MAF Tests Improvement

I Was Young and Carefree – Part 3: MAF Tests and Beyond

The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. This is a truth nearly all great minds have taken as their starting point. It is not this discovery that is interesting, but the consequences and rules of action drawn from it.

-Albert Camus

This is the third ouf of a three part series of articles on my extremely positive and continuing experience with the MAF method developed by Dr. Phil MaffetonePart 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 (this article) being “about the numbers” (MAF Tests and useful 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.

PART 3: MAF Tests Improvement and Practical Tips

This is the part that most of you are eagerly waiting for. After 2 separate articles with concepts, I am sure you are asking yourself:

Does MAF work (for cycling)? Will I get faster?

Read on for more answers. This is the article for you.

To get something out of the way – yes at the beginning I was going dead slow, it doesn’t matter I had a 360-370W measured Functional Threshold Power in seasons past, before it all went south.

In my first days, even months of MAF training, as soon as the road would turn even gently up I would have to stop pedaling and coast quite a bit. That took something like 3 months. It was frustrating at times for sure.

I had to buy a 11-32 cassette (mountain bike low gears, normal road ones have 11-26  or 11-28teeth, more teeth = lower gears). The fact that I live down in the valley next to sea level, all roads lead up – that definitely did not make it easier. There is this 4km (2.5mile climb) that I must go through in order to get to the nice training roads without traffic. At the beginning about halfway up the hill there was a village and I had to go circle the city square in order to avoid my heart rate from spiking above MAF. The fist day I could (slowly) ride up the WHOLE climb without any detours, I knew the stuff was working! When I could shift out of my lowest gear (39/32) for (brief) periods of time on the same climb, I knew it was definitely working.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though….

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

Averages are Useless.

They really are. The one thing that you must be concerned is you MAF zone HR at ALL TIMES, not the average HR. At some point you get good at feeling once you go above it so the bike computer becomes more a reassurance rather than an evil master “making you slow down.” If you do a nice long gentle warmup and a cool down it would wreak havoc on all averages that cyclists seem to put tremendous importance on – namely average speed and average power. And that is ok. It really is. I used to be the cyclist who would pause the clock before I would even start slowing down to stop at traffic lights so that the power would not drop too much. I would split my ride in two so that the cooldown would not bring down my numbers. I don’t do that anymore – I just start the clock when I leave home and stop it when I am back. Simplicity Clarice. The 15-20min road on my way out of town was perfect for warmup and the long descent into town was an awesome way to cooldown – averages be damned. I really took time to warm up and get into training as well as to gently roll home, EVERY time.

MAF Testing

The absolute best way (in theory) to do a MAF test for cycling is on a stationary trainer with a powermeter. Warmup for 15+min building to your MAF HR, ride in the zone for 30min and than cool down for another 10-15min. More power (watts) at MAF = more fitness. Your power should be decreasing throughout the interval, if it didn’t you didn’t warm up correctly….ask me how I know. Even if you have to take 30min for warmup, do it! You are ready when you are ready – you will feel it. Trust your body.

An important point about the stationary trainer – I stressed a LOT about, every time my calendar would say MAF test. “Did I get fitter, did I do everything right, etc, etc.” First, stress is like a rocking chair – gives you something to do, gets you nowhere. What you are looking for is an improvement in the long run, a trend over time, therefore daily/weekly variations are to be expected and do not be surprised that if you do your MAF test on the 10th every month sometimes you (seemingly) regress. I am not saying that you should ignore the (subtle) signs, I am telling you that there are more robust ways to track your progress.

The most practical and stress free manner (which also became my preferred method that I could trace back to my start with the MAF method) is by using a bike computer/watch with GPS. Find road segments that you ride often enough that are free from traffic and stoplights and measure your power at MAF as you ride them. Strava is perfect for that. Make a private segment and go wild. If you don’t have a power meter and/or GPS…

A slight and steady (3-6%) climb  also works wonders since you are fighting gravity rather than wind resistance so it can be a consistent way. Try not to have your cadence drop below 75rpm.

Last, you can find a loop or a segment that you can ride back and forth. Why? That way you cancel out any wind effects. Faster times = more fitness.

The beauty of training with HR is that is that it represents what your body can do ON THAT DAY given your fatigue, sleep, stress, etc. As such it would vary and after the first 3 MAF tests (3 months) I would freak out every time I would have to test so when my results plateaued I got REAL worried that that stuff wasn’t working. The weird thing is that I could feel improvement out on the road and quite noticeably so, therefore on one of my rides I got the idea to use road segments of my training routes, Strava had already automated this so this is what i did.

My MAF Numbers

At the beginning I did my MAF tests formally on the trainer, though as soon as the weather got nicer, I preferred to be out riding rather than freaking out about some number on a screen while a fan is blowing air on me.

I picked up 2 segments that I ride often enough. Thanks to Strava for making it a pretty straightforward process. You can do it yourself by just using the training file from your bike computer and highlight/select the part of the ride you are interested in. Or just use a stopwatch, though as I mentioned above make sure you can minimise variables such as wind.

To illustrate, below is the elevation profile of a typical ride.

MAF Ride Elevation Profile

Elevation Profile on a Typical Ride

The first segment is on a section of the first climb that I ride every training. By the time I get to the segment without even looking at the power, I can tell if I am ready to train and I have turned around at that point couple of times. This is the BLUE data in the graphs.

MAF Ride Hill Test

MAF Hill Test Segment

The next segment is a mostly flat section of road along some farm fields, with almost no traffic. I am usually an hour into the ride so for sure I am already well-warmed up. I ride this segment most days. I discovered that road in late October, hence why the data starts there. This is the ORANGE data in the graphs.

MAF Test Strip Segment

MAF Test Strip Segment

Below is a graph with my average power at my MAF heart rate for the segments on ALL rides that I did. In blue is the MAF Hill Test and in Orange is the MAF Test Strip. For the non-cycling crowd 200W is usually at the beginning of an ok endurance pace. As I was compiling it all together in a spreadsheet, I saw that for the 9months of MAF I improved more than 3minutes on the MAF Hill Test, while my bike had gotten heavier (fenders, full size frame pump, new toolkit, etc.)!!!

MAF Test Improvement

Daily ‘MAF Test’

To make it neater, in the next graph I plotted the monthly averages of my ‘MAF tests’ for the months leading up to this post. As you see as I get fitter the pace dropoff between the two segments also gets somewhat smaller.

MAF Test Improvement

MAF Test Monthly Average Improvement

The thing to notice on the first graph is that from day to day there is significant variation. Powermeters are not perfect and ±2.5% difference can account for some of the differences (~10w), though the important thing is the overall trend, it should be going up. Big dips or plateaus represent red flags that need further attention..more on that in the paragraphs below.

MAF Formula

I decided to keep it simple with the 180 formula and just subtract my age (30) so my MAF HR was 150bpm. I didn’t do any adjustment (up or down) since more or less I have been training consistently for many years (10+) and I focus my season on the Bulgarian National TT championships in the end of June. I have been steadily increasing my power in the last 3 seasons with me recording the best performance (power) to date at the championship race in June 2015. Though the 180 formula is not perfect so I had to tweak it a bit…

I started at 150bpm and did a MAF test on the trainer in September 2015 to set a benchmark. I recorded 188W which to me was quite surprising, since 200W is the so called endurance zone and I wasn’t far from it and it was already the start of the off-season. The catch was that in the two weeks leading to that test, I had two time trials left to race and a once I decided to go full MAF I stopped ALL the anaerobic training have been dong all season (in retrospect-pretty much 90% of all my workouts were anaerobic). As a consequence my body had tapered down in a way and as a consequence bounced back with a nice power peak.

For two months afterwards my MAF tests kept going slower and slower. To be honest I was really close to calling it quits and going back to doing things as before. Though it did make sense to me, so I must have been doing something wrong and the high fat diet was really and I mean REALLY making a huge positive difference, so I had to look for explanation elsewhere.

In addition, I got married in the end of October 2015 and we took a 2 week trip in Japan, hence the big gap/dropoff in the graphs around that time. Coming back my MAF pace was even worse than before and I was getting more and more frustrated. Though it was “off-season” so I kept telling myself some drop-off is normal…

Until February 2016 when for 2 months my MAF pace had stagnated at 150W (trainer) – dead slow no two words about it. On the second one I felt that I was not warmed up enough (15min was becoming not enough) and my splits actually got faster as the test progressed….

Something major had to be done…..

First thing to look at is the MAF zone. Since most people are aerobically deficient this translates into training slow which is frustrating and that is putting it mildly, so people make excuses that “they have naturally high heart rate” and the like and increase the zone. As a consequence they end training more or less with the unproductive intensity. So that was the first place I started. While riding i had noticed one thing. Right at 148bpm I could feel a slight change in my breathing. It is tough to describe but it was a change, so I decided to drop my MAF from 150 to 148bpm.

Sidetone: Months later, after some discussion on the MAF Training Facebook page, the scientific explanation was that this is the Ventilatory threshold (VT1) where a change occurs just below the Fat MAX point where the switch between burning fat and glucose happens. My body had told me all about it. Now I had a scientific explanation.

Diet is the next thing to look at since it influences 80% of everything – athlete or not. As I mentioned in Part 2, I do not fully agree with Dr. Maffetone’s 2 week test – you either go cold turkey without sugars/junk food/refined carbohydrates or you are fooling yourself (for 2 weeks). This new way of eating, was among the first things that gave me tremendous improvement and the newly discovered feeling of health and energy was defintely a sign that I was ok on the food front. Like anything about the MAF method, the food part made perfect sense so I didn’t even consider cheating (to be honest I did eat pizza twice in the 10months leading up to this post though both times I soaked it in olive oil and it had lots of cheese).

Next thing to consider is stress. Being on the job market (aka unemployed) for a good amount of the time, gave me all the time to do what I had always wanted – start a coaching blog/business so that wasn’t bothering me. Figuring out what you want to do in life is quite a liberating experience. I did have the occasional “Is this al worth it?” moments though don’t we all?

Most importantly I made a 7pm cutoff. At 19:00 I dropped everything, no matter what I was doing and I had absolutely NO electronics, I don’t own a TV so that made it easier. My phone goes automatically to Do Not Disturb mode everyday at 7pm until 7am the next morning. I switch the Wi-Fi and data off as well. Books/Kindle were allowed though I will read something NOT related to MAF, coaching, training etc – a novel.

What did you know…. at 20:00 I would start dozing off and there were days that I went to bed at 20:10!!! I don’t remember exactly how much sleep I was getting before but starting February 2016 I was getting 8-9 sometimes 10h of sleep per night. I just had nothing else to do. I became a bit slack on that rule in April 2016 since I had to get a job until the coaching picked up and if I want to be training and keeping the blog alive I had to do some schedule adjustments. Though I do it only before rest days.

Boy did results get better! Granted it is always a complex explanation the changes were positive!!!!

I also build an active workstation which further helped.

It was all going well until mid April when all of a sudden I felt tired and one day I even felt nauseous and without any appetite. I usually look at my data at the end of the week so I missed the slowing down of my MAF segments by a couple of days, though as I was feeling bit off, I had already starting to take it easy. I really had no explanation and still don’t have one since outside of training I felt perfectly fit and fine and I was not waking up in the middle of the night (aka cortisol and stress). I decided to play it safe and since I was about to start a new job, I took plenty of rest days and I did some walking (30-60min couple days a week) as a workout. This was the big dip towards the beginning of May.

It recovered and hopefully it doesn’t happen again. I am happy the way I handled it though. My younger and more carefree self would have pushed thorough it.

Speed and High Intensity

Your body will let you now when you are ready to pull all the stops. Let me repeat that. You will feel when you are ready to do high intensity. There really isn’t any formula to it and what type of intervals. Try it and see. Improvement over time (MAF Tests) WITHOUT injuries and colds, etc is what you re looking for (huge emphasis on the without part).  If you are barely slogging along at your MAF HR, you are not ready and the sooner you admit that to yourself, the better off you will be.

Be patient and enjoy the ride.

Once things start improving, below are some workouts that I did to add some color into my MAF endurance rides.

The terrain where I live is quite rolling so it was ideally suited for the efforts outlined below. They can be done on the flats/with the wind as well by using the gears on the bike. For example easy gear to simulate downhills and shift a couple gears up to simulate an uphill.

Coffee Grinder

As soon as the road would face down, the (lack of) resistance would cause my HR to lower as well, I would put the bike in a lowish gear (53/16ish) and just go wild with the cadence – 110-130rpm while in control(I normally ride at 85ish rpm) until I could feel going over my MAF threshold. On long descents I could do 2-3 “intervals.”

Power Up

I would soft pedal/coast on a downhill so my HR would drop way below MAF and using the momentum I have built I would try while seated to power up the climb (some downshifts were allowed). You still do not go over MAF, you can feel it. As I got better, I could crest the smaller hills all the way to the top. I am not a tiny climber, I am a rouleur 82kg/(180lbs) build; for the smaller guys/gals it would be a much faster undertaking.

Hill “Sprints”

Same as above instead of being seated just try to sprint, out of the saddle over the hill. Do not go wild. You will feel once you are (about) to go over your MAF. Sit down and coast to recover.

In addition some time in April I dedicated one day out of every couple of weeks for all out short ~1min sprints (4-6 sprints) – for workout a total of 45min including warmup (20-25min) and cooldown (~10min). I did a couple of time trial like intervals (1-2×7-8min) to get back in my aerobar position habits. I let my moods and feelings on the day be my guide. In general such true high intensity workouts are nowadays a true rarity for me. As much I enjoyed the pain and satisfaction of completing them, I do not miss those workouts.

As far as racing, as I mentioned in Part 2 of the series, this is really not something that I look forward to, there are way more fun things to do. Though, one day I will be able to pin a number and not be a pack filler like 75% (probably more) of the people I see at races, doesn’t matter PRO or amateur. I have the feeling that would be when I am around 250W @ MAF HR. I don’t know how I got to that number, it is a gut feeling.=) I am really looking forward towards me trying my hands in cyclocross this fall in October 2016. Therefore it is a good place at this point in time to put a milestone at the Me and MAF series.

Conclusion

The MAF method (for cycling) works and it does so wonderfully. Unfortunately, since we are all victims to a greater or lesser degree to ‘popular wisdom’ such as the “no pain, no gain” and quality (intensity) over quantity, we have strayed from an essential human quality that is endurance. Therefore in a culture centered around hacks, quick fixes and being faster than the next guy at all costs, we lack the patience to just enjoy the ride and take care of ourselves first before we go out an start exploring the limits of human performance. In a way, I am very thankful to all the bad coaches I have had in my long athletic career. Without all the bad stuff you “taught” me I would have never gotten to the low point that led me to Dr. Phil Maffetone’s big yellow book. The best part is that is just the beginning.

You can Follow my progress on STRAVA.

You can also check out the Me and MAF tagged articles.

Me and MAF Series

The Book that Started It All

The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing – Dr. Phil Maffetone

The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing

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