July 03, 2023

Reader Question: Will MAF ever make me faster?!

Despite the fact that I no longer "train" (or run regularly, for that matter!) I still get asked a particular question pretty frequently. As a running coach, it makes sense that I get questions about running ;)  And running is one of my favorite things to talk/write about!

This question has to do with heart rate training--specifically, MAF training. In short: 'MAF' is a heart rate training method that was developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone; and coincidentally, his method involves a heart rate called Maximum Aerobic Function (i.e. MAF heart rate). From here on out, when I write MAF, I'm referring to the Maximum Aerobic Function heart rate. Heart rate is given in bpm (beats per minute).

(If you want the full, more-information version, here is a post I wrote about the MAF method of training and my thoughts on it.)

Please don't take this as gospel, because it's been a while since I read the MAF book, but the gist is this: a typical person's MAF heart rate is a simple number that is calculated by subtracting their age from 180. (Let's say you are 40 years old--your MAF heart rate would be 140, because 180 bpm - 40 (age)=140 bpm.) 

To train using the MAF method, you do all of your running at or under your MAF heart rate. In the example above, the 40-year old woman goes for a four-mile run several days a week--and each time she runs, she must keep her heart rate at or below 140 beats per minute. Always. No matter the situation.

Let me tell you, it feels VERY SLOW. But we'll get to that in a minute.

According to Dr. Maffetone, if you always run at that MAF heart rate, you will naturally get faster while maintaining the same heart rate. Your muscles and cardiovascular system are getting more efficient each time you run at your MAF rate, and therefore, it takes less effort to do the same amount of work (your running pace).

So, here is the big question/problem that people ask me about frequently: Running at the MAF heart rate is SO SLOW--I have to walk a lot of the time, especially when going uphill, and it feels like I'll never get faster. Does it really work? Will I get faster if I only ever run at my MAF heart rate?

First, let me be clear that I have not done the MAF method 100% for more than a couple of weeks. (I use the MAF formula frequently, but I'll get to that later.) I hadn't really studied the method until a friend told me about it, and the whole idea made so much sense to me. I loved it!

Until I tried to run at MAF pace and was soooo slow that I was very embarrassed. (Wisdom I wish I knew then: Don't ever be embarrassed at what pace you run. Seriously, that's dumb.)

I didn't do MAF training for long because I just didn't have the patience to see it through. I wanted to run FAST, dammit! So I ignored it for a few years. I read a book called Hansons Marathon Method in 2013 to train for the Chicago Marathon. It involved a LOT of running, but it really stressed that most of the running should be SLOW and easy. I didn't even know the meaning of "easy"--all of the runs I thought I was doing at an easy pace were not, in fact, easy. They were pretty much "garbage miles"--too slow for speed work, too fast for cardio efficiency.

(I hope I'm writing this in order--but this is the end result, regardless...) I wanted to train with the Hansons Marathon Method, and decided to use my MAF heart rate as the rate I would use for my easy runs. And finally, I read a book called '80/20 Running' by Matt Fitzgerald--he says to spend 80% of the TIME spent running per week at an easy pace, and 20% of the TIME can be spent doing work that raises your heart rate into a particular zone. (It's key to note that it's *time* and not *distance*.)

I sort of combined the methods to train for Chicago: the training plan in the Hansons Marathon Method Book (you can find my review of the whole method here); the 80/20 rule; and using my MAF heart rate to be the heart rate I spent 80% of my time running.

I took this picture after the hardest training run I've ever done: 3 x 2 miles at race pace (for me, that was 7:55/mile at the time). 

Training for a marathon is more of an extreme example for this particular question about MAF training. I used the method mostly during my training for a 10K (spending 80% of my time at MAF heart rate and 20% of the time doing HARD speed work).

I came in second female overall at a 5K that I decided to use as speed work.

I had results. Really good results, in fact.

I wish I could answer the question that I'm asked so frequently--about whether following MAF exactly as it should be will yield the best results--but I can say that the MAF training heart rate number was perfect for my own training.

The pace I had to run at that number felt way too slow (and yes, I had to walk quite a bit to lower it) in the beginning. At that time, I'd been trying to follow the MAF program as written; however, I got impatient and decided to combine it with the 80/20 Method. Then I could get my "fix" of fast running once in a while.

Using the combination of the MAF easy runs (80% of the time) and very hard speed work (which I'll describe), took my 10K pace from about 11:00/mile to 7:55/mile in about six months. I trained SO HARD and definitely got the results I wanted. (Unfortunately, I was burnt out after going after such a lofty goal.) I hit my 10K goal, which was thrilling.

I absolutely think that the MAF method on it's own probably works--thousands of people rave about it. And actually, if you want to read a book about a famous runner who followed this sort of heart rate training and felt SO SLOW at first, check out Rich Roll's memoir called 'Finding Ultra' (the link is to my favorite running books, so you can find it there). 

So, for the official answer to my question...

Yes, I believe that the MAF method works if you do it like you are supposed to. I didn't do it for long (only a couple of weeks) but I could understand how it starts to feel easier at the same heart rate.

Also, when I first started training with MAF heart rate, I felt super slow. But I forced myself to trust the process (I think my pace was 13-something a mile--when I was used to calling my "easy" runs 9- or 10- something per mile, haha!). I remember my MAF heart rate being 146 bpm, and I always kept my pace below that number when I was doing "easy runs".

Per my own permission, I spent 20% of my running time each week doing speed work--intervals and/or tempo runs. And I went hog wild with them, making each of those workouts really count. Seriously, I gave them my ALL. I think that was important--what's the point of half-assed speed work?

I think the combination of the two methods is a great way to train, regardless of the distance. I wrote out several places that use the method; you can check out my free training plans on this page. The plans can even be used for walking--I've discovered I have to walk VERY fast to get my heart rate up to MAF; and holy smokes, it's a tough workout. 

You could actually use this method for any sort of cardio exercise you like to do, now that I think about it. The whole point is to make your body more efficient at the workload you give it; and it does this by being trained, over and over, at that particular exertion (your MAF heart rate). Eventually, you'll have to work really hard to get it up there!

(If I remember correctly, I think my "easy runs", using MAF heart rate during 10K training, went from 13:00 minutes+ per mile to just under 10:00 per mile. At the same heart rate of 146 bpm! I wish I could tell whether it was the MAF method, the 80/20 Method, or a combination of the two that did it, but I'll never know for sure.)

After all is said and done, it wouldn't hurt to TRY doing the MAF Method exactly as intended--see what happens. (And definitely email me and let me know.) If you really don't see good results after the time that Dr. Maffetone suggests, you can always decide to try a different method (or try adding speed work, like I did). But there certainly isn't anything wrong with giving it a try.

I think the hardest part about it is all mental--making yourself run/walk/bike/etc. much slower than you want or that you're used to is mentally challenging! I'm sure that once you start to see results, it will be encouraging, though. 

(Oh, this is a random question that deserves a spot here as well: Dr. Maffetone says that you don't have to change your MAF heart rate every year on your birthday. He says that as long as it's working for you and your health hasn't changed, you don't need to change it. I found 146 bpm worked so well for me when 10K training that I used that number for a couple of years.)

This post isn't nearly as clear as I hoped it would be, but I wanted to try to write this info in one place for anyone who may be wondering the same question. Give MAF a try, and let us know how it works out for you! Or, make it your own and work the MAF method into your own training like I did.

1 comment:

  1. I love/hate MAF. And lately, it's the best I can do. And that's probably what I should have been doing all along. Thanks for this comprehensive post!


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