In a new series of articles, Marc Laithwaite (The Endurance Store), endurance coach and regular contributor to Talk Ultra podcast will provide insight in how you can become a better endurance athlete by training smart and eating for performance.
In the first article, we look at the Maffetone Formula also known as ‘MAFF.’
The term ‘aerobic base’ is used widely in endurance sports but what exactly does it mean? To build aerobic base athletes will generally do long and slow distance to gain specific benefits, we consider those 2 key benefits to be as follows:
- Conditioning – Your legs deal with a great amount of impact every time they hit the ground, which causes muscle damage. In turn, this muscle damage will slow you down. The only way to prevent this muscle damage is to become accustomed to ‘time on your feet’. Hence, by slowing down and running long distances at a slower pace, you will ‘harden your legs’ and prevent damage. If you run too hard during your ‘base training runs’ you will not be able to run far enough to get the required ‘time on feet’ so slowing to the correct intensity is critical. It’s important to note that this applies to cycling also, whilst the impact isn’t the same, the repeated action of pedalling means that your muscles will break down, your hips will become tight and your back will ache!
- Metabolic Adaptation – Your muscle fibres will adapt and more closely resemble the ‘slow twitch variety’. One of the key changes is the ability to use fat as a fuel source and also to use less energy overall. These combined changes mean that you are less likely to run out of fuel during longer distance exercise. If you can change your muscle fibres so running out of fuel is unlikely, combined with your ‘hardened legs’ which don’t become damaged easily, you are ready for some serious endurance action.
So how slow should I run?
It’s very common for endurance athletes to get the ‘training zone’ thing very wrong. The key thing to remember is that variation is critical, so easy sessions to develop base should be easy and high intensity sessions to develop power should be extremely hard. Many athletes tend to drift into the middle ground where no training is really easy, no training is really hard, but pretty much everything is ‘moderately hard’.
What is the Maffetone Formula?
Made famous by Mark Allen who won the famous Iron War with Dave Scott in 1989. Allen had repeatedly failed to beat Dave Scott, always running out of fuel in the marathon stage. He turned to Maffetone who revolutionised his training, with the principal aim of enhancing fat burning to make him a more effective runner. Maffetone employs a maximum aerobic heart rate above, which you cannot exercise. Initially, athletes find it very frustrating as they will be running very slowly, but over time there are large benefits to be had as the base aerobic system improves.
What’s the Formula?
Subtract your age from 180.
Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:
If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
For example, if you are thirty years old and fit into category (b), you get the following:
180–30=150. Then 150–5=145 beats per minute (bpm).
If it is difficult to decide which of two groups best fits you, choose the group or outcome that results in the lower heart rate. In athletes who are taking medication that may affect their heart rate, those who wear a pacemaker, or those who have special circumstances not discussed here, further individualization with the help of a healthcare practitioner or other specialist familiar with your circumstance and knowledgeable in endurance sports may be necessary.
Two situations may be exceptions to the above calculations:
- The 180 Formula may need to be further individualized for people over the age of sixty-five. For some of these athletes, up to 10 beats may have to be added for those in category (d) in the 180 Formula, and depending on individual levels of fitness and health. This does not mean 10 should automatically be added, but that an honest self-assessment is important.
- For athletes sixteen years of age and under, the formula is not applicable; rather, a heart rate of 165 may be best.
Once a maximum aerobic heart rate is found, a training range from this heart rate to 10 beats below could be used as a training range. For example, if an athlete’s maximum aerobic heart rate were determined to be 155, that person’s aerobic training zone would be 145 to 155 bpm. However, the more training at 155, the quicker an optimal aerobic base will be developed.
Completing the Test:
Completing the test is simple, for running find a flat 3 miles course or complete 20 minutes. The simplest way is to find a running track as this makes distance measuring easier. Warm up for 15 minutes within the Maffetone Training Zone and then run 3 miles within the Maffetone Training Zone and record your time. You could use a flat circuit on road and use a GPS but variations in GPS accuracy mean that a running track is more accurate. Record your time for the 3 miles and preferably record your time for each of the mile splits. For the bike, it’s best done on a calibrated turbo training or riding to power. Warm up for 15 minutes in Maffetone Training Zone, then ride 30 minutes within the Maffetone Training Zone and measure average power or distance completed. Remember that the turbo and power meter needs to be calibrated or the accuracy is poor.
You may find the run pace very slow and frustrating, if so, then you should take this as a positive, your base is very poor and you therefore have plenty of improvement to make for the 2015 season!! All of your easy mileage running should be done in the Maff Training Zone and the test can be repeated every 4-8 weeks. You should see an increase in speed and distance for the same heart rate as your base fitness improves. If you keep getting quicker, then don’t worry about speed work until the Maffetone training reaches a plateau. Develop your base as much as possible at the start of the year for maximum gains later.
On the bike, heart rate is generally lower than it is during running, so you’ll find the test a little less frustrating. In reality, the Maffetone Training Zone for cycling should be adjusted by reducing it between 5-10 beats (my opinion – you might want to incorporate it). This test is based on 180 minus age and we all know that maximum heart rate varies from person to person (220 minus age to calculate maximum has been widely criticised), but just go with it and try the formula, nothing is perfect!
We’d be keen to hear your feedback, go and give the test a try and let us know your progress. If you found this article useful, please share with your friends and re-post on Facebook or Twitter!
– Marc Laithwaite
Sports Science lecturer for 10 years at St Helens HE College.
2004 established The Endurance Coach LTD sports science and coaching business. Worked with British Cycling as physiology support 2008-2008. Previous Triathlon England Regional Academy Head Coach, North West.
In 2006 established Epic Events Management LTD. Now one of the largest event companies in the NW, organising a range of triathlon, swimming and cycling events. EPIC EVENTS also encompasses Montane Trail 26 and Petzl Night Runner events.
In 2010 established Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 LTD. This has now become the UKs leading ultra distance trail running event.
In 2010 established The Endurance Store triathlon, trail running and open water swimming store. Based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, we are the North West’s community store, organising and supporting local athletes and local events.
Check out the endurance store HERE