With the pandemic still raging, I had decided by July that this year is not going to be great for running. I tried to keep myself motivated by jogging on the terrace, and then slowly, after the lockdown eased, started going to the parks nearby. However, and many fellow runners would agree, it can be difficult to keep yourself disciplined when you don’t have a race to register for, a target to work towards or even a group to run with.
So, is running without a fitness goal a bad idea? Well, actually, no. It is actually the perfect time to work on aspects of running that you don’t usually focus on. For me that is endurance and technique. When it comes to running longer distances (half- or full-marathon lengths, or if you really are serious, then probably an ultra) the first thing you need to do is train your lungs. Unless your lungs can endure the continued hours of high heart rate and heavy breathing, your legs won’t be able to either.
Enter Maffetone running.
The MAF Method was developed by nutrition, exercise and sports medicine expert Phil Maffetone in the 1980s after 40 years of research. MAF here stands for Maximum Aerobic Function, and focuses on the aerobic system—the fat burning engine of your body. Broadly speaking, MAF is about achieving a lifestyle that helps you control chronic inflammation; manage stress, burn fat and more. But for the sake of this column, we will look at its impact on running.
The MAF method for running uses your heart rate as a basis for fat burning and endurance. To calculate your MAF heart rate (HR) for you starts with subtracting your age from the MAF method's ideal training heart-rate of 180. Now, you can make a few extra calculations. For example, if you are recovering from an injury subtract an extra 10. If you usually have allergies or catch a cold quite often, subtract five more. On the other hand, if you have trained consistently for at least two years without any major injury, add five. In this way, you arrive at your ideal current training heart rate. The idea is to find a pace that is comfortable enough for you to let you run for long hours, without letting the heart rate spike.
This however, is easier said than done. Ask Delhi-based Aman Dalal. Dalal suffered a series of injuries in 2019 and took up MAF training after the easing of the lockdown in the capital. He had previously tried the low heart rate/ zone 2 training, a method where one runs just slightly faster than an easy run and can comfortably speak short sentences at the end of the run. However, he found it difficult to maintain the required heart rate at his easy-moderate pace. “So I switched to MAF method. But the challenging part was the initial sluggish pace. I always used to keep an eye on the pace, but was tempted to go hard in almost every session,” says Dalal, who has been following MAF for the last six months.
Prasun Bhattacharya too picked up the MAF method after injuring his knee earlier in this year. Hearing about the heart rate training method from a friend who had completed the Ironman, he decided to give it a shot as well. “MAF is a patience game, but in my case running slower was only option. Within few months, however, I started getting results like a stabilized HR—having done a 1:45 half marathon with 140 HR few months back. My HR never goes to zone 5 (the highest in the zones) until I'm doing anaerobic training for speed,” says Bhattacharya. He believes that while MAF may not have made him a faster runner, it has helped him increase endurance. Nor has he suffred any new injuries. He is now more confident of increasing his run distance and doing ultra-marathons while training at the MAF heart rate.
The best thing about the MAF method, according to Dalal, is the feeling after the run. “The recovery was extremely quick. Even after running 18-20km, I could rest for a few hours, and could go out again for a run. After each session I was able to focus on my form also. Though I am still struggling with the breathing pattern, but trying to work on it right now,” he says.
Like Bhattacharya, Delhi-based blogger and running enthusiast Tanya Agarwal believes that MAF is about patience. Agarwal tried MAF for the first time in 2017, doing it for six months, and continued to use the method through the dull summer training months of 2020.
“You need to cut off from events for a bit. Real MAF followers give it many years of heart rate running before they come back to the events. You can't be doing MAF training and be inpatient about doing events. It doesn't serve the purpose of building strong cardiovascular health for running. And people who have diligently followed MAF for years, are some of the fastest runners,” explains Agarwal. She agrees that it is quite easy to fall off the training plan, and she has done so herself a couple of times. But keeping the bigger picture in mind is the only way to do it.
“Why are you picking this method of training? What need does it fulfill? After a while of doing it, one does fall in love with this method. As a woman who has physically demanding long days, it was a soothing option to fall back on. I still went out for a run even though I knew I had a long day, but it was okay because it wasn't a fast run. Long runs are much more beautiful whey you do MAF... you can do chatty runs with your friends,” says Agarwal who believes that MAF has helped her watch her form as she runs slow and fix issues along the way.
The reasons might be many, but according to MAF, the way to a better and faster run is to first slow down.