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  • Writer's pictureDavid Downs

Run Slower to Make You Go Further and Remain Fresh as a Daisy

While watching a live stream about fitness, the presenter was asked about MAF training. She seemed unsure about how to progress, obviously wanting to focus on the main topic of her stream. She thought about it and admitted that she wasn't familiar with the term.

I was jumping up and down in my chair, all excited! I knew something. I knew quite a lot of detail about this methodology and was privy to something that an inspiration to me didn't seem familiar with.

So let me give you a little inside information about my vigour. Eight years ago this week, I accepted a challenge to attempt a trail race. As part of a relay team running along Hadrian's Wall, my segment was a hilly 14 miles. So now I can celebrate that I have been a runner for eight years. When I say runner, I refer to outdoors, whether along the streets or across trails, woods, parkland, and cliffy coastlines. I would never denigrate the runs of someone who, for whatever reason, prefers running inside and on a treadmill. I first ran on dreadmills.

My reasons for running (on the treadmill before the Hadrian's Wall challenge) were that I was a little cuddly and thought this would be a great way to lose the belly. Yes, I was sitting in the pub all day and drinking copious amounts of beer and had the gut to show for it. Within a couple of years of running, I entered marathons and park runs. But the belly remained, though severely reduced.

It was then that I started looking into the other elements of health and fitness. I learnt about not being able to outrun a bad diet and the pleasure of interval training to boost fat loss. But I wanted more. I wanted a more efficient way to run further as I was beginning to love getting lost on far off trails.

A small aside here; since lockdown, I have to say how I miss the far off journeys to places like the New Forest, the South Downs Way, the Dales.

Back to making the distance more bearable

I am the kind of person who wants to know everything about anything. I'll read whatever I can. I'll watch accredited videos, not just some Kevin setting up his own YouTube channel claiming to be an expert. I'd talk with experienced runners and took on recognised and approved tuition in sports science, nutrition, anatomy, and psychology levels. In my career covering many years as a technical writer, copywriter, and counsellor, I have developed my skills to research critical subjects to the Nth degree and then draw out the finer, more salient points.

So one day, when aimlessly browsing around YouTube videos, I came across a channel talking about low heart rate training. It sounded interesting, though, at this point, I was more interested in seeing the beautiful scenery that the presenter stood among. They described a method developed by a guy called Phillip Maffetone. The Maximum Aerobic Function, or MAF. It seemed pretty cool having practically the same name as his method. Methinks he probably jiggled the term around to match.

I researched it a bit more and started putting it to the test. It took a good few months to see my heart rate remain lower as my running pace began to speed up. The long and the short of it is that your heart becomes more efficient and if you can run faster but with a lower pulse, you will ultimately feel less exhausted over distance. Essentially, your endurance goes up.

I Started MAF Training

At the beginning of 2022, I realised that my overall fitness had plummeted with all the lockdowns and tier systems and an injury towards the end of the year. New Year, and I have come back to sorting my fitness levels out. I have jumped straight on the MAF training. This was noticeable on Saturday. 4 weekends into the year. I went for a 14-mile run along the Thames. I felt (almost) fresh as a daisy when I got home almost 3-hours later.

However, I deliberately ran according to my heart rate rather than pace. If that meant periods of walking, so be it. I don't care if people think I can't run over a long distance. It's not their business. I didn't even take snacks on the run, just water. I remember days when I'd have to take a snack or two on 10-mile runs that only lasted about 80-90 minutes! This is a whole different ballgame.

MAF training is built on three elements; low heart rate training, nutrition, and stress levels. The HR training is worked out within zone 2 and part of zone 3, discussed later.

Follow this link to check out Phil Maffetone's method and how to find your MAF training Zone.

In the four weeks of MAF training, I changed my diet slightly, allowing for more natural carbs than bread and pasta. I have found the 'Yes' and 'No' food quite challenging. I have a pretty chilled outlook on life, so I can say my stress levels are low. There are times, but hey, we all need a little cortisol in our lives. I can already see a reduction in the 2020/2021 and Christmas weight gains and a slight increase in pace with a lower heart rate (I have a good body that responds fast).

I should point out that some of the data is skewed due to my hangover at the start of the year affecting my aerobic capability, weather, and running surface, so one month is far too soon to tell if this was MAF training or just natural progression.

I must quickly add that it can take 3-4 months to see improvements.

Heart Rate Levels

MAF training is NOT running on your heart rate zone 2.

To clarify, the body and heart both respond to different levels of your heart's beating. Most guidelines state that five levels are usually calculated as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. Zone 1 would be where your body is warming up. Zone 2, your body tends to rely on stored body fat for fuel. Three would be a mix of fat and carbohydrate, and so on, changing as you get faster.

Don't Believe the Hype of Heart Rates

I will now rip this to shreds, saying it's not the 'be all and end all.'

This is usually taken as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. There are various formulae to find this figure out, but generally, it is accepted as 220-your age.

This is a tad too generic for my liking. We are all different. Fitness levels change. Some hearts are more robust than others. Some people have weaker lungs or cardiovascular systems, so efficiency cannot be accurate. And further to this, unless you are being tested in laboratory conditions, with cables all strapped to you, an air mask to your face, you really cannot get an accurate read. Plus, you will never have all these available on your regular runs.

At best, you will be relying on a running watch with either a chest strap or wrist heart monitor. These are better than they used to be, but there can still be errors. Last week I was doing a 10-mile run, comfortably maintaining 129 beats per minute, when suddenly, it started to climb. I stopped running and looked at my watch as it increased, 135, 140, 150… what on Earth was going on? I used my phone's heart monitor, and it said I was at 120 beats per minute! Go figure!

It's the same with most apps telling you how many calories you are burning. It all depends on so many variables, your own fitness and weight, and if you are running on hills, the weather, what you had to eat the night before.

So why bother?

Why bother indeed? Well, rather than sticking to these numbers religiously, use them as a framework. As you get more experienced, you can feel and 'listen to your body' tell you where you are. A popular rule of thumb is the conversational pace. You are doing just fine if you can chat while running and still breathe and string a few sentences together.

Using the guideline and a decent serving of common sense, you will see an impact over time. Your heart will adapt to being more efficient. If that is a goal, you will burn fat and remain in the lower heart rate area. Again, you will feel more comfortable with longer distances if that is what you desire. And you will be able to run faster with less effort.

My most significant advice to all this is not to let it be your focus. Enjoy your run. Take time to look around you and see the sites rather than at your watch for stats. But if you want to try heart rate training or MAF training, do so, but use your data with a pinch of salt. It’s not set in stone.


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