Tag Archives: MAF

Marathon Training, Part 1: Basic Requirements

When people want to know how to train for a marathon, they usually ask you for a training plan. This typically typically center around the following:

  • What kinds of workouts you’re supposed do.
  • How long those workouts should be.
  • How long you have to train before you’re ready.

Answering these questions is very difficult (if not impossible). Everyone is different, and begins their training at a different point. 

These questions are far too vague (or depending how you look at it, far too specific). It’s only a question that applies to you in particular. So instead of providing a training plan, I like to arrive at the issue from a different direction. The question I ask is:

How do you know that a body is ready for a marathon?

This question is much more useful. Why? Because being ready for a marathon is the same for every human.

The catch is that how to get there might be wildly different from one person to the next. For one particular person, your basic marathon training plan might be exactly what they need. Someone else may need to train for much longer, or with less intensity (or both). For yet another person, it might not include a crucial element that particular person needs—an element with which the training plan might work perfectly.

You’ll find that when you genuinely ask the above question—and truly inquire as to what it takes for a body to be physically and physiologically ready to run a marathon—you’ll inevitably conclude that ninety-five percent of the people who do cross the finish line of a marathon were not prepared to run the race.

I believe that one of the most important reasons that injury and illness is so rampant in the marathon is NOT because the marathon is inherently injurious, but rather because it is so physically and physiologically demandingand the vast majority of people who run it have not achieved the capability of meeting those demands.

A major goal of mine in life is that people do NOT get injured running a marathon (or any other race). And I believe that a first step in that direction is to help people understand what “being ready for a marathon” really means from a physical and physiological standpoint—beginning with the idea that there is such a thing as being “marathon-ready.” Only then can we genuinely expect ourselves—the individuals who constitute a modern athletic culture—to face a marathon with every expectation of success.

 I answer the question of marathon readiness in the following ways:


In order to run at peak efficiency, you must be able to sustain a cadence in the ballpark of 180 steps per minute (spm). This is important because the critical systems necessary for maximizing running economy only become activated at around that cadence. For an array of biomechanic and metabolic reasons, it’s important that our definition of “running” includes the activation of these critical systems. The above means that to run a marathon:


It is said that 99% of the energy that you use to run a marathon comes from the aerobic system. This means that you must be able to run the race at an overwhelmingly aerobic intensity. How fast?

Putting the two together

The above two requirements, when put together, give us a third, “master” requirement:

  • You must be able to produce a cadence in the ballpark of 180 spm while running at a pace that is 15 sec/mile faster than your speed at aerobic threshold, and maintain it for the duration of the marathon.

A word on training load

There’s another way to look at this issue: how much someone needs to be able to sustainably train in a given week to be reasonably certain that they can run the race.

Sustainably means that there is no increase in stress, no nagging pains, and every reason to believe that the body can continue to train at that rate without injury.

So, a marathoner’s easy week should look like:

  • A volume of twice the race distance (50-53 miles).
  • An intensity that is exclusively aerobic (under the aerobic threshold).

*A good way to estimate the aerobic threshold without the need for a laboratory is by using Dr. Phil Maffetone’s 180-Formula. The 180-Formula produces the MAF HR, or Maximum Aerobic Function Heart Rate.

Sample easy week

All training is under the MAF HR, and cadence remains relatively close to 180 spm.

  • Mon    7 mi
  • Tue     9 mi
  • Wed    7 mi
  • Thu     9 mi
  • Fri       7 mi
  • Sat       12 mi
  • Sun     REST


There are no guarantees in life. But if you can run an easy week like this, I can be reasonably sure that you’re ready (or almost ready) to run a marathon. How to work up to this, and how to navigate the many pitfalls and angles of the journey, is the hard part.

Part of why I rarely give training plans or talk about these requirements—popular demand has essentially forced me to—is because you can’t really meet them if you haven’t ironed out all of the physiological, biomechanic, and neuromuscular issues your body may have.

(And again: that’s the hard part—and it’s the part that you can’t really address with a training plan.)

And even if the prospect of running a marathon has never been in your sights, once you do iron out enough of your body’s athletic issues, you’ll find that going on 25-odd mile, easy long runs every month has become a fact of life. You’ve become familiar with the distance—and the idea of running it a little faster with a lot of other people seems as simple as that.

(This post is about being ready for a marathon. How to become competitive at the marathon is, of course, a different question.)

Runners: “Aerobic training” is not the same as “Endurance training.”

It’s common that training which develops the aerobic system is equated with training that increases the body’s endurance. It’s understandable: the aerobic system burns fats in the presence of oxygen in order to provide long-term energy for the body—exactly what it needs for endurance. But the problem is that a powerful aerobic system isn’t the only thing necessary for increase endurance.

The most important difference between “aerobic training” and “endurance training” is this: the former trains a critical supersystem of the human body (the aerobic system), while the latter improves the product of the successful interaction between the aerobic system and many other parts and functions of the body (endurance performance).

What runs isn’t the aerobic system—it’s the entire body. While the aerobic system can be powerful, it can’t perform on its own. Whenever we talk about “performance,” even when the subject is endurance performance, we’re talking about how (and how well) the body uses its aerobic power to create one particular kind of athletic movement.

Roughly, endurance means: “how long the body can produce a particular movement or action without falling below a minimum threshold of performance.”

Another way to say this is that the aerobic power is general, and endurance is specific. Geoffrey Mutai (elite marathoner) and Alberto Contador (Tour de France cyclist) both have extraordinary aerobic systems. In both athletes, all the parts that enable their muscles to be fueled for long periods of time are extremely developed.

It should be noted that in both athletes, we are talking about developing essentially the same parts, developed to comparable levels and talking to each other in very similar ways. Both these athletes also obtain fundamentally the same general physiological benefits—a greater ability to recover, better health, longer careers—all despite competing in wildly different sports.

However, their endurance in specific sports varies wildly. We can expect Mutai to be a proficient cyclist, and Contador to be an able runner, but we can expect neither to have world-class endurance in the other’s field. In other words, Mutai’s endurance is specific to running, and Contador’s is specific to cycling. This is because:

  • Both sports use different sets of muscles: runners use a larger set of muscles for stability than cyclists, since the latter have so many more points of support. Cyclists have the handlebars, pedals, and seat, whereas runners have at most 1 foot on the ground.
  • They load joints in different ways, and use very different ranges of motion: cyclists keep their waist and hips relatively flexed, while runners keep the same joints extended.
  • They use different neuromuscular mechanisms to facilitate endurance: running economy depends on a powerful stretch-shortening cycle, while cycling economy does not.

In my opinion, the stretch-shortening cycle is the most important piece of the running puzzle (and also one of the most overlooked). Running shares a lot of pieces with just about every sport—and developing them is very important if you want to become a good runner. But without an increasingly powerful stretch-shortening cycle, all the power that you develop in any other system (cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.) doesn’t translate into actual running performance increases.

As discussed above, the aerobic system is responsible for sustaining endurance. The best way to exclusively train the aerobic system is by running at a physiologically intensity (below the aerobic threshold).

This is a problem for less aerobically-developed runners: it takes a lot of juice to run the stretch-shortening cycle effectively. In previous posts I discussed how the minimum requirement for running properly is to be able to produce a (very fast) cadence of around 180 steps per minute (spm). This is because the muscles’ stretch-shortening cycle hits peak efficiency around that cadence.

So, these runners often need to run at a higher intensity: they’ll use the maximum output of the aerobic system at max and engage some of the anaerobic system in order to produce a cadence of 180 and properly activate their stretch-shortening cycle. If they fall below their aerobic threshold with the goal of doing “aerobic training,” their cadence falls and the stretch-shortening cycle will largely deactivate.

When I talk about hitting 180, I mean hitting 180 at an average step length: It’s possible for a weaker runner to shorten their stride to artificially increase their cadence without going above the aerobic threshold. But I consider this a rather useless hack, since in my experience it doesn’t really get runners the performance benefits expected of reaching “the magic 180 mark.” (More on this in a future post.)

For a workout to be “running performance training” (endurance or otherwise), it needs to train the key pieces necessary to improve running performance. So whenever you’re not actively training the stretch-shortening cycle, you’re not really doing “running performance training” in my book. “Running endurance training” would be about teaching the body how to run for longer, at a lower intensity, while maintaining a reasonable cadence.

So, whenever an aerobically weak runner trains under the aerobic threshold, I consider it to be quality aerobic training but NOT “running performance training.”

It’s not that their running performance won’t increase—it will. Let me illustrate with a rather extreme example: If playing checkers is the only active thing someone does, playing checkers is better for their running performance than not doing so. But because it doesn’t train the critical systems for running, I don’t think of it as “running performance training.”

Of course, running at a low cadence shares a lot more with running at a high cadence than playing checkers does. But the idea here is to set the highest possible bar for what “running performance training” should mean: training the key systems that running performance rests on. And running without substantially activating the stretch-shortening cycle really doesn’t meet that criteria.

(We can say that running without the stretch-shortening cycle still helps you to improve your running—to a point. But you can’t hope to maximize your performance gains without it.)

For a competent runner (someone who can engage their stretch-shortening cycle at low physiological intensity), “aerobic training” and “running endurance training” become identical: just about all of their training provides all the benefits they need to maximize their running endurance.

What is a less-powerful runner to do with all this information? If I could say only one thing:

Jump rope! Jumping rope (on both feet, alternating feet, on one foot, spinning around, crossing the rope, etc.) is training primarily the stretch-shortening cycle up and down the body, almost identically to the way it’s used in running. IMO, if a runner does only one other thing besides running, it should be to explore and master the jump rope to its fullest potential.

UPDATE Nov 18, 2016: Another (great!) article on the mechanics of running, also touting the potential of jumping rope.

But there’s a lot more than this. Now that I’ve covered all the theoretical ground I absolutely need to cover for my following posts to have any real substance, I can begin to discuss concrete strategies that the runner can use.

Addendum (for the curious): Why do I focus so much on fleshing out the principles (and, more importantly, taking so long to get to the processes)?

Because the idea, of course, isn’t to “balance” aerobic training with performance training. (That’ll only increase endurance.) The idea is to potentiate aerobic training with performance training. (That’ll maximize endurance.) And to turn balance into potentiation, it’s necessary to already have understood the “why.”

It’s almost impossible to do an “easy workout” when you’re stressed.

A while ago I read an excellent article titled Why heart rate always matters. It goes into great detail on a topic I’ve previously discussed here on running in systems: why the heart rate is always going to be an excellent representation of what is happening with the body’s stress response and energy metabolism. I think that some of the topics it discusses, as well as the excellent debate in the comments, are worth expanding on. Here’s an excerpt from it:

“Our fight-or-flight system often activates without any actual demand. When we get ‘stressed out’–engaged in a heated argument, mulling over a burdensome worry, or simply sitting in traffic–seldom is any physical task being undertaken. But the body is being activated. The engine is revving higher and tremendous sugar–the preferred fuel of fight-or-flight responses–is burned when under psychological stress, which is a major factor in ‘stress eating!’ We function as if we’re fighting an intense battle.

Stressed out and going for a run? Your body will perceive the cost of that run as higher (because it is already dealing with your life stress) and will activate a more intense energy system to cover all the demands. More energy cost!”

There was a particular comment in the article that I wanted to address:

“Very well written article and I agree with most of it.
However, I think you overstate the impact of activation level on energy expenditure…

…In my understanding, the energy demand dictates the energy production. And the energy demand is mainly dictated by the mechanical work of the muscles and all the side processes needed for that level of power output.
I agree, that the excitation level directly impacts the chosen energy supply system but as long as this system doesn’t actively provide energy, it’s [maintaining] cost will be relatively low.
Yes, a higher activation will have a higher energy demand but I don’t believe it’ll come anywhere close to exceeded mechanical [energy] demands.”

I agree with the commenter in that I, also, believe that the author was overstating the impact of activation level on energy expenditure. However, I think the author’s overstatement makes it difficult to observe 2 key implications of this discussion:

  1. Activation level  (a.k.a. stress) changes the type of energy metabolism, which means that it changes the ratios of fuel (fat and sugar) that it uses.
  2. Training stimulus is inextricably tied to activation level and energy metabolism. This means that the ratios of fuel usage have a much bigger say in how the body perceives the workout (as low-intensity vs. high-intensity) than the rates of fuel usage.

The point is that while the author does overstate the energy cost of the stressors he mentions, it doesn’t really matter—there’s things the athlete just can’t get out of training if their body is taxed in the ways the article mentions.

A lot of people think that low-intensity means “slow,” “easy,” or “consuming little energy.” It doesn’t. Low-intensity is when the workout is easy on the body—specifically, when the body is burning a majority of fats for fuel, and the sugar that is being utilized is burned wholly aerobically  (in the presence of oxygen). In other words, there is no substantive anaerobic work. Highly-trained endurance athletes, who burn fats at much greater rates than the rest of us, can run at very high speeds while remaining in a completely aerobic state. Such an athlete may be running blazing times in a workout that is for them, metabolically speaking, a low-intensity workout.

Now let’s look at higher intensities: In order to produce the energy necessary to approach your top speed, a lot of changes have to happen within the body. One of these is that the body has to go from burning a greater percentage of fats (which burn relatively slowly and so provide energy at a relatively lower rate), to burning a greater percentage of sugars (which burn relatively more quickly and so provide energy at a much faster rate). So, in order to get closer to your top speed, a greater percentage of your energy has to come from sugar.

In order to release more sugar to the bloodstream (to be utilized by the muscles), the body releases hormones called glucocorticoids—glucose (a.k.a sugar) releasing hormones. The main glucocorticoid is cortisol, which many will recognize as the main stress hormone. Another hormone that is release during the stress response is insulin, which helps muscle cells avail themselves on the sugar that cortisol released into the bloodstream. Cortisol and insulin, then, work synergistically to produce (and increase) sugar metabolism.

To recap: want to run closer to your top speed? You need to release more sugar. How do you do that? By getting more stressed. But because of some of the body’s more complex molecular mechanics—fodder for another post—the body can’t release a bunch of sugar and still be releasing fats. What would happen is that you’d just flood the bloodstream with unhealthy concentrations of both fuels. So, when insulin is released or when anaerobic function (which is dependent on sugar) increases, fat-burning drops. If sugar-burning goes up, fat-burning goes down (and vice versa).

This works the other way around too. If you get more stressed because, say, you had a rough day at work, or you got into an argument, you’ve got more cortisol and insulin running through your body. But it’s not like the body can decide to release (and use) sugar only when the reason for cortisol and insulin release is because of increased athletic demand (a.k.a. athletic stress). For any other stress (work stress, etc.), cortisol and insulin become released, and increase carbohydrate metabolism. Research on the metabolic effects of social stress in fish supports this idea.

This, incidentally, is why people get tired after a stressful day at work or an argument that stretches for too long. They didn’t use up all their fat-stores at work, obviously. But because the stress put them in sugar-burning gear, enough of their sugar ran out that they start feeling tired. It’s not that they ran out of fuel, but rather that they ran out of the fuel they’ve been stuck using.

It also takes a relatively long time for the cortisol to get out of your system—and when it does, it’s not like you can just pop back into action and go for a run. The adrenal glands, which put out cortisol (not to mention various other mediators of the stress response) have been used up. They’re tired, and will resist further activity. And since you use all the glands in the body to one (significant) degree or another during training, it’s not a good idea to train with exhausted or depleted glands.

Asking your body to work out when you’re already out of a major fuel and your stress glands are tired is an even worse idea: the “same” workout is relatively much harder for a tired gland that’s nearly out of adrenaline and cortisol than for a rested gland. Training after a period of stress is, in physiological terms, almost exactly like doing back-to-back training sessions. Effectively, you’re extending the period of stress.

And if on top of that, your blood sugar is low (as usually happens after a period of stress), you’ll be asking those tired glands to produce even more cortisol and adrenaline than they would usually have to: in their already tired state, it’s not enough to simply produce enough cortisol to maintain blood sugar levels—they have to make up for the lack of sugar in the bloodstream.

If on top of that, you’re “stuck” in sugar-burning mode because you still have all that errant cortisol and insulin flowing through your system (since you’re still stressed), you’ll be depending on sugar—which you’ve substantively burned through—for the duration of your training session. Because the body is inhibited from fueling itself with fats (due to the insulin in your system), it has to rev up those exhausted adrenals even more to provide the requisite cortisol.

Insofar as your body is stressed, it will respond to what is normally an “easy” workout as if it were a “mini high-intensity workout.” In other words, you can’t really have a “low-intensity training session” when you’re stressed (and expect to accomplish your goals in any sort of way). 

This is why doing MAF training—exercising under the aerobic threshold—under stress (or after a period of stress) produces such a dramatic drop in speed/power output at the same heart rate. When you’re under stress, exercising at a rate that looks anything like the aerobic training you do when unstressed would mean elevating your heart rate far beyond your aerobic threshold. Because aerobic work output is so reduced in a stressed state, it’s a much better idea—and a much simpler fix to the problem—to simply rest for the day and do your “easy” training session tomorrow.

What the hell is the aerobic system? Part 1

Frequent readers of my blog know just how much I like to use car metaphors to describe the human body’s function. So here’s another one: the aerobic system is the body’s main powertrain.

(The powertrain is the chain of systems within the car that power gets channeled through: from the engine, through the gearbox, down the main drive shaft, across the differential, and into the wheels. The drivetrain on the other hand is typically understood as the powertrain minus the engine.)

When most people think of increasing aerobic function, they think of increasing the capabilities of the body’s aerobic, Type I muscle fibers (also known as slow-twitch fibers). While muscle fibers are hugely important—they are the main power producers of the body—they are one subsystem of many that need to be working synergistically and at similar rates for the aerobic system as a whole to be able to express any kind of power.

It’s important for us to realize that when we are talking about developing the aerobic system, we are talking about much, much more than just the aerobic muscle fibers themselves. Quite literally, the whole powertrain from beginning (lungs) to end (muscle fibers) needs to work and develop together for it to be of any use.

The body, unlike the car, stays on all its life. The car can shut off if it runs out of fuel. But if the same thing happens to the body, it dies. So any system that is going to take on the responsibility of being the body’s main powertrain has to be able to provide a stable flow of energy over a very long term.

The best way to accomplish this is by burning a cheap, safe, light, efficient, and plentiful fuel source: fats. (As I’ve discussed before, burning carbs/sugar comes with a lot of strings attached: it’s dirty, heavy, scarce, inefficient, addictive, and dangerous. The only real advantage it has—and it is a BIG advantage—is that it produces energy at a much greater rate than fats.)

Being the system that provides stable, long-term energy means that you need to burn the stable, long-term fuel. Because of this, the aerobic system has to burn fats in particular as its primary fuel.

In other words, I use Phil Maffetone’s rendition of what the aerobic system is. This means that while I like statistics such as VO2Max (maximum volume of oxygen utilization per minute) as measures of aerobic power, I don’t believe they are a measure of the functionality of the aerobic system. Why? Because you can consume far more oxygen when you’re burning sugars than when you’re burning fats. And besides, we’ve defined the aerobic system as providing energy over the long-term. Therefore, aerobic functionality has to do far more with fat-burning, which occurs in a big way at moderate percentages (55-65%) of VO2Max, than with sugar-burning (which occurs in a big way at 65-100% of VO2Max).

(Note that very highly-trained endurance athletes are often an exception to these percentages. Why that’s the case is for another post.)

One of the reasons this system has the name “aerobic” is because fats cannot be burned outside of the presence of oxygen. So, bringing oxygen into the body and enabling its efficient transport throughout is absolutely essential to our capability to use fat as fuel. In fact, this is one of the most important differences between fat and carbs: carbs unlike fats, can be burned both aerobically and anaerobically.

This may seem like an advantage, but it’s somewhat of a disadvantage—in the same way that the disadvantage of cocaine is how powerful it is. You’re far better off experiencing the feeling of reward in the less powerful, sustainable, and old-fashioned way.

This is not to say that sugar has no place in our utilization of energy: at any given point in time when we’re at rest or doing light activity, we’re burning a small percentage of carbs. But when sugar stops being your auxiliary fuel (and becomes your go-to fuel), you’re in trouble.

By primarily using a fuel that is very powerful, it’s much easier to use only that fuel. Why would you use the other, less powerful fuel? (Sure, because it’s lighter, cleaner, safer, and more efficient.) But there’s also this: since carbs burn way quicker, the body can get lazy and forget about maintaining its fat breakdown and transpo systems, with little short-term negatives—but huuge long-term drawbacks.

By the time that the downsides of relying primarily on sugar begin to roll around, the body is hooked and the systems that burn and transport fat are in utter disrepair. The body can only store about 2,000 calories of carbs at a time (compared with some 120,000 calories of fats on the low end). When it prefers sugar over fats, it has to be eating all the time.

In layman’s terms, this is known as a “metabolic SNAFU.” (That acronym fits particularly well here, just because of how ubiquitous and “normal” this situation is.)

So what are these systems? Let’s trace the flows of oxygen and fats to find out.

Fats have to be broken down from fatty tissue, transported through the blood vessels, and burned by the mitochondria—the cell’s aerobic motors.

Oxygen comes into the body through the respiratory system, then gets transferred to the circulatory system, and finally permeates into the muscle cells where it is used as a reactant to convert the fats into energy.

But if we’re going to talk about flows of materials (oxygen and fats), it’s not enough to just discuss the parts that they flow through (and the systems that convert them into energy). We have to talk about the parts that regulate those flows, for the simple reason that if those regulatory systems stop working, chaos ensues. So these regulatory systems are as critical to the function of the aerobic system as, say, the car’s computer is to the function of its powertrain. It’s a part of it, pure and simple.

Let’s look at oxygen.

As any asthmatic or person with hay fever will tell you, those regulatory systems make a difference. The reason a lot of people start wheezing when they run too hard for too long is because the part of the nervous system responsible for increasing the body’s activity levels (known as the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS) gets too tired, and its function collapses. A crucial part of increasing activity levels is to open up, or dilate, all of the body’s ducts (a.k.a the airways and blood vessels) so that more stuff can flow through, at a faster rate. So, when the SNS becomes exhausted, its ability to keep the airways dilated goes away. Its opposing system—the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, whose job it is to shut the body down—takes over. One of its jobs is to constrict the airways—and so they close up (hence the wheezing).

Regulation of fat-burning functions in a very similar way. The system most directly responsible for regulating fats is the endocrine (a.k.a. hormonal) system, affecting primarily (and IMO most critically) whether or not, and at what rate, fats are broken down. This process is known as lipolysis: lipo = lipid (fat); lysis = breakdown.

Lipolysis is accomplished partially thanks to a hormone called leptin. In healthy humans, leptin exists in the bloodstream in a big way only when the body is at a reasonably low level of stress. So, one of the reasons that fat-burning starts going down at an exercise intensity even slightly over moderate—which is known in the biz as the AerT or aerobic threshold (go figure)—is because the increase in exercise intensity puts out stress hormones that inhibit the activity of leptin. As exercise intensity increases beyond the aerobic threshold, lipolysis begins to slow down.

So it doesn’t really matter if the muscles have a whole bunch of mitochondria that were developed by training at a high intensity (remember: a.k.a. stress), and burning lots of sugar in an aerobic way. If the body’s lipolytic systems haven’t been trained, it’s going to burn very, very few fats during exercise. So it doesn’t really matter what’s going on in the muscles. Muscles (even aerobic muscles) get really big really fast and their ability to consume fuel increases very quickly—but the rate of lipolysis takes much longer to improve.

The rate at which the body is capable of breaking down fats (rather than the rate at which it can burn them, or the rate at which oxygen can be supplied) is typically the bottleneck. And that’s why “fit” people all too often manage nary a shuffle when they start running under their aerobic threshold: they’re sugar-burning beasts, but under the AerT the hormones are optimized for burning fats, not sugar. Those powerful muscles they have? They’re being fed fats with a teaspoon.

And one of the reasons it feels so slow is because they’re exercising at a relatively small percentage of their oxygen intake and transpo capacity. Why? Because they’ve trained it primarily in concert with their sugar-burning system. Their fat-breakdown system needs to become waaay stronger before it’s going to break down fats at a rate that is challenging or even meaningful to their present oxygen transpo capabilities.

Understanding which systems comprise the aerobic system is far less important than grasping the point that the aerobic system really is the entire powertrain. It’s far less critical to know whether your car has a carburetor or a fuel injection system, than to know that you should consider how the entire powertrain (and the car as a whole) is going to behave when you decide to upgrade some particular component.

If you’re going to swap your L4 engine block from with a V8, you also have to swap out the fuel pump and a host of other systems (not to mention the entire chassis)—or you’re going to end up with a V8 engine getting fuel at a rate meant for an L4. The understanding that you need to go look at the whole picture, instead of just at the muscle fibers (or whatever)—will inevitably take your search in the right direction.

There’s a bunch of other parts of the aerobic system left to cover. In my next post I’ll talk more about how the fat-burning process goes down and why it’s impossible to burn more fats when the rate of sugar-burning goes up. I’ll also get more into why the body is wired to rely more on sugar as stress levels go up (hint: because sugar burns faster). In later entries I’ll talk about how the various other parts of the aerobic system interact with each other, and why aerobic function can really only be developed and optimized at relatively low levels of exercise intensity.

Running MAF

NOTE: This is an unusually journal-entry-ish post for me. But I think it has some pretty useful concepts. I hope you like it. (Any mention of today refers to Friday, Sept 18, 2015).

For about 2 months now, I’ve been building my aerobic base under the MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) principle, proposed by Phil Maffetone. I’ve seen an improvement of about 1 minute to my MAF pace—the speed at my aerobic heart rate, which is 148—and yet, I feel like today is the first day I really understood what running MAF is like.

The idea behind MAF training is to lower the intensity at which we train, in order for the aerobic base to kick in with theoretically no anaerobic function. This removes the majority of chemical stress associated which exercise, which comes from the release of hydrogen ions (H+). These ions acidify the body and create an added burden for recovery.

Training under this “aerobic threshold” allows the aerobic base to be developed quickly and efficiently. Typically, 3 to 6 month long period of exclusive MAF training strengthens the aerobic base to the point where it can efficiently absorb the stresses of high-intensity (anaerobic) exercise.

As editor on the MAF website, I answer a lot of difficult questions in the comment sections. For people are first calculating their MAF heart rate, a predictable question always pops up:

“Are you sure that my MAF Heart Rate is 148?” (or whatever). “This can’t be! I’m, like, really athletic. I stuck my first vault at 4 months of age. At two, I was running 5 minute miles. Are you sure it’s not at least 151?”

And honestly, I often feel exactly that way. It’s as if everyone (myself included) is trying to negotiate their way into a higher heart rate—thinking it is the highest possible heart rate (aerobic or otherwise) that will bring the most benefit.

I constantly tell commenters what it has taken until now for me to truly absorb: we have to lower the intensity to maximize the aerobic benefit. Trying to always be right on top of that aerobic threshold—what I’ve decided to call greenlining (as a riff on “redlining”)—is that very same high-intensity mentality, haunting a game that’s all about going low, not high.

Don’t get me wrong: when I run MAF—usually 1 hour, 5 days a week—I scrupulously bookend my workout with 15 minutes of warm-up and cool-down, in which I slowly and steadily bring my heart rate 3 or 4 BPM under my aerobic threshold.

Every warm-up, I notice the same thing: my heart rate oscillates its way up to MAF. It doesn’t climb steadily. Even once I do get close to MAF, it keeps oscillating. It goes up and down some 4 heart beats every 30 seconds or so, meaning that if I want to stay under MAF (which for me is 148) I have to stick with 143.

As a perfectionist, I always try to iron these things out. Maybe it’s fine for the heart rate to oscillate as long as it remains under MAF. But it’s still important to consider what oscillations mean. It means that metabolic work (and my speed) is rising and falling continually, when in theory we want to stay at the same metabolic output.

Maybe I’m overthinking this far and away, but to me this seems like a car lurching down the highway when a few tweaks to the engine would be all that’s needed to create a smoother ride.

Almost by accident, that is exactly what i did. It had been an uncharacteristically bad run: I went out after an hour of having eaten, and I just didn’t want to take my heart rate up there. I did my warm-up, and then dropped back down to 20 under MAF. I just felt like jogging.

As the minutes passed, my heart rate—and my speed—slowly began to increase, at a rate of about one beat per minute. And like that, over the next 20 minutes, I slowly approached MAF. My heart rate came to within 1 BPM, and for the next 40-45 minutes, held constant.

Today’s run was exceptional: I had far better joint stacking. It was extremely easy to keep my breathing in sync with my steps—three steps to an exhale and two to an inhale—and my breathing was also deeper than usual. The experience of running was one of incredibly little stress. When I did get up to MAF speed, I was faster by a full 15 seconds per mile.

And two hours after the run, I was full of energy, and my leg muscles, instead of feeling empty, felt warm and fuzzy. I’m not kidding.

But this makes perfect sense to me: calibration, not raw power, is the primary source of performance. Think of a 1000-horsepower engine with a timing belt that’s just a tiny bit loose. It can’t express a bit of that power. Think of that same engine attached to a gear box with all the wrong ratios, or mounted on a car whose tires are too pressurized. When that engine expresses all of its power, that car is going sideways.

Too often, as athletes and fitness enthusiasts we try to add horsepower when we should be checking the timing belt, or changing the stiffness of our valve springs. I think that in today’s workout—which feels like the highest-quality workout of my life—I enabled my body to focus on the small stuff . . . and get it right.

I’m willing to bet that this very long, very easy warm-up, which “sacrificed” time spent training at a higher intensity, was a central part of it. And I expect my bet to pay dividends in speed.

UPDATE: On Saturday I had an even more protracted warm-up. My speed increased by yet another 20 sec/mile.