Maffetone Training for Cycling
My continuous extremely positive experience with the MAF Method can be found under the Me and MAF tag.
You have to start with ‘Wow!’ One of the biggest wow moments as far as cycling and probably training in general for me to this date was being introduced to The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Dr. Phil Maffetone. After many seasons of going harder and doing more and more, I had gotten to the point where even something I was good at, time trialling, was becoming slower and slower, I knew I had to change from the ground up if I wanted to get somewhere with the sport I have grown to love so much. To say that Dr. Maffetone goes completely against the grain of everything that is out there as far as endurance training, utilising fat (fat burning for energy rather than carbohydrates), healthy living, balanced nutrition, injury prevention, body balance, mental focus and such, would be a huge huge understatement. In simple terms he goes down to the bare bone fundamentals that are behind endurance – from physiology, to muscle function to psychology.
Dr. Maffetone is not without his critiques, particularly because his methods are the polar opposite of the ‘no pain, no gain.’ and the ‘do more…faster!!!’ slogans that scream at you from virtually everywhere as well as against the hugely popular cookbook and formula approaches that are now the mainstream norm for ‘successful training/coaching.’ A modest person himself he doesn’t have to go and showcase his successes. The most famous of his athletes was Mark Allen. Mark who you say? For those not familiar with the Ironman Hawaii Triathlon (2.4-mile (3.86 km)swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run, raced in that order and without a break). Mark Allen won it, SIX times. Before that he was a swimmer in college and had gotten himself injured and burned out before starting his successful collaboration with Dr. Maffetone. Long haul bomber pilots, race car drivers, runners, music stars (Johnny Cash) all have nothing but praise to say for Dr. Phil Maffetone.
Needless to say, if you look for them though, you will come across a number of quite unhappy people who tried Dr. Maffetone’s methods and were quite unsuccessful or worse they critiqued him without even trying to make sense of his ideas. By briefly reading quite a number of those ‘negative experiences’ I couldn’t help but notice that every single one of those people missed one or more of the following, I would call them commandments of the Maffetone method. I absolutely recommend that you go and read his work, since putting decades of hands on clinical and coaching experience in just a blog post is impossible, however, I will get you started. In addition the Maffetone crowd seems to be mostly runners and triathletes so I want to put a ‘cycling spin’ on it. Here we go.
The Commandments of Maffetone Training for Cycling
1. Understand the Big Picture
Having two legs for walking and running, the ability to sweat and regulate our body temperature allowed us as species to cover vast amounts of land in search for food and water as well as provided an advantage versus the large predators in the African savannah who had to rest in the shade during the day. In short – we have endured, so it is safe to say endurance is hardwired into every human. Fast forward to the recent past and we have started doing all of the above (minus escaping saber-toothed tigers) in an organised fashion and we have called in running, cycling, triathlon, swimming etc.
Therefore, as ‘something we all have,’ endurance is the culmination of the whole complexity that is the human body. As described by Dr. Maffetone the best way to illustrate it is an equilateral triangle.
Structure – the muscles and bones and neurons that make up the body. The constant wear and tear we put on our body also falls into this category.
Chemistry – the body functions due to cascades of highly regulated biochemical processes. Any changes due to prescription drugs, inadequate diet, etc. all contribute to changes in the chemical part of the endurance triangle.
Mental and emotional – as mentioned above the brain is the most important and yet often overlooked part when it comes to training and racing. Sensations, perceptions, emotions, pain, motivation just to name a few.
All three are interrelated and cannot be viewed entirely in isolation. A very general example: Entirely neglecting the pain signals your body is sending you as you keep ‘giving it all’ day after day (mental emotional) would lead to increasing levels of inflammation (chemical) and ultimately an injury due to the the incomplete recovery (structure).
In addition developing our fat burning as a primary energy system is an ability that allows us to use the 40.000+kcal available even to the leanest athletes rather than the limited ~2000kcal of carbohydrates.
2. Take Control
African hunters chase antelopes for hours in the midday desert heat. No highly sophisticated coaching, heart rate monitors, power meters or the ‘latest and greatest’ equipment. Also no time to stop and drink water since one thing that antelopes are good at is running fast…very fast. Yet the hunters survive and manage remarkable feats of strength. Why? They are in tune to their bodies. The brain is the best governor we have and everything we do starts there. The way we sense our environment and the feedback that comes from the brain is very important. In addition continuously asking why and educating yourself about training, nutrition etc., is a significant part of the mental and emotional part of endurance. Take control and listen to your body.
3. MAF, the 180 Formula and Fat Burning
The 180 formula is pretty much the only formula that Dr. Maffetone mentions. My aside here is that most athletes only focus on this point of Maffetone training while ignoring points 1 and 2 and hence get suboptimal results.
I am probably repeating myself and I whole heartedly agree with him that the best schedule is the one not written down and no formula can suit everybody. Though through his experience by examining a LOT of athletes he has come up with a formula which in his words represents your maximum aerobic function (MAF) heart rate where you are developing your fat burning, or utilising the virtually endless fuel your body has at its disposal.
How to calculate your MAF
Subtract your age from 180 and further adjust that number by the following 4 conditions (quoted directly)
a. If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, operations, hospital stays) or are on any regular medication – subtract 10.
b. If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training – subtract additional 5.
c. If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any kind of the problems mentioned in a and b, keep the number (180-age) the same
d. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
If you have any questions, look at points 1 and 2 again. Good.
Better be 5bpm lower rather than too high. No but’s, no if’s, no I know better and this zone does not correspond to my zone, etc. Ideally Dr. Maffetone would test you on a treadmill/track, however, this is the next best thing. Your fat burning/MAF/training zone is 10bpm from that.
For example if you are 30 years old and have no injuries/conditions/prescription medications and are just starting training you get 180-30-5 = 145bpm. Your training zone is the 10bpm range 135-145bpm.
Bike, swim, run or walk, 1h, 45min, 100hours, uphill, downhill, flats, rolling terrain of training this is the maximum heart rate you should be training at any time (ie not the average over the whole workout). No but’s, no if’s. Period.
Why heart rate when we have all this advances, power meters, etc.? It’s quite simple really. The common ‘wisdom’ is that heart rate is too variable to be a reliable training metric. It gets affected by (lack of) sleep, stress, coffee, etc. This is exactly why it is the most important metric – it is the biofeedback you are receiving from your body. With the current state, stress, fatigue you are experiencing this is what you are capable of achieving aerobically while burning fat rather than sugar (glucose). How would you know if you are improving? More on that a bit later.
4. Commit and Reduce Stress
To the whole idea and give it 3-6months. You will go sloooooow at first, I mean dead slow. Another misconception is that Maffetone training is about training slow. No, it isn’t, you are slow because if you have been following the popular “no pain, no gain” approach as well as eating the currently (as of 2015) typical western diet based on carbohydrates – your body has simply become aerobically deficient – it doesn’t know how to burn fat efficiently yet so you have to start slow – you have to learn to walk before you can run.
Rumor has it Mark Allen ran an 11 minute mile pace (2x slower than a competitive pace) as he was starting and he was not out of shape. That being said for cycling you will have to avoid hills and if not possible, get a compact crankset and a wide gearing cassette – 11/28, 11/32 and (gasp!) even triple chainrings. Hills will be even slower, be patient. Joining the weekly group ride (hammer fest) and racing is out of the question. You will have to get used to the company of only your bike and heart rate monitor. The positive is that since you are not redlining it all the time and all you have to keep in check is your HR you can actually start to enjoy riding, find new roads, notice things you were too busy to see before. It’s all wonderful stimulation for your brain as well.
In addition although stress sometimes is labeled as a badge of honour in our modern fast paced lifestyles, mother nature put it there as our ‘fight-or-flight’ response and was never intended as a long term state. Therefore chronic stress is counter-productive towards endurance. Stress can affect each three parts of the triangle in point 1 such as: physical/structural stress – poorly fitting bike, chemical stress – caffeine, prescription and/or over the counter drugs, mental and emotional stress – job deadlines, relationship problems, etc. Write down all the stressors you feel are having and start reducing/eliminating the ones that you can control.
Every month if possible and keep a diary. Test what? Your MAF or how fast/how much power are you producing at your MAF heart rate. Find a course with no traffic that takes 30ish min to ride and record your times/speed. Having a power meter and/or indoor trainer is the best in my opinion; simply warm up building to your MAF (12-15min), ride at it for 30min and cooldown (12-15min). More watts/speed at the same MAF HR = improved aerobic fitness. If you are progressing you are on the right track, if you are stagnating or regressing shortly after beginning (1-2months) you have to re evaluate your MAF HR (usually set too high), stress, diet – check your diary. Once your MAF tests plateau you are ready to add some intensity and/or racing. Once they start regressing, it is time to continue building your aerobic base again.
Endurance is something that is part of being human and as such is no simple task to put into a single blog post. However, if nothing else the take away points from this article are that you should take charge of your training and keep educating yourself and ignore the ‘no pain no gain’ mentality that has sadly become the norm of athletic endeavour. You cannot reach your full athletic potential by focusing on the training alone, it requires a full holistic approach starting with your body as the combination of the structural, chemical, mental and emotional aspects of it. Last but not least reducing stress as well training your body to utilize fat as fuel/developing your maximum aerobic function (MAF).
My continuous experience with the MAF Method can be found under the Me and MAF tag.
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