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 are an older 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.

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 feel that they haven't gained any benefits.

Actually, what people don't realise, is that by doing most of your running slowly, you are  in fact strengthening all your body systems.  You will be less likely to get injured and over time you will become a stronger and faster runner. Our bodies are complicated things!

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 you will be improving your running efficiency.

Below I'll show you how to calculate your MAF heart rate or you can jump there now.

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

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 fast around that sports field and not get out of breath and not have your heart rate (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!

MAF training not only results in you running faster at a lower heart rate but it also helps develop lots of other systems in the body.

These include:

  • Your heart muscle gets stronger.
  • Your mitochondria (the parts of cells that turn the sugars, fats and proteins that we eat, into forms of usable chemical energy) increase, which means more energy for your muscles.
  • Your physical stress levels decrease.
  • You burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates, so it is a great way of training if you need to lose a few pounds or that flabby belly.
  • Since there is less stress on your body, you can run for longer. This is great if you are training for a semi marathon or longer endurance event.

Calculating your MAF Heart Rate

Using a specific formula based on age and current health, you calculate your MAF running HR and you do ALL your training runs (to begin with) based on your HR. Your HR and time on your feet are the most important aspects. Forget pace and speed.

As a general rule your MAF HR is 180 minus your age. You can make some modifications to this rule depending on several factors.   Here's how to calculate your HR using the MAF formula.

So if for example you are aged 50 and are in good health, then your MAF heart rate will be 180-50 = 130.  Your MAF range for training will be 120-130 beats per minute.

My MAF Training Experience

Before I started MAF training, I had been running for about 3 years. I trained like most other people around me. Train hard, train fast and push yourself as much as you can.

At first, I improved and got faster and regularly was placed in the top 3 for my age group during races. However my improvement and physical health soon started to crumble.

I seemed to be getting frequent injuries whether it was my Achilles or my IT band or something else and my race times were not improving. In fact they were regressing with having to take time off on a regular basis.

Gradually my runs became less and less enjoyable and I started to dread the faster workouts or my long runs. I knew then it was time to change my training method, as after all I did really want to enjoy running again.

Then in November 2015, I discovered MAF training.

At first, the average pace that I could run whilst keeping my heart rate at or below 125 (my MAF heart rate), was 15:17 minutes/mile or 9:30 minutes/km. Slow.

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 poorly developed.

I was so embarrassed by my slow shuffle, that I would purposely find running routes where 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.

Fast forward a few years and I am still a MAF convert. I have rekindled my love of running, I enjoy my runs, I have the time to appreciate my surroundings and best of all I am injury free. I also don't get home knackered and feel like I need to eat the contents of my fridge.

You may be wondering whether you have to do MAF training all the time and forever. That depends on what your goals are. If you are happy running slower, are enjoying the benefits and are feeling in good health, than perfect, stay with MAF.

For me, who likes to do races from 5km upwards, I personally do also need to stress my body with some speed-work every now and then. This gives me a mental boost more than anything but does also remind my muscles that they can run fast if they want to.

I currently do a base period of only MAF training during the winter months when I am not training for any races. So this could be say a 4 month block. Then when the racing season is starting, I will incorporate some speed work but not more than 20% of my total weekly running time.

To help me not overdo the 20%, I use Matt Fitzgerald's 80/20 running plans as they tie in perfectly with the MAF training method.

Getting started with MAF Training

Take your time to read up about it. There are some great forums and facebook support pages too. 

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

> MAF Training