Endurance Skating

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MAF Training – Train Slower (And Smarter) To Get Faster


I’ve briefly alluded to “MAF” training before, and am going to expand a bit on that here. The method was devised by Phil Maffetone, author of “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” – which coincidentally I’m currently reading my way through, but that is for another post. If you want credentials, Maffetone is credited as the man who helped turn Mark Allen from a nearly-man into a 6-time Ironman world champion.

MAF stands for “Maximum Aerobic Function” (it’s not short for Maffetone – that’s just a coincidence), and is essentially a formula designed to arrive at a target heart-rate range that keeps all exercise firmly in the body’s aerobic zone. Heart rate is a direct measure of the *work* our bodies are doing during exercise, while speed, pace, power etc are measurements of output. The idea is that by focussing on the heart rate, we are primarily concerned with the inputs – the *work* we are doing, rather than focussing on the outputs – the end result.

The MAF formula is:

1. Subtract your age from 180.

2. Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:

a. 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.

b. 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.

c. 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.

d. 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).

The man himself - Doctor Phil!

The man himself – Doctor Phil!


Ultimate the MAF formula is designed to arrive at a heart rate that is safely within one’s aerobic threshold, adjusting for stress factors. Many feel that the number is too low (“how can I possibly train at this low an intensity?”) and are used to working out at much higher heart rate, but Maffetone states reassuringly that having worked with hundreds, perhaps thousands of athletes, the formula works on just about everyone. The higher heart rate usually experienced by most athletes during exercise is nothing other than a very real reflection of their under-developed aerobic system, and if that means they have to literally walk to remain at MAF then so be it.

The MAF approach requires checking your ego at the door. This is completely opposite to the idea that “in order to race fast you must train fast.” You train aerobically – ie slow – in order to strengthen your aerobic function and get faster that way. As your aerobic fitness improves, you are able maintain the output for less work, the overhang is all “free” speed! Again, as Maffetone points out, the aerobic system is responsible for 98-99% of output over a 2hour endurance event, so why do so many endurance athlete spend so much time in the anaerobic zone? Adding anaerobic work has been shown to actively slow or even reverse development of the aerobic system. It means banishing the “no pain, no gain” attitude and replacing it with smart, thoughtful training. For sure when you are out running at your MAF heart rate and get passed by other runners, you have to grit your teeth, swallow your pride, and remind yourself that you are out there to improve your aerobic base, not to try to keep up with the next guy.

For me, I’m setting my MAF at 180-37 + 5 = 148. The “MAF zone” is 138-148. I personally try to operate at around 145 +/- 3 or 4 beats. That’s not to say that I don’t spike above 150 sometimes, but if I do, I take it as a warning sign to back off the gas for a few moments and let my heart rate drop again.

Note that MAF formula takes NO consideration of your maximum heart rate. Nearly everyone initially thinks how can this possibly work for everyone when it takes no account different persons’ maximal heart rate or operating HRR? But in response to this, Maffetone replies what use is your maximum heart rate anyway? Endurance athletes should never reach their MHR even in competition, so what is the point of ever training that high?

MAF is not the only way for calculating (or guesstimating) one’s aerobic zone, for sure. We have already asked some questions that its critics (of which there are relatively few) tend to raise, and even EndurancePlanet’s Lucho states that it is not infallable, but ultimately many of the different methods out there pretty much arrive at a similar level. Personally I know that if I try to reconcile my MAF heart rate to my blood lactate testing, I am between 1.2 – 1.3 mmol/Ltr of blood lactate, which seems pretty conservative to me, but even if that is true I will stick to the number provided by the formula for now.

An important part of the Maffetone method is also doing regular tests to monitor and quantify progress. Maffetone suggests keeping a record of the time taken to perform a 3 mile run at the MAF heart rate, but it doesn’t really matter so long as it is done under the same parameters each time. Personally I like to do a shorter 2km test on the gym treadmill. It’s important to have warmed up properly, so I like to do it having run down to the gym and getting my heart rate up to MAF rate, which is usually about 15 minutes of warmup in total. It’s early days yet, and I’ll share the results when I have compiled a couple of months more sample data.

Maffetone is also reluctant to adjust the MAF rate for different activities – he feels that MAF is MAF whether you are running, cycling, swimming or skating. I personally find this a little uncomfortable because like most people I find it a lot harder to raise my heart rate while cycling as compared to running, but remember that the MAF zone is 138-148, so if my running MAF is 148, I could still be at 138 while cycling and technically be at MAF.

Listening to Maffetone’s words of wisdom and reading his book, I’m convinced that this is how I want to train for the foreseeable future, and so currently 90% of my training is at my MAF zone, even in-season. Looking back, the one thing clear to me now is that I simply didn’t have a good enough aerobic base previously. Whether it was for skating, running, or anything else, I hadn’t ever built up enough *aerobic* fitness to be where I thought I should be, and this was evidenced by my heart rate going through the roof whenever I would step on the gas. Now that I am focussing on improving base my base I find it far harder to raise my pulse into the red zones. That’s the sign of having a good aerobic base- when you actually find it HARD to raise your heart rate.

For sure I have already improved my aerobic fitness a lot in the last year, but many far better athletes than I have continued to train and improve using this method for year upon year, so I feel that I’m just at the beginning of this exciting, relaxing, journey.



Further reading:





8 comments on “MAF Training – Train Slower (And Smarter) To Get Faster

  1. wpvandieu
    August 15, 2014

    A really interesting thread for a field-test method for determining your MAF heart rate:

    Basically, run on a treadmill and increase pace by 0.1km/hr every 10 seconds. Chart your HR results – you are looking for a plateau and then a deflection point at which your HR beings rising more rapidly. The point of deflection indicates the MAF HR. The sample graphs in the original post and through the thread show how well the sample subjects corresponded to the 180 formula!

    Will have to try this myself.


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  8. Unknown
    December 9, 2015

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly think
    this amazing site needs far more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the info!

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on August 7, 2014 by in Endurance, Training and tagged , , , .
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