Freedom of Choice – MAF and Beyond
Using only a number as the litmus test of whether you are strong or not is self-defeating. You will get older. You will not be able to continue to set personal all-time bests forever. But you can continue to get stronger mentally. You can adjust to whatever the environment is and challenge yourself to push past wherever you are at the moment, in any way you can, and feel good knowing you just made yourself a better man or woman.
Why am I not seeing improvement at MAF? Why do I slow down? Do I need to do MAF tests if I don’t race?
Those among many similar ones, are questions that crop up quite often and I receive a number of emails with more or less the same ponderings, therefore I decided to write out my experiences and get a discussion going.
While seeing tremendous improvements in many aspects of my life, not just MAF tests, at some point we all face challenges. The above, coupled with the fact that everything goes in cycles can often times lead to confusion and more ferquently frustration.
Unfortunately we look for formulas and (quick fix) prescriptions in search for an easy straighforward explanation of what is a complex problem by nature.
How and Why my MAF Tests Slowed Down and What Did I Do to Fix It.
I am sending a warning that it is the PRINCIPLES behind everything I am going to tell you that are ultimately important. My personal expreinces are just examples; almost certainly your own situation is vastly different than mine. Though first I want go address something first.
Do I need to do MAF tests if I am not going to race (and I just do the whole thing for health reasons)?
As usual you need to ask the right questions
What does a MAF Test Represent?
Sideote: MAF tests are NOT the same as your MAF HR which is a metabolic component ie the maximum HR at which you utilise predominantle fat for energy rather than glucose (carbohydrates).
The MAF tests represent the health and condition of your aerobic system. The aerobic system and hence endurance are fundametal human features (we all have both) that comprise EVERYTHING that goes on with your body (hormones, stress, metabolism, muscle imbalances etc.). That everything is all interconnected, you cannot isolate the components, therefore if something changes, the rest responds. The human body is an amazing ‘machine.’ Where am I going with this?
The MAF tests represent the output of the whole ‘system,’ as a result what you see on this final end means that something has changed and you gotta take a broad look at the big picture. This is where even modern (western) medicine falls extremely short – it treats symptoms rather than causes ie neck muscle imbalance and extreme fatigue both cause a headache, however, by just taking ibuprofen you are only addressing/masking the headache, not what caused it (and you added (even more) chemical stress to the system). You would still have tense neck muscles (for example from looking down at your smartphone all day) and be extermely tired (ie from not sleeping enough). Therefore by performing MAF tests you have a baseline, a number (we all love numbers and formulas…) that describes YOUR health and fitness (at that particular point in time).
But I don’t race! What do I care about numbers?
Racing and choice of an activity are just small details (more on that below). What we mostly have lost and want to regain (with the MAF method) is total conscious awareness of our bodies. You have to be your own coach and your own lab experiment. Therefore you need to know how it feels when things are doing fine and when they go haywire. If you eat a certain food how does that affect you? If you sleep an extra hour every day, do you feel better? Therefore I HIGHLY advise anybody to perform MAF tests for some time (3-6 months), if during that time you see lack of progress and even regression, this is a GOOD thing, since it forces you to think and look for the cause – to ask why. Also here is where I want to go on a slight tangent…
Comptartmentalisation of Life
The current way of separating how we do things is extremely flawed. What do I mean by that (and I really don’t mean to offend anybody, I really don’t since I was doing things in the same manner for a long time) – if you go 1h a day to the gym (first good for you) and the rest of the time you sit behind a desk and pound potato chips, cookies, donuts (whatever is around the office), and than watch the latest sitcom (and/or your smartphone) late into the evening so you have agitated sleep, quite opposite to what people around you might call you – you are NOT a sporty person – you are somebody who goes to the gym for 1 hour out of 24 a day. Go to ANY office, from the stiff corporate one the hip enterpreneur one, you will see that same thing, it is scary! Do you honestly believe that 1 can undo 23? We have comptartmentalised activities – “This is where and how I work and afterwards I am active for this amount of time and than I have fun on this day.” Something that is as hollistic as human life has been downgraded to a game of numbers. Elite athletes are not immune to the problem and the term ‘active couch potato’ is slowly gaining ground. It is always the same body that has to take all of the above. You cannot be making massive compromises 95% of the time and expect one hour to undo it all. Back in the day cyclists in the UK had one bike that they rode with luggage and fenders most of the time to work, on the weekends they RODE to races, swapped wheels, removed the unecesary (fenders, racks, etc) and raced the same bike – it was a tool for the job. They didn’t need to ‘train,’ they rode enough kilometeres just going to work!; they took the occasional tour/camping trip by bike without a second thought and the frequent club ride (they also smoked pipes but that is another question).
Nowadays ‘training’ is something we have to do on the side for tiny fraction of the time, we have to sacrifice and make time for it. Where I am going with the tangent?
The whole thing (the MAF method or whatever you want to call it) is a lifetime journey. You cannot be doing MAF for 1h and expect significant, if any results. You truly have to address EVERY aspect of your life (sleep, stress, food, etc), of course not all at once… It’s not a question of compartmentisation, but one of synchronicity. Sure you can’t win an Ironman by just being a truly (my emphasis) active and healthy person, HOWEVER, you MUST be able to enter and finish one without even a thought and without needing (serious) medical attention afterwards, if not an ironman, you should be able to finish a running marathon without a second thought. You aim for total awareness and health and fitness, what activity you choose is just details and whether you decide to pin a number and compete is your choice, your freedom to decide. You cannot change it all at once, you can start for example by cutting off sugar, by moving more during the day, by taking your shoes and walking barefoot as much as possible, ride your bike to work instead of driving, etc.
I am NOT denying the progress and the plethora of high quality training equipment and gadgets that are out there; this is a good thing, the unfortunate side effect for us is the disconnect.
So closing the tangent, I had amazing progress with more or less 9months with the MAF method, to be honest, while not breaking any power records I cannot recall ever such an upward trend in ALL the years (24 to be precise) of doing (competitive) sports, though at one point my MAF tests slowed down. At the time of writing this post, I have gotten everything more or less back on track as such I am sharing how I troubleshot the whole thing. Your mileage may (and most certainly will) vary.=)
When and Why My MAF Tests Slowed Down?
Right around the end of August couple of things happened in my life and though I could feel that I was not 100%, I didn’t do anythign crazy like increase my training hours etc, though one thing i did was remove the screen showing power from my bike computer. I knew i was slowing down, I didn’t need a reminder! Also I keep my MAF tests on a spreadsheet tIat I update weekly, though as you will see, I already had enough on my plate, so the spreadsheet wasn’t exactly a priority…so I missed the trend by a week or two. I have two segments that I ride often enough (and I have data for both since September 2015 when I started with the MAF method). I record the power I produce on my bike (more power @ MAF HR = more fitness) So if you look at the continued graph from my previous post, the nice and linear upward trend changed right around the middle of August 2016 and really crashed in October 2016.
The monthly averages of course followed the trend (significant drop in August 2016 and than in October 2016)
It’s been a long time since I first realized that it is never a simple answer, there is not one SINGLE thing that made a change happen (ok of course in force majeure type of circumstances like crashes, though in those situations it is blatantly obvious). So the things that happened in no particular order:
- The birth of my son
- Jo Nesbo and Terry Pratchett and my 19:00 rule
- An August heatwave (36+C/100+F degrees)
- Riding my bike on my 25min hilly commute to/from work ‘by feel’ with a quite dysfunctional position.
So let’s look more carefully
Birth of my Son
Quoting Larry Smith (TED link)
Do you really think it’s appropriate that you should actually take children and use them as a shield?
This is the single happiest moment in my life and as such it is probably the biggest change anyone can experience. Children and family are often used as a shield or in simple terms as an excuse of why something can’t be done. Yes it means disturbed sleep and yes it is a change a MASSIVE ONE, and yes you can’t (initially) keep training as you had been used to. Though not realizing how big of an impact it actually is – in itself is the reason why fatigue and stress slowly creep in.
Jo Nesbo and Terry Pratchett
My 19:00 rule (when I drop EVERYTHING and also means ZERO electronics after 19:00h) slowly became more like the 23:00 rule. The Harry Hole series of novels (by Jo Nesbo) kept me up at night and I read the first three books in the series in maybe a week. Same goes with my long time favorite – Terry Pratchett. I cannot overemphasize the importance of sleep.
I had a blast – pun intended. It was hot, though I really got into the role fo a Tour de France cyclist and constantly dousing myself with water. It didn’t feel any slower/harder than usual, though my brain knows better. I don’t take heat particularly well (championship link) – I never really lived where I had enough time to acclimatise as such in my MAF Hr zone, my power was lower. We had 2-3 days of 36+C so that was enough to make a numerical (ie numbers slowed down while I was actually fine) impact on my progress, looking back it was quite significant.
Riding my bike on my 25min hilly commute to/from work ‘by feel’
I emphasize 25min and hilly since while it was (past tense…) nice to work so close to home, I lived on the bottom of a significant hill (Mt.Valerian) and my job was on the other side. Pretty much it was uphill (after sitting down for a good part of the day) as soon as I left so without really taking time to warm up and feeling fresh and energised it was very easy to push it a bit harder every day; it the end I was going 1 gear harder up the hill. I didn’t wear my HR monitor since I thought I could feel enough. That went for about 2-3 weeks. I have no numbers to pin anything down though I was more sore than usual for quite some time. (which i discovered was due to disfunctional and unstable position on my commuting bike, more on that in a future article on stability) Also it was short enough that anybody even the biggest couch potato can claw their way through the duration, it wasn’t an endurance challenge and if i wanted I could have sprinted all the way without bonking, etc.
What REALLY made my MAF tests slow down?
Granted each of those is/can be significant on its own, some more than others, the real reason was that I had lost awareness and in a way recalibrated my feel of things. This is VERY easy to do (ever cheated on a diet? – one cookie becomes one too many). Therefore I had let things drift, gotten into a rut, found a rhythm, whatever you want to call it. I had failed to acknowledge that things have changed and as such required an adjustment – I kept doing things the old way. This is the single reason why any aspect of life changes negatively, including MAF tests slowing down – you have lost awareness and FAILED to acknowledge and respond to new changes. Fear not, as they say you can’t know where the limit is if you never go past it – it’s a constnat process of (fine) tuning.
How did I fix it?
That was actually the easy part. Figuring out things were not going as before was the tough one. Since changes take time I reinforced the 19:00 very strictly. Also my day job situation changed, so most of my cycling is done commmuting (10mi/17km each way or ~2.5h every day) and actually the weekends I take to recover and as a consequence I don’t ride my usual MAF segments that often. I made some MAF segments on my way to work and I am seeing progress and my numbers are close to baseline in my “old” MAF segments. About the latter (adapting your MAF semgents) I have a separate post coming in the next week or two. Last but not least I addressed my position on my commuting bike (using Steve Hogg’s methods and after some initial break in period my soreness is gone and I am much more comfortable and able to produce sustainable efforts day in and day out.
More or less my MAF numbers returned to normal (graph above), most importantly by looking a year from now at the same time, the improvement is staggering (in some cases 40Watts!!!). While numbers are just that and they really don’t represent all the many positive experiences in pretty much every aspect of my life. I also noticed that just a year ago my pace dropped of significantly only an hour into the ride (difference between blue and orange bars).
Life is cyclic and as such peaks would be followed by trophs; ups and downs are an integral part of nature. In addition there is seldomly a real simple answer to a problem, especially when it comes to health and fitness. Therefore any changes from normal, whatever, that might be for YOU, require attention, since they might point towards underlying issues that need adressing. It is a continous process of learning to be more consciously aware of your body and the signals it is sending you, rather than falling back to old and usually less optimal (or downright unhealthy) patterns of doing things. Your experiences will be unique and different; mine as desribed above were just an illustration.
More similar articles can be found under the Me and MAF tag.
The opening quote is inspired by:
The Kettlebell – Simple and Sinister – Pavel Tsatsouline
The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing – Dr. Philip Maffetone
I welcome comments, however, before asking a questions please visit the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page.
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