Maximum Aerobic Function Test #1 (Running)
I year ago today, I shuffled my way to a pathetic 13:27, only a few weeks recovered from pneumonia. Truly, I was starting from ZERO. It sucked. But I persevered with the Maffetone Method, and my fitness steadily improved, which led to a great summer of racing with no burn out like in past years.
But this year I have been worried.
I slacked off in the fall, quit racing, and got a little too serious about an “off season break.” The holidays interrupted a little, but I got in some nice runs. Then January came, time to start base training, but things fell apart. Huge work stress, a cold, and other assorted troubles conspired to make me miss too many days.
Last week I tried a MAF test on the track, but the results and feel were so off I knew I needed to retest this. I feared this season was over before it even started.
Then I had some encouraging signs:
- A great weekend long run
- A great informal MAF test that had a two minute improvement over recent times
- A good morning HRV score
So I knew it was time to hit the track on the same day that I started last year to see where I stood. I am over two minutes faster per mile than I was at this time last year (and a bit heavier, oops!) I wasn’t able to hit a MAF pace like today’s formally or informally, until late April of last season. So while I wasn’t able to maintain ALL my fitness from last year as I hoped, or build on it as I think you should be able to when training the low stress Maffetone way, it’s worked out pretty well.
But, I’ve been too much of a run specialist. Time to remember those other two sports that make up triathlon!
Inspired by Kenyan runners?
I sure am. Want to become a Kenyan, or at least like a Kenyan runner?
I sure have, and I am not alone.
There are two ways to become Kenyan:
1. Move to Eldoret or Iten, eat ugali and sukuma wiki every day. Run a ton with the various training groups and live and breathe running until you get fast. Adharanda Finn tried this, and wrote an interesting account of a European living, training and racing in Kenya in his book Running with the Kenyans.
Don’t want to pack up the kids and live in a third world country like Finn? The you’ll have to improvise and adapt. Here are a few Kenyan secrets that could be modified to fit a Western lifestyle.
- Build the Biggest Aerobic Base You Can: I recommend the Maffetone Method. A large part of Kenyan success is the years of easy to moderate aerobic running they do as kids. Many people are also surprised at how slow even elite Kenyans train much of the time. Aerobic fitness is the most important factor, and you can’t fake it for long.
- Don’t Run Barefoot, Run Like You Were Barefoot: Remember that Kenyan runners get shoes as soon as they can. But years of running barefoot have given them a fantastic stride. For Westerners who have lived their lives in shoes, a different approach is needed. Spending more time barefoot, running in less supportive shoes, training on natural surfaces and focusing on a high cadence efficient stride can pay off big.
- Simplify: The more you focus your life energy on running, the more improvement you can make. Take a close look at lifestyle factors that interfere with training and recovery. See what you can eliminate or reduce. Read Thoreau and remember his maxim, Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
- Periodize: Know when it’s time to train, and when it’s time to take a break. Know when it’s time to go hard, and know when it’s time for recovery.
- Rally the Troops: Find others to train with. Kenyans rarely train alone, and they feed off that group energy to get more done. Join a club, find a partner, go to races, get a dog. Lots of folks get more done when part of a team.
Eat a simple starch based, vegetarian diet. The Kenyan dietary secret is not the ugali and sukuma wiki, but that it is starch based with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are many ways to do this based on a number of different starches, fruits, and veggies to suit anyone’s taste.
OK, so you can’t really become a great Kenyan runner, especially if you missed out on a Kenyan childhood. But you can still learn from some of their habits. Who knows? Maybe a PR is in store for you this season.
Good news from the track: My fitness is once again headed in the right direction. Apparently, spending 4-8 hrs on your bike going as anaerobic as possible wears a body down. Who would have thought it? I saw my MAF test pace decline about 30 sec per mile through July, and the graph of my HRV remained relatively flat. I was overreaching, and for once, I was smart about it. As school started I took my midseason break.
And it worked!
I have seen my highest HRV scores ever, and the average is up 10 points for the last month. That has never happened before. And my MAF test pace is back to roughly what it was at the start of summer, before all the marathon mtb races. What does that mean?
1. My aerobic fitness had regressed due to the heavy anaerobic demands of racing. HRV and MAF pace measure that quantitatively, but I could also qualitatively feel the fatigue build, and for the first time recognize it early enough to do something about it.
2. My autonomic nervous system is in a good state of balance and is not overstressed.
3. My aerobic system is recovered, and can once again move forward.
Speaking of marathons…
It’s marathon season, and I’ve scheduled a half marathon in October to continue to build toward a December full marathon. Now I just concentrate on long runs, and let the bike fade a bit into the background. For now, all training runs stay at MAF pace. No need to stress my anaerobic system for a marathon, it won’t be needed as much as the biggest aerobic engine I can find between now and then. Besides I had plenty of anaerobic hell in Tahoe this summer.
In other news:
The PCRM Kickstart is going well, but with so many yummy recipes to try, and only one of me to actually eat them, I’m a little overwhelmed. Oh well, nothing like a little eating challenge to inspire and use up the great fall produce.
With echoes of Monty Python running through my head I read through the second chapter of the Heath brothers’ Switch fascinated by an idea that was so obvious and clear as to be routinely ignored: find what works and do more of it.
*plants palm firmly in center of forehead making a distinct slapping sound*
Of course. Why focus on problems if solutions are right next to you? The subtitle of this book is “How to Change When Change is Hard”, and this first lesson hits you like, “Why didn’t I think about that?”
To back up, the Heaths explain that our behavior is governed by two independent forces that are complementary, but not always complimentary. That is, they complete each other, but don’t always cooperate. These forces are our executive function or logical thinking, and our emotional motivation. Without our reasoning brain to solve a problem and find the path, our emotional energy will flail around. Without the motivation and drive of our emotions, our executive function will spin its wheels and never get started. The Heaths borrow a metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents the tremendous power of our emotional motivation, but it needs direction from the rider. The rider knows where to go, but needs the elephant’s power to get there. The first section of the book explores how to get the Rider to most efficiently create a winning plan. This is a plan that is reasonable, rational, but most importantly, accessible to the Elephant.
The first technique is to find what already works and copy it. They call it finding the bright spots, and give some great examples of it in action. My favorite came from a children’s malnutrition project. Plenty of expert “Riders” had already assessed the situation and found it too difficult to solve. The malnutrition came from insurmountable structural problems: poverty, lack of sanitation, no clean water, etc. These problems would not go away overnight because they were large in scale and complicated. A new team went to one particular village to investigate. They asked a simple question, “Is this problem universal, affecting everyone equally, or are some people able to get around it and raise healthy children despite the odds?” What they found was that some families in the same circumstances did have healthy children. With the same resources, they were getting better results. The investigators had found a “bright spot”. They followed them around to see what they did differently. Instead of two meals a day like the adults, these families fed their kids more often. And they used a couple of ingredients not usually thought of as appropriate for kids, some leafy greens and shrimp. These few ingredient changes increased both the calorie density and nutrient density of the food and resulted in healthy children. Once this strategy was shared, other families got the same results.
Amazing, isn’t it? The reasoning brain would get stuck at the big problems, but by showing it a practical solution, it can focus on the details. Seeing that success is possible, the emotional side is motivated by the good feelings that success creates. In these villages, Elephants and Riders worked together to improve the health of the children.
So the take home message is to find the bright spots. What has worked in the past? Why did it work? Can we do more of that? Right now I’m tempted to try anaerobic workouts again. I’ve been building my aerobic base for awhile, and I want to get faster. But my bright spot is the Maffetone method, not anaerobic running or cycling. What I need now is better climbing, so I will combine the methods. I will find some hills to climb and climb more and more, but I will keep it aerobic. This way I practice what needs improving, climbing, in a similar way to traditional interval training. But I will keep the intensity aerobic. My thinking is that this way I can build strength in my aerobic slow twitch muscle fibers to climb faster, and do it without the added recovery demands and increased overtraining risk from anaerobic training. At least for one more month. In June I may need to find a new bright spot.
“Most endurance athletes think of walking as something that’s done during a bad race. But walking is a powerful tool that can … help build even more aerobic function. Walking can trigger the use of many small aerobic muscle fibers that are not used during training- turning these muscles on increases fat burning and additional circulation.”
– Philip Maffetone The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing p. 104
While I was recovering from pneumonia, I had to walk. It was the only activity that kept my heart rate within my aerobic zone. Gradually I was able to intersperse slow jogs, and eventually run. I was reminded of this passage and dug it to remind myself that it is OK to walk. In fact, as I recovered, I added a longer warmup and cool down than I used to for my runs, and kept it to purely walking. As my fitness has improved I can feel the benefit that just plain low intensity walking has on my aerobic function. Some days I even add a walk to whatever other workouts I’m doing. Maffetone recounts that he even used walks as cross training for elite athletes. They were surprised to find (as I was) that they actually had a little muscle soreness just from the added walks! Turns out those small aerobic muscle fibers were underused, as he explains above. So I changed my mind about the minutes spent walking as “not part of the workout”.
So don’t be afraid to walk. In the game of maximizing aerobic function, walking is a very important move to make. The cardiovascular system doesn’t care if you’re walking or running, swimming or cycling. As long as it’s aerobic, you’re getting benefits. So long walking warmups and cool downs, as well as interspersing walks throughout the week can add to training volume, increase aerobic fitness an do it very safely. So go ahead, turn off the stop watch and enjoy a nice half hour walk.
More success thanks to the Maffetone Method. I went on a beautiful spring mountain bike ride on a route I haven’t ridden since September. I did a similar route two weeks ago that came shorter than I wanted, so I added another couple of trails to make a bigger loop. I wanted about two or two and a half hours, and I got just short of two. As I rode, it dawned on me that this ride took me more like 2h15 in the fall. When I double checked my training log from last season, sho ’nuff, I was almost 20 min faster than I was near the end of last season. This Maffetone stuff really works! The best part was when I attacked a climb that last fall I could not ride aerobically, within my MAF. This time I rode the whole steep fire road at MAF in the granny gear. It is true that I have added five beats per minute to my MAF, and I did briefly stop twice to allow my heart rate to recover a bit. But in September there was no chance. I was pushing.
Maffetone Method Advantages:
Lower stress overall and workouts that feel good
Maffetone writes that you should feel good after training, good enough that you would do it again. This gentle approach is what is necessary to fully develop the aerobic system. I find this to be true. My workouts help me deal with life stress, rather than add to it.
More training consistency
Because I don’t get so beat up training, I train every day. Once every 7-10 days I take a recovery day. I feel a bit worn down, and that one day off feels really good. The day after, I’m rarin’ to go. I think that during the school year I will have to all, or almost all of my training aerobically. It appears to be the only way I can train consistently, and consistency trumps everything.
I get faster by going slower!
It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. Week by week I get faster, and I don’t have to try very hard. Although I still haven’t raced enough to see how that translates into performance at race intensity, indications are that I should race faster too.
So while I’m beginning to fidget a little and wanting to try some anaerobic workouts to get faster, I think I’ll put those off till summer. I’ll just focus on putting together some of the missing pieces, like more swimming and strength training.
Finding the proper aerobic/anaerobic balance is a tricky thing. For me it appears that very little anaerobic work is right. I feel good, so I’m having more fun this way. When I mentioned this to triathlon coach Muddy Waters, he just smiled and said, “You just said the magic words!”
So go outside and play today, just to feel good.
So after nearly eight months of no racing, Maffetone training that never had my heart rate over 140 bpm, influenza, pneumonia, and a slow march through base training, I finally got to uncork one!
And I went… slowly.
It was disappointing to go slower than two years ago, which was close to this year in course conditions. The swim was slow, thanks to freezing conditions that forced more breast stroke than I like. The bike was a little slower as well due to mud and some mechanical problems with my brakes. I knew my brakes were mushy going in, but I thought they would hold for two laps. They held for a lap and then the rear brake began to fade dramatically. Not as bad as last year though, when they failed completely, destroyed a rim, and left me walking the downhills. I shouldn’t be disappointed considereing my lack of training or racing at high intensity. After all, this was the first race of the season. But I am disappointed considering the improvement in my MAF tests compared to last year. I thought I would be going a lot better.
What was puzzling was that I felt great while racing. Even the swim, which I haven’t trained much at all, felt comfortable after I got used to the ice cold water. The bike was a challenge because it’s been months since I rode the mountain bike on anything remotely technical. While challenging, it was fun to ride those Granite Beach trails. The bike course is real mountain biking: lots of single track, and you’re always actively doing something, climbing, descending, negotiating rocks, turning through tight and twisty singletrack. You have to concentrate. The run felt pretty good as well. My stride and cadence were what I wanted them, I didn’t have GI issues, but my time shows the truth: I didn’t go fast.
I wore my Garmin hrm so I could graph my heart rate for the bike and run sections and see what happened. I found that I averaged 170 bpm, and cruised a lot around 175 bpm. I noticed that around 180 bpm the door to the hurt locker slammed shut, and I had to back off, usually at the top of a climb. So, since I have done all of my exercise under 140 bpm, but race from 165-175 bpm, it appears that I need to do more anaerobic, race pace training to get used to going fast. Also, the fact that I “felt good” might be a red flag. After all, isn’t racing supposed to hurt? At least a little? I think I held back a little too much, perhaps due to being out of practice.
So going forward?
More mountain biking. Spring is here, the trails are drying out, my bike is tuned.
Readjust my MAF training range up from Maffetone’s formula of 140 to Mark Allen’s version, which is 145, especially on the run.
More volume. I felt that I faded in the second half of each event. Probably due to lack of truly long rides and runs.
What about anaerobic effort?
I will hold off anerobic training for another month and just use racing for that training effect. I need to continue to build my aerobic base because it still lags behind. I may readjust my range upward again to follow what some coaches recommend by basing my MAF off of lactate threshold instead of the 180 formula. For the moment, I will keep it low since I am still getting benefits.
After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
This test came a little sooner, just three weeks after the last one. I want to test a little more frequently than Maffetone suggests so that I have more data and can catch problems faster. Plus, I really wanted a test close to my first race of the year on April 1. That way I can compare MAF data with racing heart rate and my subjective perception of the overall race experience.
Like the February test, I knew I was getting fitter and faster because my time for a typical training run had been improving, and my HRV (heart rate variability) score had been improving. When I tested, I was not disappointed.
MAF Test #2 03/06/12
avg mile pace 11:52
MAF Test #3 03/28/12
avg mile pace 11:31
That’s a twenty second improvement in just three weeks training at my low and comfortable MAF aerobic heart rate. This score should correspond to my fitness last August. But I do need more data from the real world, so if the weather will dry out, I will go do a MTB ride that I have recorded times from last summer. Then I will have very good data. But for now, I’m satisfied.
Almost exactly one month later, I did another MAF test. I aimed for three weeks, a little ahead of Maffetone’s guidelines, but it worked the same anyway. I wanted some validation in data that I have been getting stronger, and I got it. I know I’ve become fitter, because I can feel it. I also have informal data from times posted on training routes that I use frequently. All good news, because the racing season starts in roughly one month with the XTERRA Real in Granite Beach.
MAF Test #1 2/06/12
Avg mile pace 13:27
MAF Test #2 3/06/12
Avg mile pace 11:52
Almost a minute and a half faster! And I lost some training time due to mid month vacation.
Even better than the relative improvement is how this number compares to last season. I didn’t start using the Maffetone method until April of last year, and I did not measure aerobic fitness with a MAF test until July 15, with a result of 11:56. So right now, I theoretically have better fitness than I did at midsummer last year. Yay, me! That first test came one week prior to racing the Leadville Qualifier Series race at Northstar, where I felt good. I want to chop off an hour or two from my time and move from the back of the pack to the middle, and this test gives me hope. I still have months to build aerobic fitness for that race.