MAF Training - Low Heart Rate Training

HR watch

MAF Training stands for Maximum Aerobic Function Training. 

If any of the following resonates with you then read on as MAF training might be right for you:

  • You are a new runner.
  • You often have running related injuries.
  • You want to reducing your running injury risk.
  • You are less enthusiastic about running than you used to be.
  • You dread speed work.
  • Your race times have slowed or you are just not improving.
  • You lead a stressful lifestyle.
  • You want to improve your overall health.
  • You are gaining weight in spite of extra exercise.

Why I Chose MAF Training

I have been running consistently for several years now but up until I started MAF training I noticed that I seemed to be getting frequent injuries whether it was my Achilles or my IT band or something else.

Gradually my runs became less and less enjoyable and I started to dread the faster workouts or my long runs. I tended to start them in a state of anxiety, wondering:

"Am I going to get injured today?"

"Am I going to be totally shattered?".

Also my race times were not improving. In fact they were regressing with having to take time off on a regular basis.

The final straw was when I had to take the whole summer off with Achilles tendinitis. I then decided I needed a different plan of training. I wanted to enjoy running again and to not be constantly stressed about it.

I looked long and hard at what I might be doing wrong and how I could improve things and that's when I discovered the Maffetone training method, or MAF as people tend to say.

The Basics of MAF Training

Most people run by pace or speed and many have the no pain no gain attitude.  If they haven't run fast, run hard and broken into a sweat then they haven't gained any benefits.

Actually, what people don't realise, is that by doing most of your running slowly, this in fact strengthens your body systems and over time  you will be a better and faster runner. Our bodies are complicated things!

With MAF Training, you run by heart rate as opposed to speed and pace.

Using MAF training, your heart rate will dictate your run and how fast you should go and not the other way round. The higher your heart rate, the more stress your body is under so by running with a lower heart rate, you are aiming to reduce stress but at the same time improving your running efficiency.

Using a specific formula based on age and current health, you calculate your MAF running HR (heart rate) and you do ALL your training runs (to begin with) based on your HR. Pace and speed are secondary.

So for me, my current MAF heart rate is 125. I do all my training  at a speed which does not let my HR go over 125. 

How will MAF training make you a better runner?

We have 2 systems in our body for providing energy. The aerobic system and the anaerobic system. 

Aerobic system:

The aerobic system uses oxygen to provide energy to your muscles. As you breathe in, your body uses the oxygen it needs to power the muscles, and then as you exhale, your body gets rid of what it does not need in the form of carbon dioxide and water. 

Anaerobic system:

The anaerobic system comes into play when there is not enough oxygen for your needs, such as when you are running hard and fast and your muscles are crying out for energy to keep them going. In this case, as there is not enough oxygen, the muscles start to break down their supply of sugar in order to create the energy that you need. The byproduct of this process is lactate. Normally the body can get rid of these byproducts but without enough oxygen to help clear it up,  the lactate builds up and you end up with that burning pain in your muscles.

Try this test: 

  1. Find a flat area like a sports field or park and walk around it for 5 minutes. If you can talk or sing whilst walking and without getting out of breath, then you are probably using your aerobic system. Your body and muscles are engaged but they are not stressed and you could go on walking for a long time.
  2. Now run around for 5 mins so that you can feel your heart rate rising and you are unable to have a proper conversation without gulping for air. Chances are you are now using your anaerobic system. Your body does not have enough oxygen for its energy needs and is starting to use the glucose in your muscles to provide energy. This glucose over time will run out and you will then tire.

How great it would be if you could run around that sports field and not get out of breath and not have your HR shooting up. Well that is where MAF training comes in. 

The theory behind MAF training, is to build up your aerobic system so that your body can run faster and faster at a lower HR and delay the time when your body needs to use the anaerobic system. This means you can run longer and faster before your body begins to tire.

Not only is this a much more comfortable feeling but there is far less stress on your body which means far less injuries or none at all. Yeah!

My MAF Training Experience

When I started MAF training in November 2015, the average pace that I could run whilst keeping my heart rate at or below 125 (my calculated MAF heat rate) was 15:17 minutes/mile or 9:30 minutes/km.

I could only run or shuffle on the flat and any slight incline, like stepping up a pavement or a small slope, meant I had to walk to keep my HR down. My aerobic system was obviously pretty poor. I was so embarrassed by my slow shuffle, that I would purposely find running routes where I knew that I wouldn't meet anyone that I knew and I avoided putting my runs up on Garmin.

I was also not sure if this whole MAF thing was going to work for me. I didn't know anyone who did it as it was just something I had discovered on the internet. It was kind of an experiment that I that I "hoped" would work.

However as the months went on I suddenly realized that I was getting faster but at the same heart rate. It took a while mind you and I understood now why everyone on the forums said give it at least 6 months. 

After 6 months of "MAF-ING", the racing season started. I was pretty panicked and nearly backed out of my first race as I wasn't sure how my body was going to cope. I had done next to no traditional speed work whilst everyone around me had been sweating their guts out doing intervals and tempo runs.

However when my first race was over, I was a total convert to MAF. Not only had my legs not forgotten how to move fast but they were faster than before and I didn't once have that feeling that my lungs were exploding or that my heart was going to jump out of my mouth.

After 11 months and having done 80% or more of my runs at or below my MAF heart rate, my pace was now 11:32 minutes/mile or 7:10 minutes/km. I had knocked a whopping 2:20 minutes off each km. And all with just slow running and keeping within my heart rate zone. 

I am such a convert now and realize that this is the sort of running that really suits me. My husband Bill has even just started doing it having said that he could "never" run that slow. I think he was amazed that I recently knocked 13 minutes off my personal best in a half marathon and had zero injuries or fatigue afterwards.

For older runners who aren't as strong as their younger selves, the MAF method  is a much safer and easier way to get fitter as opposed to the faster and more intense training methods.

In fact I think everyone, no matter what your age, can benefit from MAF training.

MAF Training Resources

If you need any advice or a bit of support, you are more than welcome to contact me here or ask a question below.

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