly train with a group of people.
It’s not easy but the more disciplined you are, the quicker you will see results.
Periodisation is an important principal that is often missing from the training plans and racing schedules of ammeter athletes. It simply isn’t possible to train and compete at the same intensity all-year-round so periodisation allows your body to rest, recover and peak at pre-planned times.
High intensity training sessions, speed work and competition can put substantial stress on our body and according to Maffetone, they should only be undertaken after sustained periods of health and gradual Aerobic improvement. For example, in many cases this will meant that you allocate perhaps 2-3 blocks of aerobic-only training each year with each block lasting perhaps 4-8 weeks and during this time, you will not enter competitive events. It is important to note that it is you health and your MAF tests but not your calendar that dictates when you are ready to speed things up or race. If it takes longer than you had hoped, it’s because you are not ready.
Once you have completed a block of aerobic base-building, you should notice that you have become faster at your MAF heart rate and if your health in general is ok, you may be ready to incorporate speed work sessions or competition. Speed-work sessions such as interval training and hill repetitions are useful, but should limited to probably one session per week for up to 3-4 weeks at a time. Again, you can use your MAF tests results and other biofeedback tools to judge how your body is reacting and decide what is right for you.
Competition is almost always tougher than training so afterwards, it is important to rest and then resume some aerobic-only training. After that, you can simply do another MAF test and take things from there.
Flexibility is key and it’s important to be prepared to change your plans where possible to ensure you remain fit, healthy and injury-free.
You can find out information about Dr Maffetone on his website here. Note that his site isn’t just about health and fitness, there is a lot about his other interests too. The website may look a little bit dated but the information is first class and regularly updated with new articles.
For endurance athletes, If I were to recommend one of his publications to look at it would be The Big Book Of Endurance Training and Racing