MAF Questions, Misconceptions and More

The Opposite: MAF Questions, Answers and Misconceptions

MAF Questions, Misconceptions and More.

It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.

-George Costanza

It is an ongoing process, and although we would want it to be, things rarely go in a linear fashion. Along the road many pattern,questions and misconceptions seem to appear, therefore in this article I am going to address those common questions, misconceptions about the MAF training method.

My continuous extremely positive experience with the MAF Method can be found under the Me and MAF tag.

How many hours a week do I need to do so I get an effect?

24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whaaat?!?! Seriously, man, how many??
The whole thing (MAF method) is a lifestyle, not something that you do in your free time. In the end it is the same body that has to deal with everything that you throw (or don’t throw) at it. That includes what you eat so that you stay healthy, minimise inflammation, etc. Your job, family situation and many stresses (yes many) that we all encoutner on a daily basis all come into the picture. How you manage all that and combine it with the fact hat we as creatures are made for movement (bike, run, swim, etc), not stilness – is personal. One week it might be 4 hours, some it might be 14. You have to experiment (and yes get it wrong every once and a while).

Well that leaves me with 4 hours weekly to train. I can’t be competitive with so little training time!!!

As already metnioned it is a 24/7 type of deal that you are doing. That included minimising stress, optimising your diettransforming your sedentary lifestyle into being more active in general. If 4h/week stress free is all you can spare for activity SPECIFIC training, so be it. I am going to put a huge disclaimer here that I am not your job/marriage/family counselor though if 4h/week is what is left after you take care of all your responsibilities and you have dreams of becoming a professional athlete, your life as it currently is not the most optimal way of going towards achieving that goal.With that out of the way, to get back to the 4hours, the only goal is to be better than the person you were before, NOT versus others. Competition is good, though the idea is to improve yourself first and afterwards go out and see how you compare with others.

But, but, but I have races next week. I want to ride with my buddies or else they will think I am a wimp! After all – If you ain’t first, you are last!!!

The only person (or one of two if you subscribe to many of the various deities) you have to answer first to is yourself. Not your team manager, training buddies, coach, girlfriend/wife, or some guy on the internet (me). If you can honestly stand in front of a mirror and say that this is what you truly want to be doing and truly feels like is the best for you, fine. Though as they say if you have to ask….

Here having children puts life in an totally different perspective. Babies as cute (and sometimes really  patience demanding) as they are, in general come into this world pretty helpless. EVERY little first time accomplishement, such as grabbing that toy, sitting upright, turning over, crawling a couple of feet , all result in the baby having a huge smile of satisfaction. Somewhere along the way we have managed to put or let others (ie media) instill (whatever unreasonable crazy) notions, goals, etc. in our heads, notions that we end up defining ourselves with and worse stuff that haunts us constantly, bordering on paranoid.

Joe Strummer Mural Tribute in New York – The Future is Unwritten

You didn’t meet your weekly mileage goal, could not beat your PR, failed to qualify for the national team, got left out of the Olympic selection, etc, etc. (I have seen and/or experienced many of these first hand) Rarely it is the end of the world, yes really. Life goes on. You had the freedom and opportunity to do some or all of the above. It was/is a PRIVILEGE, for the most part you chose to do it, nobody held a gun to your head, even in the cases of Eastern European sport talent incubators, it was considered lucky if your child got toted as an Olympic hopeful (what happened afterwards is another story). See what you could do better and move on. Past is a story and in the worlds of Joe Strummer: The future is unwritten.

“Great sport begins where good health ends” – Bertolt Brecht

Making a living as a professional competitior is hard work. The good news is that for the most part, outside of team/sport politics, which for sure are not to be ignored, the criteria  are clearly defined and results are very easily qualified objectively.  This is also the bad news; to finish first, first you must finish. While I am not going to comment of what is required in order to achieve top-performance since this is an ethical question reagrding the limits of us as humans that sport physiologists have pondered for centuries – ie whether it is physiological or pathological. Without your health you have nothing. Maybe you have a job to come back to, maybe you don’t. You have put too much time that you will never get back trying to achieve something, so you have to make sure you can be at your best. Injuries (that includes overtraining, hormonal problems, depression) can literally make it or break it all.  How many people are forced to retire due to ongoing ailments? Crashes and such aside, most were entirely plain old overtraining.

In the end the evergreen ‘old guys’ are considered an exception and retiring at 26-28 is the norm. While especially when it comes to endurance we should get better as we age.  A strength coach once said, and I am paraphrasing, don’t look at the junior sensation, ask how the old guys are managing to stay in prime condition for so long. They know something.

So OK, this means I can I cheat every once and a while, right?

Let me put this in a different perspective aka put a George Costanza spin to it. So there is this thing that makes you healthy, not fat, full of energy (aka not tired), you sleep better, you feel better and you gain fitness (speed, etc.) without the constant soreness, pain and suffering AND you want to drop it for a quick fix??? Seriously??? For a cookie??? Again, seriously?!?

Yes that ‘thing’ I mentioned in the previous sentence is taking charge of your health, personal development and ultimately fitness aka the MAF method. Yes, depraving yourself of all the positive benefits is cheating, not resisting the afternoon cookies (and the ‘pleasures of food’) at work as yet again ‘popular wisdom’ seems to suggest. Hey people cheat on their super model wives….so what do I know…

Maybe it’s a case of the grass being greener on the other side, with the only difference being that almost all of us (myself included) have ALREADY been to that other side for many years…it wasn’t greener and it was more like thorns and barren, rather than grass. If you keep drawing blanks with popular wisdom and the way you used to do things, maybe it is time for a change or doing the OPPOSITE of what has not been working for you. While sometimes circumstances make it inevitable, this should be a rare exception and not a cause of major freak out obsessive compulsive episodes. And by all means do sprint to get out of the way of that runaway car, even though you might go above your MAF heartrate and you are in your base building period. Common sense goes a long way.=)

I can train at a higher heart rate every once in a while, right? Can’t be that bad…

The MAF HR represents one thing – the point at which your body burns predominantly fat as a fuel (referred to as FATMax). The best way to find that point is by doing a metabolic test. This option is currently (as of 2017) quite costly and reserved for high end (performance) research. The 180 formula is the culmination of many years of research by Dr. Phil Maffetone with good number of athletes so this is the next best thing you can do. Here is the most important thing you need to get from the so called 180 formula – your metabolism does NOT care whether you are running, swimming , cycling, uphill, downhill, etc.  It doesn’t care what your personal feelings towards it are.

But this whole thing makes me slow…dead slow

As mentioned above, your Maximum Aerobic heart rate (MAF HR) is simply a value at which your body uses predominantly fat and that is a reflection of your health and hence fitness. Endurance is a FUNDAMENTAL human feature. I don’t see speed in that picture. The fact that you go slow is just simply that you cannot burn fat efficiently YET (due to many reasons). It will get there. How fast and when, nobody can tell you that (unless they are lying or misinformed). You will be changed by the MAF method that is a fact. Therefore trying to link speed and fat metabolism is like trying to smell the color purple and see the music. It’s metaphorical at best.

Ok so where do I start? Is it gluten free? High fat? Low carb? 2 week test?

If you go and visit the Balkans and my home country Bulgaria, which I highly recommend you do, you will inadvertaendly notice that yoghurt, feta cheese and such are a staple for everything. Where I am going with this is that eating dairy has been going on for generations and lactose tolerance is more or less a positive mutation. To this day full fat raw (unpasteurised) dairy  represent a good part of what I consume on a daily basis and I lack the negative side effects that most people associate with dairy products. I am most likely different than you and a lot of people in that department. Where we are the same is that refined carbohdyrates (flour, corn starch, sugar) and hence hyper insulin secretion have no place in our bodies…PERIOD. I am not even going to give junkfood the time of day to mention that this is NOT food, it is junk though. It is taking responsibility for what you put on your plate/grocery bags and that means educating yourself so that you can make informed decisions that are best for your health, rather than because this person, advertising or govenrment/pharmaceutical agency told you to. Whatever you want to call it, hey feel free. My friends refer to it as Nikola’s theory.

I (already) am a fat burning machine! Therefore, I don’t need to eat since there is plenty of fat in my body even though I am super lean!

Ever heard the story of the farmer who finally taught his donkey to not eat and it died on him (the animal’s courage!). Well the moral is that we need energy to function and even plants don’t just rely solely on sunlight. Given human metabolism we have many metabolic pathways to overlap since it is survival of the species that is the most important we can use variety of fuels. In short I am quoting a previous article directly.

Human metabolism is quite robust with many of the pathways overlapping, hey it is survival that we are after. While we can get by in extreme states, even when high performance is needed (the ‘classic athlete high carb diet/carbo loading, etc. come to mind and many Olympic medals to its name) The important part is that all systems must be functioning at their optimum. Each one has a niche (specific role) that it does best:

  • Fat – predominant energy source for all activities
  • Glucose – high bursts and/or high intensity (fight-or-flight)
  • Protein – mostly during state of starvation and/or depending on diet (ie lots of meat)
  • Ketones – brain fuel (keto clarity) as well as universal fuel for all cells; starvation fuel.

You want optimal rather than extreme. What is optimal for you and your (athletic) needs is for YOU to figure out, there is no formula and if anybody tries to convince you otherwise they are either lying or very very misinformed. If you have to eat below 50g of carbohydrates a day to enter ketosis – Fine. Remain in mild ketosis and eating 150-200g of carbohydrates a day – also fine – it is individual and you should be your own test monkey/lab rat.

Fat and Glucose Metabolism Athlete

Metabolically Optimised Athlete (Source: Alan Couzens)

While being metabolically efficient for a lack of better term does give you the freedom from needing to (over)eat every one or two hours and especially going wihtout food has no major effect on energy and brain clarity, that energy needs to come from somewhere (food). Starvation is interpreted as stress, which is cumulative and in modern fast paced societies it might be the straw that broke the camel’s back (animal anology yet again). Don’t be afraid to experiment within reasonable limits. If you have a 16km/10 mile hilly bike commute one way you might wanna pack a lunch at the very least.

But I have a family/wife/cat/children, do I start with diet, lowering intenisty, walking barefoot, ketosis, 2 week test AAARGHHHH!!! I just can’t do it, it’s TOO MUCH too handle!!!

Who is asking you to do it all at once? Rome was not built in a day. Goal is becoming better than you were before. Nobody said anything about you comparing your chapter one with somebody else’s chapter 15. It’s quite often a tango, two steps forward one step back. It’s the overall progress that matters. Though in my opinion cutting out refined carbohydrates, sugar and stopping being afraid of saturated fat is a very good first step.

Does it mean NEVER doing any high intensity workouts, strength training, etc.?!?

When you look annoyed all the time, people think you are busy.

-George Costanza

Today wearing stress as a badge of honor has become fashionable. If you ain’t stressed you are not trying hard enough. Therefore the accepted norm is the worn out, coffee (or other stimulant) driven person who never stops to just smell the flowers, time is money and no pain – no gain; it’s a rat race ALL the time. Unsurprisingly overtraining follows the same stages of stress (alert, resistance and exhaustion). It is after all physical stress we are inflicting when we practice and compete (not excluding the mental/motivation aspects as well). Most of us (myself included) for a good long time have existed between the second and final stage. If you ain’t sore and suffering you will never improve…so the ‘popular wisdom goes.

Going through (athletic) life in such an unsustainable manner shows its ugly face with injuries, constant fatigue, hormonal problems, inflammation and plethora of many hits against your health. This is among the prime reason while most professionals retire, quite often forced by ailments, around 26-28 years of age and/or that young sensation that gets chewed up by the PRO ranks to never come back. Therefore it is getting out of that negative pattern of overstress/overtraining that should be the priority. In 99% of cases this means slowing, down, training less (volume and intensity). Strength and interval training are both extremely taxing types of activities so if you are trying to reduce the overall stress you won’t go doing tough workouts. The term (aerobic) base gets thrown around haphazardly, and while an imperfect and incomplete definition – your health is the foundation for everything and without it you are adding strength, intensity to dysfunction. You don’t build a skyscraper on a marshland, wihtout some serious foundation work. Most people’s fitness is held (often quite literally) sports tape, willpower and/or caffeine and sugar drinks (I was the latter case for quite a while). Once you get that under control after as long as it takes, your body will be able to handle it. Don’t believe me? Ever ‘had the legs’ in a race/workout and seem to be never fatiguing? Why should that be the one time per season exception and not the rule?

But how does the whole thing relate to life and other activites ie not running and triathlon?

Metabolically limited sports aka truly fitness contests such as (marathon, ultra) running, triathlon, rowing etc. are the perfect real-life laboratory for a method like MAF since fitness is THE MAIN limiter and a direct reflection of success – how hard you can go is how hard you can go (poor running form, inefficient swimming stroke just make you use more energy for the same amount of effort). Your results do NOT depend on what others are doing, interfering with the competition (positively or negatively) is against the rules. Yes if somebody is much faster you don’t go trying to keep up if that means dropping off in 5minutes. Therefore other sports where tactics play a much higher role such as team sports (ie basketball) or in my case cycling, people treat it as an excuse to ‘cheat’ and treat training like racing – hard and fast all the time. I can see where the confusion might have originated. Fundamentally you must be prepared for the challenges that your chosen activity requires (that includes life as well).

Challenge me with what you say?

Let me explain…

Sidenote: I am in 100% agreement that the way most cycling races unfold is truly the worst way efficiency wise; like sprinting out of every corner for every hill ALL the time, even in quiet parts of the race and in the grupetto. The technique mentioned leaves most people associating road racing with suffering and most participants not making it past the halfway mark. If a move goes, you don’t know if the breakaway is going to stick so you have to follow it.  Hey don’t hate the players, hate the game.

Neuromuscular vs Metabolic

We are not headless chickens. EVERYTHING originates from the brain therefore the ability for example to pedal a bike sustainably at high cadence starts neuromuscularly FIRST. Same goes with running fast, swimming butterfly stroke, etc. I don’t have to tell you how ‘easy’ it is to follow complex instructions when you are crosseyed from fatigue. It doesn’t work. Also why a complex movmement is broken down into simple ones first and why visualisation is an extremely valuable tool.  The above works most efficiently when you are not fatigued and can pull all the stops without ill effects. This is why you only need VERY little high intensity training done WHEN 100% fit and healthy (1-2 weeks according to Dr. Maffetone himself). All you are doing is entering the basic instructions/patterns in your brain so that you can do them on autopilot when the opportunity arises (attacks, sprints, etc.). Once you literally know what to do, your metabolism will do its best to meet the demands the brain is sending. Ideally you want a muscle that is adept at burning both fat and glucose (carbohydrates), with the energy coming predominantly from fat well into the medium intensities. When it comes to human physiology this is the most efficient and least stressful way of doing things. This is where the so haphzardly thrown term (aerobic) ‘base’ really comes into play. Endurance and hence fat burning and aerobic condition is a fundamental human feature as such it is no surpise all comprise the main elements of health and fitness. It is literally a foundation with health and aerobic condition/fat burning going hand in hand.

When tired and pushed too hard we would ALWAYS revert to old (suboptimal) patterns when the base is shaky. It’s the brain that pull the emergency brakes to prevent further damage/overstress. This is the reason why strength training must incorporate only few heavy reps done not to fatigue. Everybody can win on a good day, the trick is to be able to do it on a bad day. Here winning does not always mean first place on the podium. For example, in my days as a rower most workouts (85%+) were done at 18-20 strokes per minute (spm) (the actual intensity was another story…ie not MAF) as compared to the 32-36 spm race pace. Somebody calculated that for an Olympic cycle (4yrs) it takes almost a million strokes done in practice for every stroke in the final race.  My most successful season was when the only high intensity workouts were couple 3 on 10 (3 strokes to build up speed, 10 strokes at race pace) and than easy to recover for a total of 50-70 race-like strokes for the whole workout (as compared to the ~220 strokes needed to finish a typical 2k (1.25mi race). In the case of cycling this is why occasional motopacing or fast paced group riding are both very potent workouts – you go at race speed though way below race power (due to drafting).

MAF HR and training zones and numbers must always be regarded into the greater picture that is the human body and metabolism.

So after all this what should I make of this MAF method thing?

You are in charge. Your time, your body, your sport. You have your best interest and that means taking responsibility for it all; never stop being curious and constantly asking why. It’s rarely a simple answer, don’t ever let someone tell you otherwise. Don’t confuse that with it being DIFFICULT to figure out. In the words of the nobel prize winning Physicist Richard Feynman – there is a pleasure in finding things out. If you have been drawing blanks with whatever it is you have been doing (diet, bodyweight,training, life, etc), it’s time for a (major) change.

In practical terms back to the quote that inspired that post: whatever seems to be the ‘popular wisdom’ you should do the opposite. While a brainless method, it is a good way to begin to question a subject and being able to find out the whole story behind the big picture – for example how saturated fat got labeled the villain and how we are currently in a fat phobic culture while it is the unhelathiest we have been as species on a global term for a loooong time

As a final note, while challenging for a good number of the A-type driven individuals that most of us(endurance athletes) are, or strive to be – don’t take things too seriously and treat life in a clinical and compartmentalised manner. We don’t get out of the whole thing alive (at least not until science figures out how to infuse our consciousness in a machine, even so). Therefore it is too short of a time to obsess over the usually insignificant (such as power numbers, race results, training hours, what your neighbor is doing and you are not).

Go out there and have fun!

My continuous extremely positive experience with the MAF Method can be found under the Me and MAF tag.

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