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Base Training: Build a HUGE Aerobic Engine

Build cardiovascular fitness that looks like this!

Build cardiovascular fitness that looks like this!

New Year’s is over and while the weather here in California is cold, it’s time to put in those base miles. OK, I know, much of the country experiences REAL cold, but temps in the 30s mean my morning bike commute isn’t happening. That’s a pity, because there is no more convenient way to amass training hours than to incorporate them into something you already  have to do, like go to work.

Of course, I could ride on the indoor trainer. But that sucks.

I would rather be outside running than sweating on the floor. But I promise I will train on the trainer this week if I have to.

Base Training Goal: Aerobic Fitness

This will be my second full season of Maffetone training, and this year I have residual fitness from last season. My informal MAF test of my usual running route shows some slowing from last year’s best, but it has been holding steady, and I have not tried to push that fitness further. In the off season, I think that a plateau equals progress. Compared to last year where I lost weeks of training from pneumonia, this year I have maintained some reasonable run fitness. My hope is that I can build on that this season and get even faster. Like last year, I will not race until the end of March, giving me three months of uninterrupted aerobic base training, except for some alpine skiing. I will use my 180 formula maximum heart rate of 145 until I start racing. If everything goes well, I will experiment with calculating my MAF by working down from lactate threshold, which will give me a higher heart rate range to work with.


Because unless you race on the track, almost all of your energy is being produced aerobically.

Because more health benefits come from aerobic fitness.

Because it creates less stress, avoiding burnout.

Because it’s good for the brain, helping Seasonal Affective Disorder (more on that later)

How to Build a V8 Aerobic Engine

Stick to MAF.

Aerobic and anaerobic workouts can interfere with each other. Use the 180 formula and be disciplined.

Don’t race

Resist the temptation to “tune up” until after you’ve built the engine.

Increase volume

Do this more by increasing frequency than super long workouts. The sweet spots seem to be 45-60 min. and again around two hours. The Kenyans never train for more than 2 hrs, but they train often.

Be patient

Improved fitness will come week by week and three months should build quite an engine.

Happy training!


How to Become a Kenyan

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Extra Credit:

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.

10 Reasons The Kenyans Will Always Be Faster: Part 2

Last time I served up five reasons that the Kenyans will always be faster than you or me. But it takes more than those five reasons to dominate the world. So here are five more to learn from. The only question I have about these amazing runners is: Will the relentless push of the modern world will some day sink the Kenyans? Will they eat junk food? Will the kids quit running around for years? Will some other country get hungrier and work harder?

6. Group training- Kenyans don’t train alone like most endurance athletes. They always train in groups, and feed off each others’ energy. The power of a community devoted to the same project and supporting each other helps everyone.

7. Heroes- By now, Kenya has amassed so many great runners that it is easy for a young runner to look up at a clear path to success. Everything from how to train, to top notch competition is easy for a Kenyan to picture. Quick, name today’s greatest American marathoners? Drawing a blank? Most do. There are not many, and one of them is of Kenyan descent, naturalized, but grew up here. We have football and basketball stars, they have runners.

8. Competition- Can you imagine what it must be like to compete at the national level in Kenya? It must be like the World Championships every single time. Only the fastest survive. If it were not for the rules limiting a country’s entries, the World Championships and the Kenyan Nationals would be the same thing. Out of this crucible comes world class running.

9. Renato Canova- Well, coaching, in general, not just Canova. Seeing the immense potential in East Africa, a number of European coaches have taken to living in a third world, developing country just to train he world’s fastest runners. That is a beautiful thing. With a talent pool as deep as Kenya, new training and coaching techniques can be tested to the maximum level possible. It would be lIke working in Ferrari’s Formula 1 racing division. You do not hold anything back, you figure out the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Nothing else.


They are hungrier than anyone else. I mean that mostly figuratively, as in they want it more, and they do what it takes. They run more. A lot more. Running and racing is a chance to make a life that is very hard to come by in East Africa. They do not mess around, they chase it and wrestle it down or die trying. How many American runners have that simultaneous pressure and motivation? And in many cases, they are literally hungry. Poverty can be a great motivation, and if you have the stride that might win an international marathon or Olympic gold, you chase that with everything you’ve got.

10 Reasons Why the Kenyans Will Always Be Faster

Everyone wants to know the Kenyan secret. Why are they so darn fast? Well, there is no one reason. We all want the easy some explanation even while we know that there is no such thing. If there was, we could all do the same thing. Or we want to find some genetic explanation so that we can believe that everything is out of our control and excuse ourselves from trying. It’s not genetics, if it was they would be battling the the Tanzanians, but that’s not happening. Instead, the Kenyans have a perfect storm of advantages that have led to their dominance for decades. Since it’s complex, don’t expect much to change any time soon.

1. Diet- well, sorta. The near vegetarian diet works really well. I admit my bias. I think this is a bigger reason than people acknowledge. Not eating the standard Western disease promoting diet for most of their lives gives them an advantage. As modernity continues its invasion, this advantage may disappear.

2. They Run as Kids- A lot! By the time they start competition training, they have an incredible aerobic base few Westerners have achieved. They do this by running to and from school twice a day, running to visit friends, running everywhere.

3. They Run as Kids- They do most of this running barefoot, so develop a fantastic, efficient stride. The first thing they do when training seriously is get shoes, but their formative years are barefoot developing on incredible foot and lower leg strength. And a stride that everyone agrees is the most beautiful in the world.

4. Simplicity- When they train in a training camp, they literally eat, sleep and train. There are no distractions like Internet, TV, movies, mass media, social media etc. Being so focused makes recovery easier. Contrast that to our hectic lifestyle, where many athletes skip sleep to train. Kenyans sleep whenever they want, since there is nothing like a post workout recovery nap.

5. Periodization- Kenyans focus their training in intense blocks for specific races where all distractions are eliminated. Then, when it’s over, they go home, relax, forget about running, rest, recover, eat, put on some weight and refuse to worry about it until the next training period. Spending lots of time with family maximizes their recovery and keeps a work and life balance that us Westerners can only envy.

Not a PR: By 1.2 seconds

Despite my recent fall hiatus from racing to allow for full recovery of mental and physical faculties, I decided at the last minute  to jump into a neighborhood 5K just for fun. I almost never race on the road. I prefer the adventure and challenge of racing on trails. I also like that trails make comparing times much more difficult, and usually impossible. The temptation to become a numbers freak always worrying about times and paces disappears with the first rocky singletrack section.

But racing once in a while on roads or the track is good too. It’s nice to run on a consistent marked course to see what kind of pace I really can manage with my current level of fitness. If and when I do any anaerobic style training, I know what kind of pace to use. It also allows me to set reasonable time goals for the few events I want to do on the road, like a half marathon and eventually a full marathon.

I last ran this race a couple of years ago slightly faster.

I missed my 5K PR by 1.2 seconds!

Seriously, how can this be? I also ran the Squaw Mountain Run in nearly the exact same time as the previous year. How do I interpret these results?

The Glass is Half Empty:

All that slow aerobic Maffetone training isn’t helping. Train fast, if you want to race fast!

The Glass is Half Full:

I haven’t aged in three years. I’m capable of the same performance.

In reality, this has been a tough year since I started by missing all of January with pneumonia and had to start rebuilding my fitness from ZERO. So I’m not worried yet. I’ll stick to Maffetone for the time being because I enjoy it. I’ll run a half marathon instead of a full marathon for other, related reasons. My race pace now finally reflects my MAF test results, showing that my aerobic system is catching up with my anaerobic speed. So now the long, patient work of building an even bigger aerobic engine for next season begins. I’ll race again next month, then focus on MAF all the way to April before worrying about racing again.

5K Time: 23:00 41st overall out of 500(?) runners

How Active Recovery Works

Arright, hands up, who has raced hard enough to have to walk down the stairs backwards? Yeah, me too. When that happens, it seems like the most important thing to do for recovery is find the nearest couch and stay planted. Forever. Or at least until all the ice in the beer cooler next to the couch has melted. What is definitely counter intuitive is the idea of active recovery. Active?! Sounds ridiculous, but then I tried it. And the coaches are right, it really can help.

How I Used Active Recovery to Learn How to Walk Again

The run course at XTERRA Tahoe CIty is hard. You start climbing a steep, paved road that switches to steep, rocky singletrack. There is a brief respite at the top, then what goes up, must go down. A steep, quad smashing descent on loose, rocky road and pavement. Of course, that all follows a couple hours of mountain biking. My legs were done. My left knee started to really hurt during the descent, and trying to compensate, my imbalanced gait hurt my right calf, already stressed from the climb. Delayed onset muscle soreness had no delay for me. I hurt at the finish line. But three days later, I was healed. Fighting the instinct to collapse was the key.

Keep Moving

The following day I went for a walk. About 30 minutes. A little shorter would have been better, but my knee and calf required a slower pace, and maybe trails were not such a good idea. But the forest was good because of the trees. They have been proven to help brain function and mood. I felt refreshed physically and mentally. The second day after the race I repeated my recovery walk. Maffetone describes walking as an ideal cross training tool for racers because it can help recovery. The third day I went for a short walk/jog keeping a close eye on heart rate and muscle soreness, which was quickly decreasing. It worked OK. A bike ride would have been better, but I ran out of time after my afternoon recovery nap. More on passive recovery later. The next day I got back on the bike for an easy 90 minute spin. It felt great, and I successfully resisted the urge to do more. Now I’m ready to train again. Even my sleep and HRV have returned to normal.

Why I Think it Works

Using the Recovery Issues:
For some people 30 minutes of exercise is a lot. But if you race, a 30 minute walk is very easy, so it does not add any fatigue to what you’ve already done.
Walking directs more circulation to stressed muscles. More nutrients and less waste products from metabolism and repair means faster recovery than doing nothing.
Like fatigue, there isn’t enough activity to deplete storage carbohydrate, which means it won’t take any longer to rebuild the stores emptied by a long race.
If you take your walk in a place of natural beauty, you can benefit even more. The brain likes blood nutrients, and oxygen, so a walk in the forest, or anywhere there is a lot of O2 producing vegetation can help a lot.
It’s very refreshing to be doing something, but the lower intensity relieves stress, especially if you have a mild addiction to exercise.

Other Forms of Active Recovery
Swimming in the way that walking is different from running would also help. Maybe more like floating around. I didn’t try this because drifting around in the freezing water of an alpine lake did not appeal. If you’re a fan of cold therapy, it might help. But in a warm climate, or a pool…

Yoga if done in a restorative manner could help. I was too sore to want to risk stretching stressed muscles. If I had been practicing regularly, I could scale it back.

Foam rolling would be the same as yoga. Helpful if you already know what you’re doing. I don’t, so I’m saving it for later.

In the end, I’m not going down the stairs backwards. Instead I’m motivated to train. Enough blogging, time for a nice run in the forest!

Moment of Truth: M.A.F. Test #1

Three weeks ago I dreaded this day: the first Maximum Aerobic Function test of the 2012 triathlon season. It is a full month over due, having been derailed by pneumonia. The original plan was to start the season right after New Year’s with a M.A.F. test to assess current fitness then start building my aerobic base along with all the other New Years resolvers. Then my lungs were invaded by the virus from hell, and I lay in bed checking on my 110 BPM resting heart rate.

When I felt better and started to exercise again three weeks ago, I could barely pedal my bike, and I couldn’t run under my heart rate ceiling, or MAF.  And running is how I test myself. I had no idea when I would be strong enough to even test myself to see how slow I’d become.

But I was encouraged by every single day I went out to exercise, because each day I felt stronger than the previous session. It was amazing that I was running slowly in no time at all, without walk breaks to lower my heart rate. I can now control my heart rate by varying my running pace.

So today was the big test. How slow am I compared to last season?

Neither my hopes nor my fears were confirmed.

I hoped to go under thirteen minutes for my average, but it didn’t happen.

I feared that I would have some horrible shuffling fifteen minute pace, but that didn’t happen either.

What I got was 13:27/mi. average.

I am quite pleased with this.

To put into perspective, my best last season was about eleven minutes a mile. My first MAF test in mid July, I went twelve minutes, and that was after three months of Maffetone style training. I don’t have a time from this time last year to compare to, but I suspect it would be similar. Not bad for someone who spent much of the last month in bed.

I am so excited for this season, if I can get progress like this! I still have almost two months of pure base training before my first race whee I can make a lot of aerobic gains. I know the rate of progress will slow down, but as long as I can get out the door every day and pedal my bike or run, I’ll put it in the “W” column.


Long Run Recovery

Another two hour run today in preparation for a marathon. The whole run, except for a mad dash across six lanes of waiting traffic to make a light, done at a brutally slow MAF pace. The good news: I went further and faster than the last attempt two weeks ago. Unfortunately, I missed last week due to being out of town for an all day weekend workshop.  I think this led to the bad news: a sore and very grumpy left knee about 90 min. into the run. It was just the muscles that control the knee and power my stride. They will get stronger and if Maffetone is correct, keeping the aerobic metabolism exclusively engaged, the correct muscles for endurance are getting stronger. So here are my secrets for recovery since tomorrow I have a two hour ride planned.

Post Workout Nutrition

NUtrition timing is over rated. The research seems to show that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s solid or liquid, consumed within 30 min. or 60 min. What matters is that you eat sooner rather than later. I used to be serious about drinking a commercially prepared “recovery” drink with the trendy ratio of highly processed carbs to high refined protein immediately after a long workout. I still do that after really long races, like an XTERRA, because I can’t stomach solid food for a while. But I am trying as much as possible to get away from the processed calories and instead eat whole food sources. So I time my long workouts to end within an hour of a real meal, either lunch or dinner. Today I finished my long run with a bottle of sports drink because I needed fluids and some calories. But after I cleaned up I ate my lunch, an enormous bowl of soba noodles with stir fried veggies and tofu.

Post Workout Rest

Rubbed magnesium oil into legs for relaxation.

Take a nap. Nothing helps recovery like sleep. Ad who doesn’t like a nap after lunch?

Post Workout Chillin’ Like a Villain

Compression socks

Feet up

Reading an old Travis McGee novel


For extended recovery, I’ve got basic black beans in the slow cooker. They’ll go with quinoa, homemade fresh salsa and avocado. Does it get any better? I’ll save you time spent on research, it does not.

What works for you? Any special rituals put mind, body and soul back together after a long effort?

M.A.F. Test #3

Time: 4 PM

Conditions: Cool, breezy, threatening rain

Mile #1: 10:50

Mile #2: 10:56

Mile #3: 11:25

M.A.F. Average pace: 11:03 per mile

Average Heart Rate: 139 BPM

Alright, this MAF test is a real conundrum. My average only improved by a meager six seconds per mile over a month of training! Even more puzzling is that my first mile took me 10:50, fully fifteen seconds slower than last month? WTF? The improvement came from a much steadier pace for miles 2 and 3, with my final mile twenty seconds faster. WTF? redux  I was actually concerned while I ran that my result might actually worsen this month, but it didn’t happen. I avoid looking at the time while I run, until it’s time to record the split times. But I worried anyway. I resolved that if I did worsen, I would retest in a week to if this was a fluke, or a warning sign. Maffetone emphasizes the value of regular MAF tests to keep training and lifestyle on track. One thing that stands out a little is the relatively slow pace of mile one. This could mean that I wasn’t adequately warmed up. So, since I improved only a little, I will retest in two weeks instead of four, include a longer warmup, and see what happens. Another strange thing was that the differences between each mile time were much smaller than previous tests, which could indicate a plateau.

What could explain all this?

1. The August test came at the end of summer, and school had barely started. I had spent a lot of time in Tahoe over the summer and I believe I picked an aerobic benefit from the altitude. My times on some familiar training routes improved significantly. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more. As my red blood cell count, hematocrit, and EPO levels normalize to sea level, it’s possible that I was slowing down my rate of progress.

2. School means a dramatic change in lifestyle. No longer do I have the luxury of living like a pro athlete. The increased lifestyle stress can interfere with aerobic development. Even being  a little sloppy in nutrition that might not matter in the summer matters now. And other personal stresses that seemed handled from the comfort of a summer hammock took longer than expected to resolve.

3. Heat stress, while not a factor in either test, was an issue over the last month, causing me to miss a few workouts. Plus the heat really makes me cranky.

In any case I had planned to change my training after September. This marks six months of Maffetone style training, so for the next three months I will train a little differently.

The Plan:

Continue all running and cycling workouts at MAF intensity.

Increase running volume three ways:

1. Longer long runs. Building from 90 min. to three hours to prepare for the December marathon.

2. A medium long run midweek, 60-75 min.

3. Short transition runs off the bike

Decrease bike volume by shortening commutes and shortening long rides to 90-120 min.

Add in some strength training. This will be the only anaerobic efforts I’ll do.

Tighten up the loose ends in diet and work on stress reduction to improve sleep quality. My HRV levels have also plateaued, so I may need more rest.

I will retest in two weeks, to see where the trend really is going, and if further lifestyle modifications are needed.

Training Plan Week of 10/03/11

The Marathon Project is officially underway! Today I ran 1:45, which is about fifteen minutes longer than my previous long runs, but a bit shy of my goal for the month of two hour long runs. The good news is that I completed the run feeling pretty good. Immediately after the run I was on my feet gathering veggies at the farmer’s market with no undue distress. So Week 1 of The Marathon Project has me training:


One hour bike commute


Run a M.A.F. test on the track


A.M. Strength Train @gym

P.M. 90 minute bike commute  1 hr. trainer ride

The first real cold front is working its way through California, with real rain expected.


Run 60 min.


Bike commute one hour


A.M. 2 hour long run

P.M. Strength train @gym


2-3 hr Bike ride, road or MTB

Except for Monday’s faculty meeting, no work commitments should interfere. Unlike the last two weeks, the weather calls for our California Indian summer to finally ease up. No more 90 degree afternoons cancelling runs, I hope.