The Miracle of MAF (and the need for blind faith)

Boring Warning, If you don’t like training by numbers, please scroll on by!

It’s been a fun few weeks, trying to finalize goals for 2020 and then building the training plans to reach them. A couple of weeks ago I was fairly sure I knew what I was doing, but continued to have a nagging doubt in my mind if I was just setting myself up for more of the same. After some further thought and some “honest as possible” soul searching, I have decided to stretch out my plans further, being more conservative with the short term goals to eventually realise my ridiculously unrealizable long term goals!

Having done some more research on MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) training, I have decided to make that the first main plank of the plan. In brief this means running (almost) exclusively at a HR of 180 minus current age plus/minus a few variables, at high weekly volume.  The idea being that by staying in pure aerobic zone, you will be increase strength and endurance by enhanced aerobic fat burning capabilities, without the damage normally associated with running. As the weeks pass and your body adapts, you should see your pace increase while HR stays the same, basically meaning faster running with less effort…. Well that is the theory, and I have decided to commit myself to find out if it works.

Phil Maffetone
The big yellow book that holds all the secrets

If you have never tried running at this very low level heart rate, you may be surprised how ridiculously slow this is, and it really takes a massive leap of faith to imagine that by running so slowly you’ll actually get faster. In my case the maths gives me a MAF maximum HR of 126bpm. To give you an idea how that translates, my average training run pace has dropped from around 5:30 – 5:45minutes per km, to 7:20-:7:40 minutes. And if there are strong winds, high heat or hills it gets worse, with it occasionally requiring I walk the hills to keep under my ascribed heart rate.

But I have already seen some positives. Firstly, once you decide to do this,  it isn’t so hard to put the ego on the back burner and plod a long, allowing all the other runners to speed by you. I thought about having a t-shirt made up with “I’m only this slow because I am  training at MAF” emblazoned across it. But now I just console myself that those other runners simply don’t know as much as I do, and my superior knowledge will lead me to the promised land while they’re are waylaid by injury and exhaustion. OK a little cocky and obnoxious, but when you’re passed by every man and his dog (and lady with pushchair!), you need something to salve the self-esteem.

Run at MAF chart
The horrifying reality of running at low heart rate

Secondly, I don’t suffer any of the tiredness I would normally associate with high volume running. This week I managed to run daily for the first time since July, roughly 50 minutes a day, with one longer run at the weekend, for a weekly total of 52km in 6.5 hours. But I haven’t felt tired at all, happy to just keeping plodding along, with the only frustration being the need to slow down a touch every KM as my HR rises the longer I run.

Thirdly, my Achilles is holding up. I still have some slight issues, but really nothing to concern me and by running without over stressing, I am strengthening it and hopefully I should be 100% pain free shortly, and much better set up to increase distances without further injury.

And finally the undisclosed benefit is that without the tiredness, pain or need to push myself hard, I am finding it much easier to get my arse out the door and do the run I am supposed to do. Also I have more energy to put into bike and swim sessions so it really seems to be a win-win situation.

An interesting side note is that while I am not using MAF for anything but running presently, my bike currently seems to stay pretty much within the perimeters naturally. I have never tried to measure my HR on swim, but plan to do that shortly.

All being well, I will stay 100% MAF for three months, increasing slowly to around 10hrs a week running, which as my pace increases should see me hitting 80- 100km weekly, while staying in zone 2 heart rate. Once I reach those numbers I will start adding in weekly intervals to get my leg speed up, although legend has it (and many stories online to back this up), speed work is not necessary, that by sticking to MAF formula and the whole nutrition that goes with it, it’s possible to go at a significantly faster pace during races without ever going that fast in training.

Yes the numbers are all a bit confusing, but in my calculations, assuming training goes as planned , that could easily have me completing a marathon at well under my Boston qualifying time of 3:30, and a 6 minute PB for me, all without the pain or tiredness that usually goes with marathon training!

Well, that as I said that is the plan, we will see over the next few months f that’s how it all works out. I plan to document with weekly blog updates how things progress. As one of my running buddies said, I have nothing to lose, and the new strategy is interesting me enough to get joy out of my running again. And that is really what it’s all about.


11 thoughts on “The Miracle of MAF (and the need for blind faith)

  1. Very interested to see how this goes. As life-long runner, I’ve tried a few different regimes over the years, mostly for triathlon and marathons, with mixed success. I’ll be 52 this month, so there’s something very attractive about this, I admit. Mind you, only yesterday, I was planning my attempt at a sub-20 5k next year, and a 146k ultra run along a canal. So to say I am scatty about my goals would be an understatement…


      1. I was going to enjoy it this time, so probably do it over 2 days. It’s doable in one, but one of the issues is the surface underfoot. There are sections along the canal that are just awful for running, and it will be self-supported, so spraining an ankle at 4 in the morning in the middle of nowhere is probably something to be avoided!


      2. Yes, I had a look at the 80/20 approach. I suspect there’s little or no study on the comparative effects per athlete on all these different methods. You would need a fairly decent study group willing to try all the options under set conditions. And if the MAF approach at least gets you some of the way there in terms of aerobic fitness, you can always add some lactate stuff towards the end. No doubt you’ll keep us all posted anyway 😉


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