My Start with MAF Training

I’m not going to jazz it up for the sake of my writing, my start with the Maffetone method was a decisively dull affair. I’d only decided to give it a trial, and if it didn’t work I would have only lost a few months of training, and then could go back to flogging myself round the track and up and down hills. As I strapped the heart-rate monitor on, there wasn’t a glorious sunbeam of revelation that shone on the way ahead for me, illuminating the way to improved health, training and racing. I wasn’t floating along with an angelic choir rejoicing at the discovery of a different method of training. I was just slow. In the year before I’d been running without a heart-rate monitor and would claim that I felt comfortable running at 7.30min/mile and would label my runs accordingly on fitness tracking sites like Strava – ‘easy run’ – when secretly it was actually quite tough. As most of my runs that year had been at target race-pace, of 6.52min/mile, I guess the 7.30min/mile pace would have seemed relatively easy. Having read up on Maffetone and his method, I headed out for this first run feeling enthusiastic about the performance benefits that his method claimed to offer. His books and other material had told me I would be running slowly at my MAF heart rate of 155bpm, so I went out prepared to look like a jogger, rather than the prime runner I would of liked to consider myself to be. Maybe this slow jogging would be 7.45min/mile, perhaps even below 8min/mile – oddly I felt that I’d have to title my run with some excuses if it was this sort of pace, letting the Strava fans know why I was running much slower than normal.

So in July 2015, I completed my first MAF run – 2 miles, at 9.04min/mile at 151bpm – a slight reality check.  This pace felt so easy – I didn’t feel like I’d been for a run when I got back home. Normally after a run I’d have aching, tired, heavy legs, but I didn’t after this one. It was a very peculiar feeling.  It made me question what I was doing. Is this Maffetone guy really suggesting running at 9min/mile for a few months was going to improve my ability to run at 6min/mile and set new 5k PBs (which stood at 18.40, 6.01min/mile)? To say I was sceptical would have been an understatement. Everyone I knew trained going out and doing intervals, repeatedly smashing out above-race pace runs, bikes and swims – why was I thinking I could beat them all by training so slowly? When confronted with these thoughts I thought back to the issues I’d had the previous two seasons, with injuries, the disappointment of missing sessions and not racing as fast as I knew I could. Reflecting on the pain of these experiences, I persevered with the MAF method, which had assured me that I would be much healthier training this way.

The next few runs were slightly better, with a 3 and 4-mile runs at 8.35min/mile pace and 155bpm and a 5miler at 8.51min/mile.  Disappointed with my times, I investigated Maffetone’s diet advice too. In a nutshell, he suggests cutting out a lot of the high-sugar foods and replacing them with good quality fats. This confused me as we’re always being told by the media and scientists that fat is bad and will cause you to have strokes and heart attacks – bad things. However, when I learnt about how fat works in the body, how it helps reduce inflammation and is important in hormone production, and how some carbohydrates quickly spike your blood sugar causing spikes and drop outs in energy, and is often stored as body fat anyway, I decided to commit to the MAF method, and change my ways. This meant I ate more good fats, like eggs and fish, and cut down on the cereals, white bread and white pasta.

I don’t know whether it was dietary changes, or just my body adjusting to the new workout regime, but within two months of doing a few bike rides and a few runs a week at my MAF heart rate, I was able to run for an hour at 7.59min/mile, over a minute per mile faster than I started. I was pretty pleased with my progress.  I even managed one 5k at 7.34min/mile.
To support my easy base-training in swimming, biking and running, I scheduled two strength and conditioning sessions a week in the gym. Sessions were focused on injury prevention and maintaining some strength, as I was sure that my legs were wasting away despite the improved times I was running at.

After 3 months of base-training, I went out for a long-run of about 10 miles, got lost and ended up running a half-marathon distance. However, as this was all at 155bpm, it felt really quite easy, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I’d run 13.1miles in 1.44.16, at 7.57min/mile.  Considering that a little over 90days ago I only did couple of miles at 9min/mile I was astonished with my progress.  I was really excited to see where I would get to by the New Year, when I would start intervals and anaerobic training again.
However, injury and illness were not done with me just yet. There was a bug going round at university at the time, and a few too many late nights out left me struggling with a chest infection. Despite radically changing how I trained, I still managed to get ill. Looking back, I can see that I was probably over-training and over-loading my body. As the workouts seemed easy, I crammed more of them into my schedule and was training twice a day, almost every day. After 6 weeks of being ill, I had my end of semester exams, and then did some travelling in New York City over Christmas, then in Canada in January, not training too much and eating terribly. By the time I came home in mid-January my run pace had dropped and I was back to 8.36min/mile over 3miles.

I had my first race of the year in late February 2016, a half-marathon, so got back on the training. I still wanted to break 1hr30 for that race. I did one more month of base training, before adding one anaerobic interval session a week back into the schedule at the beginning of February. The week before the half-marathon I tested my fitness by running 5 miles round the athletics track, to see how my pace was on a flat surface, with each mile easily comparable. I ran with an average pace of 8.22min/mile at 155bpm. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the race that week as I knew that’d managed to get my 155bpm-pace almost 40seconds a mile quicker in October 2015, so I wasn’t in peak fitness. Surprisingly, the race went well though. I set a new personal best of 1.30.46 – not quite what I’d hoped for, but I was excited – if my MAF, 155bpm pace was 40seconds a mile slower than it had been before, and I still set a new PB, what could I have run had I been as fit as I was in October?
With renewed enthusiasm, I did another base training month in March before doing 4 weeks with a couple of anaerobic sessions thrown in before Southampton Half Marathon in April 2016. I was excited about this race as I had tested my fitness around a track again at 155bpm, and managed 7.56min/mile, 22 seconds a mile faster than a couple of months before. I was dreaming that I might even break 1hr29 after the 4 months of consistent training I’d managed. The day of the race came and I smashed all my expectations. I recorded on my watch a 1.25.40, (although the chip time said 1.26.01 due to some confusion as to where the actual start was!). I was blown away. In a few months of consistent training I’d managed to take my half-marathon pace from 6.55min/mile, to 6.34min/mile and find 5 minutes. That was a massive improvement. It was truly shocking, and so very exciting!

Being aware of overtraining, I went into my triathlon races with renewed vigour and was the fastest finisher from my university at the British and College Sport Sprint Triathlon Championships. From here I went on to place second overall in the Grand Shaftsbury Sprint Triathlon in June, and by October, smash my 5k to 17.56, 44 seconds faster than I had managed just a year before. I was so pleased after this season that I decided to stick with the MAF method for another year.

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