Train Well – The Magic Ingredients, Part 1: MAF Training

In my previous blog post I mentioned that one of my goals was to “train well”. There are a number of aspects to “training well” in my opinion so over the next few blog posts I am going to talk about what I consider to be “training well”. To begin with, I want to tell you three stories. The first involves little old me, the second, one of the greatest triathletes of all time and the third involved a current professional triathlete who had a breakthrough Kona last year (2015).

I have a history of issues with hamstring injury which makes it difficult / dangerous for me to do high intensity running, specifically track sessions. This injury has at times in the past stopped me from running altogether so I have to be very careful not to push too hard and make the injury flare up again. After Ironman South Africa 2015 I decided to stop doing high intensity running altogether and leading up to 70.3 Durban 2015 I only ran to heart rate – specifically MAF heart rate as defined by Dr. Phill Maffetone (more below), which is 142bpm in my case. All my long runs and my short runs were all done to this heart rate. Slowly, over time I noticed a progression in my pace running at 142bpm: I went from 5:30 per km at the beginning to 4:45 per km closer to the race. During the race in Durban I ran a PB for a half marathon of 1:38. This was not only a PB for a half marathon during a triathlon, but a PB for a half marathon, triathlon or not. Again, I did this while doing no hard running.

Mark Allen is considered one of the greatest triathletes of all time. He is most well known for winning 6 Ironman World Championships but he also dominated shorter (higher intensity) races during his day. The thing is, out of season his training mates used to think he was getting slow. He would frequently be dropped when riding with others and do a lot of his training by himself, at his own pace. Then when the season came around, suddenly things changed and he sped up dramatically, dropping everyone else (literally everyone!) and winning 6 x Kona and 10 x Nice International Championships (probably the equivalent of Kona back in the day but less important with the passage of time). Now the question is: what was he doing? Mark Allen was coached by Phil Maffetone – he would train to his MAF heart rate out of season, building a massive endurance engine and then when the season came around he would layer on power and speed and school everyone.

Timothy O’Donnell is one of the most successful triathletes of our time. Although he has not (yet) won Kona he won the 2009 ITU Long Distance championships and has won numerous Ironman races. Tim started working with Mark Allen in 2014. In a number of interviews since both Tim and Mark have referred to a “gap” in Tim’s previous training – although he is a professional triathlete and has years of endurance training behind him, his endurance base was letting him down. Mark and Tim then worked together to do a significant amount of training to address this imbalance, which seems to have worked. Tim disappeared off the front of the bike in Kona 2015 wondering why everyone else was going so slow and eventually managed to hold on for third, considered by many a breakthrough performance. What did Tim do to make a difference? He followed Marks guidance and worked at this magic MAF heart rate.

So how do you find out about this magic little ingredient? The best source, is the man himself, Dr. Phil Maffetone and you can read all about him and his magic 180 formula here. Simply put the ingredient is to train as much as possible at your MAF heart rate until you plateau and then shake things up. This explanation probably leads to more questions than answers for example:

  1. Should I train to this heart rate on the bike and run?
    Yes, yes you should. It will be hard to keep your heart rate down to this rate while running and hard to get your heart rate up to this level while on the bike but you still need to do it. Over time your body will adapt: your legs will become stronger and your running efficiency improve. This will make it easier to run / cycle at your MAF heart rate. Dr. Phil is quite adamant about this – there are no exceptions.
  2. How do I know if it is working?
    Do a MAF test. This is explained on Dr. Phil’s website and is the best way of measuring your progression.
  3. But I’m getting slower at my MAF heart rate!
    The Maffetone method is a holistic method. If you are getting slower (or not improving, or improving slowly) you need to look beyond your training. Are you sick? Are you eating well? Have you been more stressed than normal? Are you injured? Any of these problems could lead to a lack of improvement in performance or even a regression in performance.
  4. I’ve improved a lot but now I’m at a plateau. What now?
    There are a number of possible things to look at: is your diet helping you or hindering you? You could also have achieved your maximum current performance at your MAF and you may now need to shake it up by doing some more intensity or something else different.

The key take away from this story is that many of of can improve by working on our endurance base, with specific work done at MAF heart rate. It’s not as glamorous as smashing out a tough run session of dropping everyone in a group ride, but if your goal is to race as fast as possible, there is a good chance you can get faster but working at MAF heart rate.

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