You run. You run a lot. You do speed work. Yet, you haven’t achieved your PR. In fact, you haven’t seen many improvements and you’re feeling burnt out — maybe even injured. So what’s going on?
The problem may not be your training, your shoes or your diet. It may be your aerobic base, or lack thereof. That’s right — many runners and athletes don’t have the aerobic conditioning they think they have.
A solid aerobic base is important for athletic performance as well as overall good health. And your running won’t improve until you get your body’s energy systems in check. One way to do that is with the Maffetone Method, a strategy to help runners — slowly and steadily — win the race. Read on to find out what the MAF Method is and if it might work for you.
Easy Does It
“Most people have never developed good aerobic conditioning because it takes time and consistency,” says Dr. Gangemi.
Chances are that when you run or work out, you are working anaerobically versus aerobically. That means that your body is working at a higher intensity and generating energy without relying on oxygen.
“We have a no pain, no gain attitude about training. More miles must be better and you have to train fast to race fast,” says Dr. Phil Maffetone, internationally recognized researcher, educator and best selling author. Athletes would come see him for an injury but then return a few weeks later injured again. “It made me realize that many of them were overtraining,” he says. According to Dr. Maffetone, “heart rate is a good gauge of the amount of stress our bodies experience.” Translation: Higher heart rate equals more stress.
“Many people think that aerobic training will make them slow and lose muscle but it doesn’t,” says Dr. Steve Gangemi, aka the “Sock Doc,” a chiropractic physician specializing in holistic health care. “Your aerobic system keeps you strong and powerful over a consistent period of time,” and helps your body run more efficiently, burning fat for fuel instead of sugar. It improves the function of slow-twitch muscle fibers and increases blood volume (and in turn, the amount of oxygen available to your muscles). With less stress on your body, your nervous system stays relaxed.
The problem is, “Most people have never developed good aerobic conditioning because it takes time and consistency,” says Dr. Gangemi. “They end up with poor aerobic physiology and metabolism.” Because your body turns to sugar instead of fat for fuel, it’s harder to maintain stable blood sugar levels and avoid glycogen depletion.
That’s what happened to Amanda Louden, endurance athlete and RRCA certified running coach. After returning from injury in the fall of 2011, Louden jumped right back into intense training instead of building her aerobic base. The resulting effects included sub-par performances at the 2012 Boston Marathon and California International Marathon. “I had a couple of bad marathons in a row where I was bonking. I was running out of energy far too early [in the race],” she says. After consulting with Dr. Gangemi, Louden came to the conclusion that her body wasn’t effectively burning fat.
When training aerobically, “you should feel energized and not like you need a nap or a GU to replenish your carb stores,” says Dr. Gangemi. Dr. Maffetone says, “You should quickly see positive changes in a runner. In particular, they should be running faster at the same heart rate and their injury should go away.”
Building Your Base
To build your aerobic base, you have to train at a low heart rate, a relaxed pace that passes the “talk test.” But finding the right heart rate is an individualized process. After evaluating numerous athletes, Dr. Maffetone came up with a formula to determine an optimal heart rate training zone — the Maffetone Method.
The formula, which has been around since the early 1980s, provides a simple way to calculate your maximum aerobic training heart rate. Here’s how:
- Subtract your age from 180.
- Modify this number based on your own fitness and health profile:
- If you have or are recovering from a major illness or are on regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
- If you are injured, have regressed in training, have asthma, have never exercised or exercise inconsistently, subtract an additional 5.
- If you have trained consistently for up to two years with no problems, make no modifications.
- If you have exercised consistently for more than two years with no problems, add 5.
This is your maximum heart rate (MHR). For all you workouts, you should be exercising in a zone that’s between your MHR and 10 beats less. And we’re not talking about your average heart rate over the course of a workout. Your heart rate should be in this zone at all times, according to Dr. Gangemi.
“Give it a little time and then reassess. Are things better? Worse? The same?” recommends Dr. Maffetone. It’s best to measure your progress objectively with a test such as a maximum aerobic function test. Do an easy warm-up below your MHR. Then, run a three- to five-mile test as close to your MHR as possible and record each mile interval. If done correctly, each mile should be slightly slower. Repeat the test every four weeks. Over time, your pace should decrease while maintaining the same MHR.
Challenges and Pay-Offs
Building your aerobic base takes time and discipline, anywhere from a month to a year or longer depending on your fitness. At first, it was hard for Louden to follow the MAF Method. “It was really frustrating how slow I had to go,” she says. It can be hard to work out with friends, and it’s humbling to the ego. Initially, you may have to walk up hills so you don’t spike your heart rate. If you stick with it, eventually you can run up that hill again at a low heart rate.
The other thing? “You really have to commit to building an aerobic system for a certain period of time,” says Dr. Gangemi. That means no hard workouts. “You can’t do aerobic training on Tuesday and Thursday and then do harder workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” Adding anaerobic workouts before your aerobic system is strong could lead to burnout and injury, according to Dr. Gangemi.
While most MAF Method success stories are anecdotal, Dr. Maffetone has worked with thousands of athletes over the course of his professional career, continually measuring their progress. Most, he says, were successful, especially when they were disciplined in their training.
For Louden, she saw continual progress over four months of low heart rate training. Each month she assessed herself. Each month, she was running faster paces at the same low heart rate.
While slowing down and decreasing the intensity of your workouts may seem counter-intuitive to most people, it might just make you a stronger runner over the long-term. So next time you head out for a run, forget about your pace and leave your Garmin at home.