Training, Racing & LCHF Fueling For Skating And Endurance Sports
As regular readers of my blog (yes, all 3 of you) know, I have trained primarily using MAF for the last 18 months. I have seen good progress and it has allowed me to build something that I never really had before – a robust aerobic base which directly translated into some breakthrough races last year, helping me avoid injuries, and made training a largely enjoyable rather than painful affair.
Yet, more and more it seems that this style of aerobic training (often mislabelled “cardio” – a catch-all term than I personally hate with a passion) gets criticized or overlooked in favour of high-intensity, more (supposedly) time-efficient fitness protocols such as Crossfit (aka the “dirty” side of Paleo), High Intensity Interval Training (HIITs), and “Minimalist” style training protocols. For example, on a recent health & fitness podcast that I happen to actually like (and shall therefore remain nameless) they were interviewing a paleo cookbook author, who when asked about exercise went on to recommend Tabatas as suitable exercise for most people who just wanted an easy way to improve their fitness, presumably because it only takes 20 minutes out of your day. Now, being a chef she may be good at dishing up ancestral recipes, but dishing out this sort of irresponsible exercise advice makes the rage quickly fill up inside me.
So I’m here to (once again) tell you that, for most people, most of the time, low intensity Aerobic training is the most beneficial type of training that you can do for your fitness, as well as your health.
I’ve heard all the criticisms, misunderstandings, and half-truths that have been thrown at MAF/LHR training, and will debunk them all herewith, so are you ready? Let’s be ‘aving ya…
Previous MAF articles:
MAF/LHR describes heart rate which is an approximation for intensity, not a speed. If you need to slow to a crawl in order to stay at a low heart rate, then guess what? Your aerobic fitness sucks. That’s the whole point of training at LHR – to specifically target the aerobic system. And guess what happens when you train the aerobic system? You get faster aerobically. How much faster? World class marathoners can run 5 min miles largely aerobically, largely because their aerobic system is so developed. For example, Mark Allen got down to about 5:15min/mile MAF pace.. and he wasn’t even an out and out runner! That’s the wonderful thing about humans – we adapt and respond to any given stimulus thrown at us. The aerobic system is the foundation of your body’s energy production system, and with a stronger aerobic system you will be faster at all intensities. And sure, if you are elite then a 5 min/mile pace may feel slow to you… but that would be a nice problem to have…
I’ve heard this even from coaches who really should know better. “Train fast to race fast” they say – “20mph is the new 18mph”. No pain, no gain, right?
What people mean when they recite this brainless twaddle is that you need high-end anaerobic fitness to race at your best. Even if that is true for some sports and distances, a stronger aerobic system will make you faster at all distances and intensities. And even if top-end anaerobic system is important, realise that a good aerobic system and a good top end are not mutually exclusive goals – you CAN have the appropriate amount of both if you structure your training correctly.
But the suggestion that you somehow forget how to run at race intensity is, frankly, asinine. Your brain doesn’t forget how to move your legs faster. Maffetone has often recited a case where from over 200 well-trained athletes who went through a period of exclusive base training for 3-6 months, 76% of them went on to run a 5k PR in their first race straight off the base with no quality work and without the need for any anaerobic training.
Here is what Mike Pigg, one of Maffetone’s star athletes said about his first racing experience following a period of pure MAF training:
My other story comes from the first race of the season while following Phil’s plan. It is amazing how I was seeing good aerobic results in my workouts, but I still had doubts about my performance level. …
The whole week prior to the race, I was fighting with myself, saying that I wasn’t going to do well because of a lack of speed training. Finally, I told myself to shut up and go have a good time. To my surprise I did have a good time, and I won. For some reason the speed and endurance were definitely there. As a bonus, I was able to beat Mark Allen at his own game.
…or, for that matter, Resting HR, Lactic/Anaerobic/OBLA threshold, how I felt on the day, what I had for breakfast, or that my goldfish died this morning. I’ve heard it all before. Again, it’s just twaddle and excuses that athletes lacking complete honesty with themselves use to justify avoiding the stark truth.
While I will not claim that the 180-formula is infallible or all-encompassing (it is, after all, simply a best-fit of the data points that Maffetone himself gathered following all his lab testing with many hundreds of individual athletes) the default view from almost all athletes not familiar with this methodology is one of skepticism and automatic assumption that the formula is not applicable or accurate for them… while the reality is overwhelmingly that they are not a statistical outlier and the 180 formula does in fact work perfectly well for them.
Firstly, Maffetone has gone on record in many interviews saying that other physiological parameters such as MaxHR or RestingHR were not really a factor in determining the point of the Maximum Aerobic Function (the point of maximum fat-burning, beyond which you start to rapidly transition to anaerobic and sugar burning).
Secondly, the 2nd part of the 180-formula does allow for individual adjustments (from +5 bpm to -15 bpm) based on overall health and fitness. It’s probably here again that many people aren’t truthful with themselves – how many aren’t subtracting 10 beats despite them recovering from injury or another setback, or perhaps have regressed in performance over the last year?
I do not claim the formula is superior to all other HR zone-based systems. Instead, take it for what it is – a general guide that gets you within a few heatbeats, quite literally, of optimal aerobic development.
Nope. If you are talking about a zone system based off maxHR, operational HR range, or Lactic/Anaerobic Threshold then it does make sense to adjust your heart rate zones accordingly, but MAF takes no account of these thresholds – MAF is MAF, whether you running, biking, skating, swimming or typing. What changes is your perceived exertion. Put it this way, I can sit here, wiggle my little finger and raise my heart rate by 5-10 bpm doing so, but it doesn’t meant that I should set a heart rate zone at that range or that I can reach a maximum aerobic function doing it.
Also, remember that MAF prescribes a 10-beat range below your MAF number, and you can be at the lower end of your zone for biking or other activities that are less taxing on the cardiovascular system and still be in the sweet spot for building up your aerobic system.
While you might not need the huge aerobic base of an ultra-runner, roughly 90% of the energy in a 5km still comes from the aerobic system. The aerobic system dominates at all distances from 1,500m upwards.
Even true sprinters will benefit from a healthy aerobic system because it is the system that supports the body’s immediate recovery from high intensity anaerobic efforts. So if training consists of sets of high intensity reps, then having a good aerobic system that helps you recover strongly between sets is a massive advantage. And if you sport includes many periods of high-intensity attacks that dominate elite-level cycling or speed skating then you’ll be heavily dependent upon your aerobic system to help you recover in time in preparation for the next one…
LHR training may work for the pros, but that’s because have 30hrs a week to dedicate to it, yeah? It can’t be as effective for those of us with more modest hours to commit or if have a job and a life outside of sport to balance? People who think this are so wrong they couldn’t be more wrong! Maffetone has often stressed that he worked with all sorts of athletes from pros, age-groupers and juniors, and that far more often than you might imagine he would prescribe a reduced training load – that meant that typically people were already doing more training than they could comfortably handle or that was optimal for their body.
On a personal level, I saw continual improvement in my (running) aerobic pace on 4-5hrs/week over the winter compared to the 7-8hrs/week volume that I was putting in last summer (of course, I do other stuff besides running too, but that has always been the case). It has reinforced my view that that if you are stressing the body the right way, it will still get stronger on surprisingly minimal stimulus.
Maximum volume is not the goal of training – optimal volume is the goal, and that is determined by how much time you have to train, and the state of your general health in order to be able to recover well to reap the rewards of training.
Here’s the rub. Injecting intensity will always produce fast results in the short term. So if your goal is to get fitter as quickly as possible, then a little anaerobic work goes a long way, and you can see improvements in as little as a few weeks, depending on what level you are starting from. This is the approach that a lot of casual athletes follow – they’ll lie low in winter, get in shape and be active over summer, putting in some bouts of training ahead of the summer races. If that’s your approach and your level of dedication then granted, 2 weeks of MAF ahead of your race isn’t going to do much for you.
However if you said that you have proper goals that are 6 months or 12 months out, and you are willing to work towards them from today, then putting in the low intensity aerobic efforts will reap far greater benefits in the longer term as you are able to build your base and improve your fitness to a far higher level than any amount of short term anaerobic program will be able to achieve. It takes time, patience, and commitment, and there are no short cuts. And it’s NOT just all about training – you will also have to examine other aspects of your lifestyle including diet, recovery and stress management.. which is why relatively few casual athletes have ever been able to realise their full athletic potential.
So, set your goals and decide which you want to be – a causal athlete or a dedicated one. You only get out of sports and indeed life what you are willing to put in. Are you prepared to put in the hours of base miles as a dedicated athlete when the fair weather ones are sticking their feet up? If so, then low intensity training base training is your best friend.
You what?? Yes, apparently now cutting edge exercise science has concluded that Interval training can improve endurance capacity via the AMPK pathway instead of the traditional CaMK pathway (both activate the PCG-1α “master switch” which signals the cellular mitochondrial adaptations to training). So now the thinking goes that there’s no need at all for the long slow aerobic training when you can gain the same adaptations with an appropriate amount of Interval training.
While I won’t debate that Interval Training can indeed provide some of the same adaptations, it will never be able to replace true aerobic training, because other adaptations of intensity are in direct conflict with the adaptations of low intensity volume:
This is pretty lame logic, as if the probability of injury is purely a function of volume. Sporting injuries are the result of improper form, but it takes either repetition through volume or increased intensity (or both) for the injury to manifest itself. So volume matters, as does intensity, but neither are the cause of the injury.
Improper biomechanics, of course, are a problem and will contribute to injuries whatever type of training you are doing – be aware that gait and form go through subtle changes as we move from aerobic to anaerobic intensity as different sets of muscle fibres are activated. The more intense our effort, the poorer our form tends to become; so it could be argued that intensity is at least as much to blame as volume when it comes to a sporting injury. Nobody develops walking injuries, right?
Injuries are a reality of sport when looked at from a population level, but we minimize the risk individually by working on our form and technique and learning to hold that good form at high intensity and when fatigue becomes a factor. This is universally true of any sport – developing good sports-specific form and economy of movement are our best protectors against injury.
While it’s true that the majority of your winter miles should be base miles, the reverse logic isn’t necessarily true and it doesn’t mean you can afford to neglect maintenance of your base during the competitive season. Indeed, some elite athletes who worked with Maffetone (eg Mike Pigg, Angela Naeth) have been known to do base virtually all year round with minimal anaerobic training even during the racing season (racing itself counts as their anaerobic work).
Even if you take a more traditional view and do like to to include more anaerobic training during the build and competitive phases of a season, you should still spend at least some of your time ensuring that your base is maintained. How much? That depends on the individual, which is why the Maffetone prescribes regular MAF tests to at least ensure that you aerobic base is not regressing at any point. If any regression is detected, that is nearly always an indication that you need to go back and spend more time on aerobic work.
Not necessarily true. You may or may not be able to continue improving your base if you reduce your training volume but maintenance of your base for certain requires less volume than for improving.
Recall the training->breakdown->recovery->supercompensation cycle. If we are aiming to build up fitness then we want to wait for the recovery to complete and to train again during the optimal point of the supercompensation stage of the cycle in order to ensure an increasing level of fitness.
However, if all you are trying to do is maintain your base fitness then you can afford to wait for the supercompensation phase to taper off right back to the initial starting level before repeating the training dose.
So if life throws a spanner in the works and you find yourself less able to put time into training for any length of time, don’t fret that you’ll lose fitness – chances are that you’ll still be able to at least maintain most or all of your fitness on considerably less volume that you were putting in up until that point.
This is also has implications for tapering – you can cut volume quite drastically as much as 4 or 5 weeks out and still maintain fitness, while shedding fatigue, leading to optimal race performance.
A common misconception which is simply not true.
Maffetone doesn’t discourage strength work – he has always said that it’s important for endurance athletes to have power – for example, to have a good vertical jump (“a 12 inch vertical jump is unacceptable”) – and have sufficient strength in order to minimize risk of injury.
However he has also always been adamant that speed is not simply a matter of being stronger, other “the fastest athletes would be those with the biggest muscles”.
Maffetone has never forbade or discouraged anaerobic training and recognises the importance of having a well developed top-end in some events. Indeed, he has often said that there needs to be a balance between the aerobic and anaerobic systems, and if you start to plateau with just an aerobic training program then it is a sign that you need to spend some time with anaerobic work in order to rebalance. However he has also been equally adamant that anaerobic work at the incorrect time can slow down or impair your aerobic development.
Just because the average heart rate for a workout falls into the MAF zone doesn’t make it a MAF session if significant parts of that are spent above your MAF range. Think of MAF as a self-imposed ceiling on your heart rate during a workout. If that means having to slow right down when going up a hill – perhaps even to walking pace – in order to stay at MAF then so be it! And likewise if you have to speed up in order to stay at MAF when running (or especially cycling) downhill, then that’s what you have to do! Of course, reality and technical ability also comes into it; don’t run/cycle downhill beyond what is safe or comfortable for you. Just be aware that staying at MAF often means adjusting your pace much more than you are used to in order to stay within the range, rather than letting your heart rate drift up and down according to the course or trail. MAF runners get good at running steadily up hills and then letting fly on the way down…
How can I say this? If it’s not working then it IS you, it’s not me (or MAF). If you are not seeing progress then something else is going on – a “roadblock” that prevents further upregulation of fat burning and aerobic improvement – it could be poor diet (too many processed carbs or junk food is common), too much stress, a micronutrient deficiency, insufficient sleep, crazy hormones, over-training, under-training, or just inconsistency, or (less commonly) a plateau that needs to be broken through by a switch in your usual training. As Maffetone says, it’s your job to identify the problem and address it. The whole Maffetone philosophy is that your health is the foundation of your fitness, and only when you are doing everything correct – when you are textbook healthy – will your body respond optimally in getting faster and stronger in response to training.