Method to the Mafness

…I couldn’t help myself. I had to make a really horrible pun. Ok, ok… it’s out of my system. ;)

Let’s talk about the Maffetone Method again. Ben wrote a wonderful little post about the Maf Test and this run-easy training method we’ve been practicing. For those of you who love the science and enjoy nerding out to the reasons why things work, this post is not for you. This is a practical gathering of my understanding, observations, and experiences with running under the Maffetone Method for – now – over a year. (In other words, I’m taking a load of information and condensing it to easy-to-swallow highlights!) Let’s call it the quick-start guide to the Maffetone Method.

Who’s this Maff guy? Phil Maffetone’s a doctor who studied endurance athletes, runners. There’s still not a lot of numbers and data on this – he says that he’s seen this method work based on his experience and a similar, but not exact, research study he did back in the day.

But to me, this method trains your body to use oxygen and fuel efficiently. Running below a certain effort level results in your body burning more fat and less carbs. At a higher exertions, the body switches to burning a higher mix of carbs. Fats supply a lot more energy/calories and break down slower (than carbs), which supplies us more energy. Training your body to burn more fats gets you to be more efficient with your energy use.

So, efficiency = less energy needed for the same effort. Wheels turning: if I can run a 4-hour marathon using less energy than I was before, then if I run at the same effort as before and am now more efficient, my marathon time should be faster than it was before. #Winning.

Ugh. This is the part where I have to brag a little, not to make myself feel like a superstar, but because I need to convince you that this works! There are a ton of other benefits, but if you’re skeptical about this training method or are just interested in setting PRs for yourself, what you’re about to read might convince you to run slower in order to get faster.

Since January 1, 2012, Ben has been using me as his guinea pig, whether he admits it or not. :) During this time, I have not followed a training plan and have been running under the Maffetone Method — in other words, all slow and easy runs. I haven’t trained specifically for any races, and usually signed up if I felt good that week. It’s worked!

50 miles later…
  • Ran a 50k trail race – significantly farther and longer (time-wise) than I’ve ever run.
  • Ran a 50 mile trail race – even farther than I’d run before! …with a 3rd place overall finish.
  • Broke my 400-meter PR during a random track workout (relay night) I jumped in (74 sec?)
  • Ran a 5k PR on the track during a time trial – besting my earlier PR by >15 seconds
  • Ran a lifetime mile PR on the track during a time trial, cutting 5 seconds off of my recent mile PR from 4 weeks earlier.
  • Ran a personal weekly mileage PR of 100+ miles, averaged over 50 weekly miles in 2012.

/End brag. (Whew)

We ran! We hooked ourselves up to heart rate monitors for each run, and set alarms on our Garmins for 80% of max heart rate. Based on my age, that’s around 156 beats per minute. Every time the alert went off or was about to go off, we’d slow down and get the heart rate under control.

It was a battle! There was quite a bit of walking at first (and as the summer humidity started to set in, MORE walking!). If this is any idea for you, my PR marathon pace is around 7:30/mile. I was running – at 80% – somewhere closer to 9- and 10-minute miles at first. Doing this while fighting a little bit of anemia, that pace went up to 10-11 minutes/mile at times. Every day was different, depending on how I felt– so one day, I could be at 9-minute pace, and the next (on the same route) could be 11 minutes/mile. Add hills, and runs just took a little bit of patience. And accepting that walking was ok.


What’s more important is what you don’t see on my list of how I ran. I had runs like these rarely (less than once a month):

  • track workouts and speed work
  • fast runs or races
  • tempo/pace runs
  • strides/pick-ups

After a few weeks of this, it became easier to predict when the heart rate alert was about to go off to signal that I was exceeding 156 bpm. Also, after a few months my normal 80% pace dropped down to 8:30, 8:15, and approached 8 minutes/mile.

I have to stress the patience part of this training method. I was doing a lot of runs by myself or going with a slower group because it was too easy/tempting to get “sucked in” by the group at group runs, and then exceed my heart rate. Best test? If you can talk comfortably, then you’re good and haven’t gone over 80%. Not an exact measurement, and I don’t recommend this as the sole way to gauge your progress. Just a simple comparison.

I also ran more miles by running to/from places I needed to be (group runs, the Y) and adding a few morning runs (two-a-days). I don’t think this is necessary, but I wanted to try it out… I’ve never been able to surpass 50 miles/week without being injured! Last year I was able to get past that and double it without any issues. Why? I did “other stuff.”

Other Stuff
Since I temporarily gave up on triathlons after the Rev3 half, I barely touched my bike last year. All I did was run. I also hit the Y twice a week to lift weights and strength train — and this is how I stayed uninjured while increasing my mileage. Conveniently, the Y is 2 miles from our house, so I’d run two miles there, lift, and go two miles home. It was nice – the longest I ever ran in one shot was two miles! My typical strength training routine consisted of mostly core and hip flexor strengthening moves, which I designed to be quick enough to complete in 20 minutes or less. (C’mon, I got places to be!!)

  • 3 x 15 reps of a circuit of 4 arm exercises with free weights
  • Declined bench – 5 sets of core exercises with medicine ball
  • 30 lunges with 5-pound weights
  • Resistance band exercise around both ankles – walk sideways for 30 paces each side
  • Leg press machine – 5 x 15 reps

The top reasons that the Maffetone Method wins and why YOU should do it too:

  1. Your legs won’t feel as beat up at the end of runs or at the end of the week. (I used to do 1 or 2 track workouts a week, and legs just felt heavy and tired after 50 or 60 miles!) Your legs will feel…. fresh, leaving you to focus on form (no bad habits with form, no overextending) and make you less likely to be injured.
  2. You could then run more miles because you don’t feel trashed.
  3. You’ll never got sick of running. Usually a a month out from a marathon, after following the training plan and doing all of the workouts, I would just get tired of running and want a break. I never got that feeling like I had to get out the door.
  4. IF you do do a track workout, do my reps slower than all-out and still get the same benefit as if you had. For me, the guys who outran me on every rep of a workout probably didn’t get any better/faster/stronger than I was while running 3-5 seconds behind them… this means better recovery! Running faster isn’t always better. Work smart, not hard!
  5. Run with and get to know people you didn’t before. It turns out running is way more enjoyable, casual, and social when you’re running with the ladies of Team Slow and Steady! (Every run doesn’t have to be a race, ya know!)
  6. Run with your spouse. Ben and I were able to run together more often, and he stopped saying how it would “hurt” to go as slow as my easy pace. As long as he’s not going over 80%, he’s still getting aerobic benefit too, and running with me. You can have this too… assuming your significant other runs. ;) 
    We ran together!
  7. Set some PRs. At the end of races, I quit getting the tired feeling of trying to simply hang on at the end of a race. This type of training gives me a strong all-the-way-through feeling. It’s hard to describe and understand until you experience it. Also, I never expected to set PRs… I never really knew how much more efficient I was becoming!
  8. I never dreaded a run/workout.
    I get anxious about track workouts, so avoiding them on purpose was a-mazing! No pressure to keep a pace. I didn’t feel like I had to hold a certain tempo pace or shoot for a particular finish time, which saved myself the frustration that came with occasionally not meeting a goal for a hard workout. This was huge on the attitude!

Clear as mud?

It’s Madness… (It’s in my running playlist. I’m obsessed with Muse and this song.)

Are you looking to make a training change? Does this still sound like a whole lotta crazy?

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3 thoughts on “Method to the Mafness

  1. March 29, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Hi Guys

    Great to read your post, and your success, 3rd place overall in a 50 miler, some going!

    I did a few months of maffetone training a couple of years back, then stopped running, but am getting back into it now. Ordered a new HR monitor, arriving today. Are you still running with this method, how have you progressed since last year.

    Awesome post, got me very motivated



  2. Zan
    May 16, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Very nice feedback on the Maffetone method! I’ve been following this method for a while now, almost a year, but I’m a bit stuck in a plateau, running at a 10:30 minutes per mile at a HR of 143 (I’m 37).
    On the other hand, I’ve been reading Joe Friel heart rate based training book recently. I found that he, and most people following his training, consider the MAF HR to be right in the Friel’s zone 2. Having done the test several times, I found that I may have a quite high lactate threshold heart rate of 178 (a max HR of 193), which put the MAF HR right in the zone 1 instead.

    I’m not sure how to interpret all those numbers. I certainly feel great while following the Maffetone method, no injuries, no recovery time, no complex training plan to manage and follow, but still, I’m not progressing, and sometimes, I feel like I want a bit more than easy runs.

    Just a thought ;)


    1. Ben
      January 7, 2015 at 6:05 am

      Thanks Zan and sorry for such a delayed response!

      The first thing that pops out to me is that you’ve been training for at least a year now with no setbacks – that’s great. It’s also entering the timeframe where Maffetone would +5 your HR limit for consistency. That may help. (I haven’t gotten into Friel much because I was wanting to focus on the same area I felt Maffetone paid the most attention to)

      Plateaus have definitely happened for us as well, but its usually when we decide to only look at one aspect (like pace). Maybe pace hasn’t changed in a while, but have you been able to lengthen your runs or run more often, or on hillier terrain, or with quicker recovery? It’s easy to consider only the variable that is on our wrist, but you may find you’ve not really plateaued at all!

      Happy Maffing!

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