I Was Young and Carefree – Part 2: Me and MAF
This is the second out of a three part series of articles on my extremely positive and continuing experience with the MAF method developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone. Part 1 focused on the concepts and ideas that are the most important aspect of the whole story and ultimately lead to Part 2 and 3. Part 2 is more about my background and practical aspects of the MAF method such as diet, functional training etc., with Part 3 being “about the numbers” (MAF Tests and practical tips particularly for cyclists) and has a more concrete character. I find the numbers extremely boring and a source of stress on quite some occasions; the difficult part was making sense of it all (Part 1) and figuring out the practical aspects (Part 2) afterwards the numbers just followed, as such I highly advise you to read the series in sequence.
Ideas are important, though in the end you need to go out there (on your bike) and actually do the work, fail while doing so and figure things out as you go until you come out a better person. You need some waypoints to know you are on track. So this is the more practical aspect of my experience with the MAF method that you can use as tips and tricks on your way to getting started training under the MAF method.
Me and MAF
A little bit about me – I started doing competitive sports at the young age of seven. It started with swimming, though as a taller than average kid it was always basketball. I didn’t make the cut in college and as it is usually the case with taller individuals, I was the perfect addition to the rowing (or crew for you in the US) team. This was my entry into the world of endurance sports and something I did even for 3 years after graduating from college/university. It was fun, though for reasons outlined below it wasn’t the most optimal way of doing things. In the meantime I had bought a road bike to stay in shape during the summer off-season and when i finally hung up the oars I decided to give cycling a real try.
In my only 4th season of cycling, as a newcomer to the sport, now in the land of the Tour de France, where kids start racing bikes shortly after they learn to walk, I was convinced that I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole so I had lots of rough edges to smooth.
Not a stranger to endurance sports, I was figuring things out as I went and I was doing it all ‘by the books’ quite literally and the good ones at it…supposedly. I kept a ridiculously detailed diary, I slept enough, I kept my feet up, I took recovery days and weeks, I ate my pasta and my powermeter was my god. I did my base training, I built up to a peak. I sucked at climbing, I practiced in the mountains. I was still not better so I dropped further 4-5kg (8-10lbs)down to 83kg (185lbs) for my 2m (6’7″) frame. I sucked at fast accelerations, I practiced sprinting and riding ‘on the rivet.’ In the last 2 years though one trend became obvious, I was not even close to that day where I laid it all on the road and while I kept contributing that to the whole ‘square peg, round hole’ phenomenon aka lack of experience, even my ability to make the clock tick slower for me and not for others (TTing) started to slow down.
Something had to change right at the fundamentals – this is how I got to Dr. Phil Maffetone’s book and decided to give it my best and a whole new world opened for me and to this day there are so many things that I can work on and stay busy for life.
Unfortunately the human body is not like a machine where you can just press the reset button and start from scratch. There were a lot of things to address bad habits to break and already caused damage to fix.
I was what is wrongly called a person with ‘high natural heart rate’ and I could train for hours at 170-190bpm (my max to this day is still close to 200bpm at 31years of age), I had enough willpower to push me through the pain. I had coaches actually do a Maximum Aerobic Power (MAP) ramp test for the whole team where they came up with what was actually quite close to my MAF hr at the time (155bpm at 24yrs of age). Though as soon as they saw how slow the whole team was, I can still vividly remember them saying.
Just focus on the output (pace), the heart rate would eventually come to the correct zone.
I had some successful dabbles with a low carb diet, though at the end I decided that the typical athlete diet of pasta and the like is what I should follow if I would have any chance of going somewhere.
Looking back it was all a load of dogshit (excuse my French), mostly because I thought I had a good grasp on things, though in retrospect I didn’t know what the hell was going on and I had let others (who were even more clueless) tell me what must be good for me.
Granted after a couple of metaphorical crashes, I realized that recovery is actually important, and with some careful planning I could periodize things, though it the end any little deviation would throw a huge monkey wrench into everything and I had to stick to the T to a predefined schedule – I couldn’t just go out and just do it and enjoy things. I was missing something much more fundamental.
This is where I had to look at myself and honestly say – something is really, really wrong.
I decided to take charge. Granted being laid off my job in August 2015, gave me quite some free time, I fully immersed myself and the ever growing reading list represents that.
So How Did I and How Do You Take Charge?
First of all MAF is a way of life, a lifelong pursuit, it is not ‘just a training method’ at this or that heart rate while eating X, Y, and Z so you burn fat. It is a much bigger concept, though the absolute first step to take towards improved health and performance (and yes fat burning) is….
Athlete or not 80+%!!! of what happens is direct result of what we eat. This is where I have a bit of a disagreement with Dr. Maffetone’s preferred method. If you are so set in your eating ways, the two week test represents just that – 2 weeks that you have to “sacrifice” and than afterwards you can just go back to doing whatever you were doing – it is like a weight loss diet. Granted when done correctly I am sure the results would be amazing and you will be a convert, I just don’t like the wording of it and most ‘low-carb’ proponents highly advise the cold turkey method. The take away point is that carbohydrates are the only macronutritet that can directly influence our metabolism and as such refined ones (made out of grain, corn – most processed food) have ABSOLUTELY NO PLACE in the human diet – ZERO. Yes there are carbohydrates in vegetables and fruits, though amounts are really small (7g in an avocado for example) and it comes with fiber.
The insulin that is released by the pancreas as a response (to eating refined carbohydrates such as breads, pastas, sports drinks, etc.), stops fat burning dead in it’s tracks, therefore you are really and I mean really putting the stops on improving your health and developing endurance.
Instead of relying on the tens of thousands of calories of fat, you continue to rely on the extremely limited (~2000kcal) glucose.
In September 2015 I went cold turkey straight into the below 50g of carbohydrates a day as outlined by Dr. Timothy Noakes. I had cut sugar months before and I was in the ‘starvation/race weight’ part if the season. Though as anybody who has to ‘cut weight’ for one reason or another can attest – it is really not fun, frankly it sucks.
The energy levels I was having with this new way of eating, throughout THE WHOLE day were through the roof! I kept waiting for the crash, thought it never came. The mental clarity was the biggest revelation of all – I read 1-2 books on various topics (functional training, low carbohydrate living, etc.) a week and not just read them, but made sense, took notes that I later reviewed and organized to make sense of it and than came here to write about it. There is some serious lag between me reading something and sharing my experiences with it on the blog, though it is coming.
Furthermore, the abdominal cramps and the monthly, yes they were so regular, bouts of diarrhea that I had accepted as normal disappeared. It yo-yoed a bit between constipation and not, just that was enough to never ever turn back to the ‘modern western diet.’ I was having THE BEST bowel movements that I can remember. I had always liked cheese and cream, now I can eat them all I want. I eat about 2 pieces of fruit a day sometimes a bit more in order to keep overall carbs low, though whether I am in ketosis I really don’t know with any hard and fast numbers, I let my feelings be my guide.
It bears repeating here, that your body knows best what it needs; you should trust your feelings/cravings. With a side note that sugar and grain/wheat products are known to have quite negative addictive properties and those type of foods have no place in a human diet anyway. For example, I was craving pickles like crazy. As mentioned by Drs. Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, a low carbohydrate diet leads to the kidneys losing salt more readily and as such taking some additional amounts through food (i.e. broth) might avoid some negative consequences such as lightheadedness, fatigue, constipation, etc. Second, for a couple of day I had been feeling a bit lousy and I was really and I mean REALLY craving a particular brand of mayonnaise (made with sunflower oil rather than rapeseed). ALL store bought mayonnaise is made with seed oils – Omega 6 – which we need really tiny amounts since they are highly pro-inflammatory. I caved in and within a couple of hours, yes that quick, I felt like a new person and my gut distress disappeared…
In addition, previously any ride above 2h would leave me first in deep discussion in what I can take with me that won’t give me gut problems and afterwards, post ride inhaling any food in sight – usually baked goods of ‘healthy whole grains.’ Now, I could ride for 5h!!!! with no food and since it was winter, most of the times without water! Also after 12h with no food going for a 3+h hour ride was no problem.
The weight loss wasn’t dramatic if at all, though, when I started the MAF method, I was in the peak of race season and if you ask anybody who is into power to weight ratio sports they have their own routine of cutting weight – I won’t bore you with the details. For me to this day, and through the winter off-season, I am at 83.4kg (183.9lbs); (I weighed 85kg (187lbs) when I was 18 for my army physical); I added the decimal because it is so consistent it is scary! There are normal deviations though I don’t count calories or weigh my meals anymore. I eat when hungry! I am the closest to having a six-pack in my life and after the winter in the tradition of cycling when I shaved my legs I could see a web of veins that I have never seen before. This used to be my indicator that I was leaning out.
As much as we try to make the calendars and agendas run our lives, for as long as I can remember, I have always and to this day make fun of people who try to control the uncontrollable – or in more layman terms set appointments, meetings and the like and expecting everything to work out as planned and than stress when it doesn’t as it never does. In the end no matter how many times you confirm something you always have to wait at least 15min anyway, if they even remember you at all. So in the chaos that is our daily existence, I lived by the mantra “If it is important they will find me, if I forget it, it wasn’t worth it.” Somehow I thought that a training schedule can be something rigid. Boy was I mistaken…
This was probably the thing I had to really work hard at – or more precisely train by how I feel and not force it. Rather than trying to keep in mind endless streams of splits/intervals etc, there is only HR to keep in check so you can actually look around at nature than keeping your nose focused on the computer screen. Deciding to turn around 30min into a training was certainly challenging, though EVERY SINGLE TIME the times that I felt like I should have gone home and rode further, I paid for dearly the next days. I got into a rhythm of training Tuesday through Thursday with Friday as a recovery so I am fresh for a big weekend of riding and than recover on Monday. That varied as well and if I had to take an extra day off or even two, I wasn’t freaking out. My training volume varied form 6-12h/week on the bike not including an hour or two of mobilization functional training – whatever I felt like. As you can see it is a big range and I let my mood be a guide. For example in flu season my wife was sick and although I was feeling fine, I just wasn’t 100% – my immune system must have been fighting off the viruses, not leaving enough energy to train. The tale away point is:
Listen to your body and learn to trust it!
Among one of the many revelations of me starting with the MAF method was getting acquainted with a long forgotten friend – my body. We always focus on fast and fit and functional is largely ignored. As such I never really asked the right questions of my body. I realized I had some serious muscle imbalances that needed attention badly. I never knew about them because the human body is amazing at compensating at the cost of efficiency and eventually overuse injuries. Michael Boyle’s – Advances in Functional Training was the first book I read that helped me take care of my weak and inactive gluteal (butt muscles) and completely REMOVE my low back pain. In addition, modifying my bike fit according to the principles outlined by Steve Hogg and ultimately culminating with my Visit at the Bike Whisperer was among the biggest highlights on the functional training front. Of course not to forget Kelly Starrett’s mobilisations – they really showed serious areas of improvement. I built an active workstation to minimize sitting and it took a good week to feel normal and get rid of the most obvious muscle imbalances. There is an ever increasing section in the Bookshelf page and a series of articles on functional Training, be sure to check them out afterwards.
Among the most unexpected things, to me at least, in the first months with the MAF method was that I really wasn’t looking towards the racing in the warmer months – I really wasn’t. Learning more about my body, functional training, strength and conditioning, low carbohydrate living, the brain, stress and tension, progressive relaxation and oh so many other topics and being my own lab experiment was infinitely so much more fulfilling that trying to beat that other guy by going in circles in some country roads on a random Sunday.
In the end you have to be better than the person you were before – this is all that matters.
Once I realized that the freedom and inner peace I achieved was astonishing/amazing. I have the privilege of not having my life depend on my race results. Also I have had the awesome opportunity to win races at all of my chosen sports and while fun it is very short-lived, trust me on that, rather than being left with the “now what” feeling, making personal (athletic) improvement a lifelong goal was empowering and extremely fulfilling.
Racing was and still is something that got in the way of me wanting to do something new functional development program and such and being stuck in traffic coming back from a race, rather than enjoying the nice weather. I did 2 group rides in November/December and usual they were the expected hammerfests, though I still knew the MAF thing was starting to work, I just wasn’t at the level to do that intensity sustainably (i.e. not at 190+bpm for hours). And i don’t buy it that me putting out 300w sitting second wheel, means I was unfit, it means the guys at the front were ‘racing’ rather than working on endurance. So I kept riding/training by myself and I really enjoyed it, getting lost on some occasions and finding new roads. I signed up for a race a month starting in April – I am part of a team and I have to show my face every once and a while. How did I do? Absolutely fucking terrible, I got dropped like a bad habit in all three of them. Does that mean the MAF is not working. HELL NO!
First for those who don’t know a cycling race is all out from the gun, even though the effort would leave more than half the field in the DNF category quite early on. If you want to do well you need to follow, no other option, even though this is not the most productive way to do things. I had done almost no higher intensity training, which brings me to the next point.
There is this thing as not being fit/ready to race. Those races were tests and a very clear way to confirm my gut feelings – I don’t have what it takes to do this in a healthy and as a consequence FUN way (more on the numbers in part 3). Having spent many years suffering through high intensity training and eating a high carbohydrate diet had left me aerobically deficient. One day, whether it is this or the seasons to follow, I will be able to pin a number and know I will be able to rip someone’s legs off and feel like I can do it again 20min after the finish. Though one night while lying in bed I had…
Visions of Mud
Road racing was never really my thing, I had a road bike and that seemed like a logical choice once I stopped with rowing, for the reasons outlined above – there is far too much playing games, bluffing and in the end you have to depend on others, even if they do stupid stuff, especially when it comes crashes…ask me how I know… It’s part of the sport, I understand, though I prefer to watch it on TV. Maybe once I am fit enough to not just be a pack filler, I would enjoy it more. Though time trialling was something I was really good at from the get go. It’s a niche of cycling though it is called the race of truth for a reason – there is no hiding and it is a strong man forte. At the end you don’t depend on what others are doing. So as I was lying in bed not looking forward to the race the coming day I had a vision. Cyclocross – you, the bike the mud and whole lots of fun. It is something I thought about trying long time ago, so I will get the lowest category license the fall and give it a serious go, more details of course will follow in the blog. As well I should be fitter by the end of September, which brings me to the final part of the Me and MAF Series…Part 3: Numbers, MAF Tests and such.
Stay tuned for the last part of the Me and MAF Series.
Me and MAF Series
- Part 1: I Was Young and Carefree: The Concepts and Ideas Behind the MAF Method
- Part 2: Me and MAF: My Background and Practical Aspects
- Part 3: The Numbers: MAF Tests and Beyond
For further information check the ever-increasing Reading List
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