July 17, 2014

MAF heart rate training

I'd heard of MAF (maximum aerobic function) heart rate training a long time ago, and have always been curious, but have never had the patience to give it a try. Basically, the MAF method uses the 180-formula developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone to determine the maximum heart rate that you should be training at. Once you get this number, you do all of your training in this zone--no higher!--and eventually, it will take less effort for the same results (which means you run faster at the same heart rate). Here is the best explanation in a nutshell that I could find.

The MAF heart rate zone is much lower than what most people are used to training in, and it definitely requires patience and dedication--which is why I've never done it ;) At first, to keep your heart rate so low, your pace will likely be much slower than what you're used to running, and that's normal. But you continue to exercise in that zone, and eventually, according to this MAF training method, you will be running faster, but your heart rate will stay in that zone.

Using the 180-formula, you start by subtracting your age from 180. I'm 32, so that would be 148. Then, you look at a list of other options and choose what fits you best to either add or subtract a little from that. It turns out that mine stayed at 148. That is the top of my range. The bottom of the range is 10 beats per minute less than the top, which would make my range 138-148 bpm. According to this method, I should build a strong aerobic base by doing all of my training in that range for a few months.


I've never been patient enough to give it a chance! But now that I don't have any PR goals in sight (at least until sometime next year), I figured now is as good a time as any to give it a try and see what happens. I mostly want to do this out of curiosity to see if it actually works.

You're supposed to start with a MAF test--running 3-5 miles (ideally, on a track) in your MAF heart rate zone, and record the time it takes to complete each mile. Then you repeat this test every four weeks or so, to see if your times improve while staying in that same training zone. The track is ideal for the test because you don't have to deal with hills or traffic lights, etc.

I had planned on doing the test this morning, but when I woke up today, the weather was PERFECT for a long run. For July in humid Michigan, it doesn't get any better than that! So I decided to do my long run today, try out the MAF heart rate zone, and save the "official" test for tomorrow. Jerry wanted to run five miles this morning, so he decided to join me for the first five of my eight, and then I'd just run three more when he was done.

I fully expected my pace to be much slower than I'm used to, and I was okay with that. That's the part that is so hard mentally about this training--seeing that slow pace and not being able to run faster! I set my Garmin to beep if my heart rate went over 148, so I didn't have to look at my watch constantly. I settled into a pace and held that, glancing at my heart rate every once in a while. I had changed the settings on the watch to show JUST heart rate, and not pace or distance or anything else. I didn't want to get discouraged when I saw the pace.

The first mile, my average heart rate was only 137. But after that, it gradually crept up a little each mile. I was trying to keep it as close to 148 as I could without going over (and without constantly looking at my watch). I liked the pace we were running, because Jerry and I were able to easily have a conversation, and I felt like I could go on forever at that pace.

It was kind of interesting, because once I dropped Jerry at mile five, my heart rate instantly went up a little, and it was hard keeping it below 148. I think having Jerry with me helped, because we were chatting, and I could gauge my effort by how easy/hard it was for me to talk. Once I was alone, it was hard to hold my pace back.

My watch beeped a few times over the next three miles to tell me my heart rate was too high. The last mile, especially, was really hard to keep it low. I naturally tend to run faster the closer I get to home, and my watch was beeping at me, so I had to slow it way down to keep my heart rate under 148.

My mile times and average heart rate per mile:
Mile 1:  10:38   137
Mile 2:  10:42   143
Mile 3:  10:52   142
Mile 4:  10:44   145
Mile 5:  10:58   144
Mile 6:  10:51   146
Mile 7:  10:59   146
Mile 8:  11:11   146

I was honestly surprised that my mile times weren't slower. Based on what I've read from other runners, I was fully expecting my mile splits to be in the 12:00's and even 13:00's for a longer run like this. Of course, I had the weather working in my favor this morning! When the temps are back in the 80's by this weekend, I'm sure my pace will be slower to keep my heart rate in that zone.

That's actually one of the reasons I've always liked heart rate training--you base your runs on effort (measured by heart rate) instead of pace, so if it's really hot outside and your pace is slow, you know you're still working just as hard. Anyway, I'm interested to try this for at least four weeks, and then I'll decide if I want to continue doing it. I imagine it will get boring without any hard and fast running, but I'm really curious to see how it goes. And like I said, there really isn't a better time for me to try it out! I'm going to continue with my non-schedule running schedule, because I love it. Even without scheduled runs, I've been getting in 4-6 days of running per week, so I'm staying disciplined. I just don't feel stressed about it, and it's nice!

I had another great day of eats today. Three days of being back to counting points, and thanks to my pre-planning, I don't feel overwhelmed. With the weather we've been having, I've been wanting soup for lunch and dinner each day. I've made Split Pea Soup, Roasted Tomato & Garlic Soup with Barley, Chicken Stew, Spicy Carrot Bisque, and Turkey Chili with Black Beans & Corn... in three days! It just feels so much like fall--I love it!


  1. This is the same method I'm following. I started at the very end of March and didn't really do it properly until mid-April. At first I thought that number should be your average and not you max. I'm still walking but I'm sure that's because I started out from years of nothing. I was really nervous about it at first because I signed up for a 5K on 9/28 that I plan to run and was scared about how slow it had me going. When I first started I was exceeding my max aerobic heart rate going 3.2, now I'm up to 3.9 (if I don't get to 4.0 tomorrow, I will Monday). I still haven't done the MAF test because I wasn't running but I do want to start once I'm running more than I am walking. It's given me so much endurance though. In June I decided I wanted to run a mile straight for National Running Day and I did it. It was something I would have never been able to do 2 months prior. Since then I keep setting goals, the end of June was 1.5 miles, this past weekend was 2 miles. I'm going to try to get in 2.5 and 3 straight before my 5K I want to run. I always let my heart rate go over on those times and on my races (I have been doing a 5K/month since April). All my normal trainings I don't go over though. So I'm probably not following it 100% still but what I'm doing is working for me. I have the book and I've been trying to read it but I just never seem to find enough time. I hope you like it. It's supposed to be a great way to shave time off your pace for existing athletes.

  2. AnonymousJuly 17, 2014

    I like to do more heart rate training in the summer as well - it's reassuring to see that it's not just my imagination that running feels harder in the heat.

  3. I started DDPYoga a little over a month ago, and this is the method he uses for keeping your heart rate in check. I am AMAZED at how little it takes to get my heart rate into that zone, but it works. I haven't been as faithful as I should about working because we are in the middle of getting ready to move, but I can already tell a difference. My clothes fit better and I look better. I know it is the exercise and diet, but I do think there is something to be said for having that perfect zone for fat burning. I'm happy with it. You are right that it does take more patience to do, but it is easier for me because I am doing yoga (kick-butt yoga, but still) and you are running. Good luck with your training!

  4. I have been thinking about doing heart rate training myself. I am curious to hear how to goes for you.

  5. Interesting to see how steady your pace stayed when you kept your heart rate in the target zone. I definitely want to try this method of training.

  6. I tried to do this after I had my crazy blood loss last August, but for about 2 weeks afterwards, my HR would jump up into 160-170s just with a fast walk! Of course, this is why you aren't supposed to do this training when you are in that kind of state, but my doc told me to stay under 140 for a month to make sure I didn't pass out. I may try it again. I'm trying to nurse an injury, and I need a different focus besides pace and distance-- HR may be just the ticket! Also-- just a thought-- could you do a post where you talk about what your inspiration/ motivation sources are? I know you talked about it in your HSM interview, but I'm more of a visual person and I haven't seen a post like that on your blog in a bit. Thanks!

  7. AnonymousJuly 18, 2014

    I'm looking forward to seeing your results. This seems like exactly the kind of training I like to do and would like to continue to do.

  8. I'm looking forward to reading more about this training. I specifically bought my new Garmin with a heart monitor so I could try a bit of zone training. I was wondering if I wasn't pushing myself enough, but this actually seems to have a reverse train of thought. Love your blog!


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