October 17, 2021

TRAINING PLAN: My 'MAF80' Running Plan (for beginners to heart rate training)


This post is a copy of what I've attached to the (printable) running plan as well, so it may sound a bit formal. But I've put SO much work into this plan and I hope that it works out well!

Here you can download and/or print the plan (which includes all of what is written below).

I want to start by stating that this is a trial plan—it hasn’t been tested and I wrote it based on my own knowledge as an RRCA-certified running coach as well as personal experience and reading various training methods. I’ve combined a couple of principles from two main sources to create this plan: Dr. Phil Maffetone’s MAF (maximum aerobic function) heart rate training method and Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running method. This is why I’ve (so cleverly) named this self-combined method “MAF80”.

This MAF80 training method means that you will be running and/or walking at a particular heart rate zone (called your MAF zone, which I will explain later) 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time will be spent running at a heart rate higher than that zone. I wanted this plan to be something that is do-able for beginners to heart rate training as well as for people who don’t want to do a high-mileage plan. This is not for training for a specific goal; if you are a seasoned runner and want to get faster for a 5K or 10K time goal, I would suggest my other plans called “Your Best 5K” and “Your Best 10K”. My running plans can be found here: https://www.runsforcookies.com/p/training-plans.html

First, MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function. The MAF heart rate is the highest heart rate you have before transitioning to an anaerobic state (a state that does not help build your endurance); ideally, you want to have a very fit aerobic system, and the best way to strengthen it is to exercise aerobically.

Note: The MAF heart rate formula was based on research done by Dr. Maffetone. The number isn’t 100% carved in stone for all people; but based on his findings, that formula works for the overwhelming majority.

When you exercise at a heart rate higher than the maximum *aerobic* function (MAF), you’re working your anaerobic system. This is also beneficial—for different reasons—but a little goes a long way. Doing too much can have the opposite effect and actually be harmful. Also, without a fit aerobic system, doing anaerobic work is pretty much pointless.

As a running coach (and runner myself), I find that the hardest thing for runners to do is SLOW DOWN during their training. “Easy runs” are the most important runs in a training plan! And most runners do them too fast, which isn’t giving them the benefits that the workouts are designed for (which is to develop endurance).

I created this MAF80 plan to force the runner to do the easy runs at a truly easy (aerobic) effort 80% of the time. The other 20% is beneficial physically, of course, but also mentally; as runners, we like to let loose and go fast sometimes! It also keeps the running from getting too boring.

(Note: Dr. Maffetone’s MAF training recommends that you do 100% of your training at a MAF level. I would suggest reading his ideas before choosing what is best for you. I believe in the 80/20 rule, which is why I combined the two.)

The end goal of running at a MAF heart rate is to be able to increase your performance while maintaining the same effort level. For example, if you run in your MAF heart rate zone (let’s say it’s 130-140 beats per minute) and your average pace is 11:00/mile when you start training, after several weeks or months of MAF heart rate training, you ideally will be able to run at the same heart rate but at a faster pace (let’s say 9:30 per mile). Running at a 9:30 pace will feel the same as running at an 11:00 pace did before.

When running at a MAF heart rate, your EFFORT always remains the same; your performance/pace varies. The fitter you get, the faster you can run at the same heart rate. (I will explain more about MAF heart rate later.)

It’s important to note that this plan is designed for heart rate training, which obviously requires a heart rate monitor. There is a huge variety online. I like to use my old Garmin Forerunner 620, but feel free to use whatever heart rate monitor you’d like.

I designed this plan with a few things in mind:

1) Variety. I didn’t want it to be monotonous.

2) Sticking with the 80/20 principle (per the principles in the book ’80/20 Running’ by Matt Fitzgerald)

3) Running for time instead of mileage. This makes it easier for runners to slow down because whether you run fast or run slow, you’re still running for the same amount of time. Might as well slow down and enjoy it! Also, the 80/20 principle is based on time spent running per week—80% at an easy effort and 20% at a harder effort. “Easy” and “Hard” are relative to the individual, so mileage doesn’t work in this case.

4) I took into account the fact that your heart rate is lowest at the start of your run and highest at the end of your run. So the order of running easy/hard may seem backwards, but I designed it this way on purpose. Your runs will start out at the MAF zone, saving the harder running for later when your heart rate is likely to be higher anyway.

5) Four workouts per week, 40 minutes each. You can add more MAF running if you’d like. There are two runs that are solely for MAF running; one day for faster intervals; and another day for longer, not-as-hard intervals (called Tempo).

6) Simplicity. There are only three effort levels: MAF (easy), Hard, and Tempo:

    1. MAF (a.k.a. “easy”). Run in your MAF zone. At first, you may feel like you’re having to check your heart rate frequently, but eventually you will get a feel for it. If you don’t want to keep checking, just run as slowly as possible! You should barely get winded and should be able to hold conversation at that effort level.

    2. Hard. Run at what feels like a hard effort—about a 8-9 on a scale of 1-10. Don’t put too much thought into it, though! You don’t need to worry about your heart rate during these runs; just run at a pace that makes you wish it was over already, haha. 

    3. Tempo. Run at a moderately hard effort—about a 6-7 on a scale of 1-10. It should feel kind of uncomfortable, where you will want to slow down, but you could hold that pace for much longer if needed.

There is also Walk, which is self-explanatory. I wrote the Walk portions in the spots where I felt it was most beneficial to get your heart rate back down to your MAF zone quickly. I always walk the recovery portion of interval training and I find I get the best results that way. Walking helps you to recover so you can push hard in the next segment.

A lot of beginners discover that running, even at the slowest pace possible, puts their heart rate over the MAF threshold. This is super common! In this case, you should run/walk (or even just walk) in order to keep your heart rate in the MAF zone. It can be frustrating (I’ve been there!) but eventually, you will notice that you’re able to run for longer periods of time before having to walk again. And one day, you’ll be able to run the entire time at a MAF heart rate. On the days where you can do speed work, run to your heart’s content!

If you want to speed up your progress, you can feel free to add more workouts or extend your workouts—at a MAF effort. You don’t ever want to do more than 20% of the time per week spent running at a hard effort (meaning higher than your MAF heart rate).

Because this plan is just a trial (I basically created it as an experiment for myself), I’ve only written 6 weeks. I will see how it goes and adjust as necessary, and if it is working out well, I’ll add to it. (Feel free to give me progress reports!) But if you want to extend it as is, you can just repeat weeks. To see significant progress (which depends entirely on the individual) I’m almost certain it’ll take at least a few months.

Finally, to calculate your MAF heart rate:

Just subtract your age from 180, and that is your MAF number! That number is the maximum of the range; the minimum number is 10 beats per minute below that. For example, I’m 39 years old, so my MAF heart rate is: 180-39=141 bpm. My MAF range would be 131-141 bpm.

Note: When you first start each run, your heart rate will likely be far below the MAF range. You don’t have to rush to get it into the MAF range. It will probably reach that range within a few minutes, so again—don’t overthink it.

I could write MUCH more on the hows and whys I’ve chosen to design this plan the way it is, but for now, I just want to test it out and see how it goes. I’m sharing it in case you are interested in trying it, too!

Again, I recommend the following reading:

- The MAF 180 Formula by Dr. Phil Maffetone (https://philmaffetone.com/180-formula/). There is MUCH more to his 180 Formula and MAF training than I could even begin to cover here. The only part of his method that I used is the 180-number. (His formula actually includes a few more steps.)

- ’80/20 Running’, a book by Matt Fitzgerald, explaining the hows and whys training at 80% easy and 20% hard is ideal. (This is an Amazon affiliate link, which just means that I may get a small commission for recommending it: https://amzn.to/3n09Hip )

Finally, make sure you read the post on my blog called “The Importance of the Easy Run”—it explains more in-depth why runners should be doing easier runs: https://www.runsforcookies.com/2016/04/the-importance-of-easy-run.html

Okay, as far as the plan goes:

- There are 4 runs per week, 40 minutes each.

- You can swap runs for others that have the same number of “HARD” minutes (for the sake of simplicity, the “Hard” runs and “Tempo” runs are both considered “Hard” when calculating the 20% rule because they both are done at a heart rate higher than your MAF zone. Each week, your Hard running (which includes Tempo) should add up to no more than 32 minutes (as the plan is written, each week has 30 minutes of hard running and 130 minutes of easy MAF running).

- You may add MAF running wherever/whenever you’d like.

I think that sums it up in a nutshell. Please feel free to give me feedback or ask any questions. I plan to make changes to this training plan as needed, based on feedback (as well as my own experience—I’m going to be doing it as well).

Happy Running! xo

Here is where you can get the free training plan and all of the explanation above

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this plan, Katie! It sounds like a great experiment. I’m going to start following it today!

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    1. Please let me know how it goes and what you like/dislike about it! I want to fine-tune it based on feedback :)

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  2. THANK YOU!! I know the effort that went into this. WOW. I love this combination. I've struggled with doing MAF180 only because I believe so much in the 80/20 rule. This solves my dilemma. Can't wait to try it.

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    1. I'm so glad that it makes sense to you! I knew I wanted to do MAF training (this was back in 2015) but I was impatient to wait for results and I wanted to run fast here and there. After reading 80/20 Running, I thought it would be a perfect combination. MAF is, after all, just a way to make sure you keep your easy runs easy by monitoring your heart rate. I just never knew how much of a difference it would really make to train so much slower. I couldn't believe the results I got from training this way! Please let me know how it goes for you--I'd like to use the feedback to fine-tune the plan and extend the length of it.

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  3. Yay! I’ll be starting this tomorrow. Thank you for taking the time to create it

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    1. I'd love to know how it goes for you! Feel free to email me if you have questions/issues while you follow the plan. I'd love some feedback (good or bad).

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  4. This couldn't have come at a better time. I need to fall back into love with running instead of dreading it. When you posted about this earlier, I knew it was just what I needed. I am going to start it next week. Can you write more on how long it could take to see the improvement? What should I do after the 6 weeks?

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    1. I hope you find the plan to be what you're looking for! The rate of improvement depends on SO many factors: your current fitness level (mainly your endurance), how frequently you run (I wrote the plan for 160 minutes per week, but if you add more MAF minutes, you should see improvement faster), how hard you do the speed work portion, and several other things that vary from person to person. Some people see improvement after 4 weeks, but some others not for 6 months! I wrote this just for 6 weeks for now to see how it's working out--but after about 4 weeks, I'll add to it and/or make some changes to it. (However, the plans I wrote for "Your Best 5K" and "Your Best 10K" are pretty much the same thing, only there is quite a bit more running per week. It's still a "MAF80" concept--so you could do one of those plans after 6 weeks of this one if you feel like you want to run more.

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  5. I am looking forward to doing it and will let you know how I did. I understand how hard it is to tun slow. I have always wanted to be faster. Maybe this plan will help me.

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  6. Hi Katie! I just wanted to say thank you for creating this plan. I was in a phase where I was dreading running and therefore not getting out very much, but I used to do MAF training and so I wanted to give this plan a try. I am so happy that I did! I am 3 runs into the first week and loving it. I forgot how much I love MAF training, and building in speed work is a great challenge for me as I have always avoided intervals like the plague. Several questions have occurred to me this week, so I figured I would ask them here (though no worries if you don't feel like responding--I know this is a lot!). Thanks again for all the work you put into creating this plan!

    1. Do the MAF runs contemplate any kind of warm-up? I recall when I was MAF training that I would spend 15 minutes warming up to my MAF HR, and then 30 min running at MAF. Just wondering if you had any specific warm-up period in mind for the MAF runs.

    2. Similarly, when trying to get back to MAF during intervals (as opposed to walking), is it ok to slow to a walk to get back to MAF faster, and then increase the pace as needed to maintain MAF? At first I was trying to jog during those rest periods (e.g., for Day 2), but it was taking so long to get back down to MAF.

    3. I always try to stay at the top of my MAF range, but does that really matter? I have to really watch my HR like a hawk to keep it there, so I was thinking it might be easier to aim for 2-4 bpms within the top of the range. I just don't know how much it matters to stay at your precise MAF HR vs. the range.

    4. Do you have any recommendations for an app that will tell you to slow down/speed up to stay in MAF range? The MAF app used to do that and worked great, but they discontinued that app and replaced it with one that only works with their specific MAF brand of headphones, so I am looking for a replacement! I have a Polar H10 chest strap, in case that matters.

    5. Finally, any recommendations for how to MAF train outdoors? I always find that it is so difficult to do because of hills and stopping/starting at intersections, so I generally stick to the treadmill so I can more easily control the speed. But I would love to get outside more before winter hits!

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    1. Hey there! I'm so glad that you are excited about the plan. I'm happy to answer questions...

      1. You don't have to do any sort of warm-up for the MAF runs. Dr. Maffetone may have recommended it, but I don't think it's necessary. As long as you aren't going SO SLOW that it takes you a long time to get to MAF heart rate, I think it's fine without a specific warm-up. (I usually reach MAF within 2-3 minutes.)

      2. Yes! Whatever you'd like to do during the intervals to maintain MAF heart rate in between the fast portions is fine. I have found that I get much better results when I walk the entire recovery, though--even if it makes my heart rate go under MAF. It's better to stay UNDER MAF than it is to go over.

      3. The goal is to stay in the range without going over. So I always try to aim for low- to mid-range, simply because I know it's going to climb as I continue to run.

      4. About an app, I'm not sure. Maybe a reader will be able to answer that. My old Garmin (it's from 2013!) will allow me to set an alert if my heart rate gets too low or too high. But I found that it gives me anxiety. When the alert sounds, I startle a bit and then that just raises my heart rate even more. If you basically try to run as slowly as possible and only look at your heart rate once every quarter mile or so, you should be able to stay in range. If you find that it's over pretty frequently, you may want to incorporate some regular walking. Jog a little, walk a little, etc.

      5. I find MAF easier outside, but I hadn't considered hills! It is pancake-flat where I live and I don't have to deal with traffic lights. You can certainly walk the hills (remember, the MAF training is about heart rate and NOT trying to keep a running pace--during speed work, you can run as fast as you want. Even if you have to do a very slow walk to maintain MAF on a hill, that is totally fine. Your heart doesn't know the difference between running and walking, or fast and slow. It only knows how the beats per minute. So whatever you have to do to maintain your MAF range is fine. As far as the intersections, it's okay to stop, even if you fall below MAF; but maybe you could plan routes that avoid intersections?

      Please continue to let me know how it's going! Hopefully this answered your questions. Thanks for asking! :)

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    2. Thanks, Katie! This is super helpful, particularly about what part of the range to stay in. I think dialing it back to stay in mid-range instead of top of range will make for much chiller runs as I won't tick over the range so easily. The hard runs are still tricky for me since I don't have much interval experience. I don't really know what 7 or 8 or 9 out of 10 effort should feel like. If you've noticed you have a typical heart range that you hit for H and T runs (e.g., 20 bpms over MAF), that would be a helpful guide just so I have some idea as to the amount of effort that I should be expending!

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    3. I just looked back at some of my runs from when I was 10K training, and my heart rate for my tempo runs was roughly 15-20 bpm over MAF. I would basically run the tempo almost as fast as I could manage--but still knowing that I'd be able to finish. Not quite "race pace", but I did push the pace a bit.

      Using heart rate for the short hard intervals isn't very helpful, simply because it takes time for your heart rate to get high--by the time your heart reaches the max rate, the interval will be over. However, I would simply run the short intervals as fast as you can (and still be able to complete them). Then walk until the next interval. Looking at my data, my short fast intervals (2 minutes long) made my heart rate an average of 20-25 bpm over MAF.

      The general rule of thumb with a tempo run is that it should feel "comfortably hard"--you can do it and you know you can, but you really want to stop and take a break. You shouldn't be able to say more than 1-2 words at a time.

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    4. Thank you! I figured there was not going to be an easy answer, but appreciate the data points. :) Clearly the takeaway is that I need to get to know my body better!

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