Not my favorite endurance coach

January 6, 2009

What better way is there to kick off a new year of blogging than with a curmudgeonly post attacking a fellow member of the running community?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to write about Will Cooper’s interview of Phil Maffetone for a long time. Perhaps now that several months have passed, I can do it in a fair, dispassionate manner!

I don’t dispute that Maffetone has a lot of coaching experience — much, much more than I do — or that his methods have produced excellent results for some athletes. But some of his ideas are, in my opinion, unscientific, and I hope that the readers of UltraRunning magazine (which published the interview in its September ’08 issue) won’t be unduly influenced by them.

The Maffetone approach is based in large part on his “180 minus your age” formula, which is the heart rate at which he thinks people should do most of their training. There are at least a couple of problems with this formula. One is that it does not take into account the well-documented variability in maximum heart rate among people of a given age. Thus 35-year-olds like me who exercise regularly and have no major health problems would be assigned a target heart rate of 145, but this would represent a much higher fraction of max for some of us than for others.

A second problem with the 180 formula is that Maffetone seeks to apply it to all endurance athletes, regardless of whether they’re training for a 5K or an ultramarathon. The interview includes the following exchange:

Will: I’ve been reading some of my fellow bloggers who are using the 180 Formula in training, but are racing marathon distances (or less) at a much higher heart rate, in some cases 20 or more bpm higher than their MAHR. They seem to be getting positive results. Should one expect to have a higher “racing” heart rate than “training” heart rate at marathon distances or shorter? What about for longer distances, such as a 50 or a 100 mile runs?

Dr. Phil: When you’re in races of marathon distance and less, you normally run harder than a training run – it’s an anaerobic event. So your heart rate should be much higher in this type of race than a training run. The longer the race, the less difference between the training and racing heart rate.

For now, set aside the fact that 10Ks and marathons are not anaerobic events by any common definition of the word “anaerobic.” What Maffetone is advocating here is that people train for short races by running at much slower than race pace. For those familiar with the exercise physiology concept of specificity, this makes little sense. A good training program should simulate the demands that will be made on the body during the target race — not lull the body into a false sense of comfort!

It’s clear from this interview and Maffetone’s other writings that he considers high-intensity “anaerobic” training to be dangerous and of limited value. Here’s another interview excerpt:

Three other important features of anaerobic training: 1) it won’t take much to benefit from it, 2) you will need more rest/recovery from it, and 3) if you perform too much of it, the aerobic system can quickly deteriorate. To be safe and still obtain benefits, I often suggest only three or four weeks of anaerobic training to get maximum anaerobic effects, and for many ultra runners, just a single, longer workout once a week. Consider a 10 or 15K race as a very effective way to get an anaerobic workout. So if you’re going to add anaerobic training, proceed carefully and only after allowing your aerobic system to become well developed, and perform a good aerobic warm up and cool down around it. Be sure to monitor your MAF Test every two weeks or so during this period, and if you start running slower at your MAHR – stop anaerobic training immediately. Most importantly, anaerobic training is a significant stress, as I discussed earlier. The average person who has a full time job, a family and other things to do in life often has little room for another stress.

It’s true that, for certain athletes, anaerobic training is stressful and leads to injuries. But for every one of those whom I know, there’s someone else for whom total mileage rather than speedwork is the stress that must be managed carefully. Those people can’t log a lot of miles, but they stay in shape by making every mile count — i.e., by doing lots of high-intensity running, in conflict with Maffetone’s recommendations.

I find little precedent in the scientific literature for Maffetone’s stance that speedwork is often harmful to aerobic fitness. In fact, if we regard VO2max as an adequate gauge of aerobic fitness, numerous studies tell us that VO2max increases most when we regularly train near our maximum heart rate. (Here’s one old but representative review: H.A. Wenger and G.J. Bell, Sports Medicine 3: 346-56, 1986.)

If Maffetone is as misguided as I’m making him out to be, why have his athletes achieved so much success? Maybe his real expertise is in aspects of training and nutrition other than those discussed above. Maybe he’s an exceptionally charismatic leader for whom athletes would run through a wall (being careful not to exceed their MAHR, of course). And maybe his athletes’ successes reveal the strengths and limitations of his program.

The highest-profile athletes I know of who have been associated with Maffetone are Ironman triathletes Mark Allen, Wendy Ingraham, and Mike Pigg and ultramarathoner Stu Mittleman. These are champions whose key races lasted many hours, so, for them, the strong focus on aerobic base-building was mostly appropriate. But I doubt that these or other Maffletes have achieved comparable triumphs in shorter races.


  1. Greg – nice post. As far as a few high profile athletes having great sucesses with Dr. Phil' methods, I offer two explanations.1. They would be great no matter what training they did. This really can't be discounted; the genetic lottery is not fair. If they trained using a more scientific, Jack Daniels style approach, they would be as good or better.2. They are all triathletes, meaning they are getting a ton of extra sress from the training for the other two sports, both of which are non weight bearing. Meaning, even if they stick to the low HR when training in the pool or on the bike, they are at a much higher relative intensity when doing so. This will have quite a bit of carryover effect.

  2. I have long questioned the MAF approach.The most successful of "MAF"ers is Mark Allen – 6 time Ironman World Champ. According to Noakes, via the Lore of Running, Allen got his MAF pace to 5:20 a mile (meaning he was running 5:20's whilst maintaining a HR near or below 150).My concerns with the MAF approach have been the exclusivity of its approach – primarily the tenant that you can NEVER exceed a HR above MAF.In any case, I have debated, using some points similar to yours, the usefulness of this approach.I certainly would not recommend it for marathoners, particularly those who are veterans for running – for some of the reasons you mention.That said, what I understand Phil means by aerobic versus anaerobic is indeed a twist of the definition. Phil considers MAF paces to be ones where you metabolize fat as fuel. Supposedly at low HRs, this is what occurs (versus glycogen). Anaerobic paces in his definition are those that metabolize carbs, or glycogen.In an IM, where you will be competing for 8-15 hours, and given we are all generally limited to a glycogen store of about two hours, you do need to train your system for a LONG LONG haul and hence teach your body to metabolize other fuel to survive. Simply put, be it in an ultra, or an IM – you ain't going to make it just on sugar.Hence, training, long and slow (or at a lower HR) will probably make up about 80 percent of the training (or maybe more) that one does for these events. Simply put – you are being specific for that event. You are not going to hold a HR of 185 for 14 hours. At least I am not.So – I am not completely opposed to MAF training. It has applicability in three placesa.) general base building periodb.) the bulk of most trainingc.) anyone who relatively new to sport and has been inactive for a good period of time.My issue with it is the so called exclusivity of it. Supposedly, when you go above this MAF HR however, you tap into that anaerobic fuel system and the body does not reset itself back to an aerobic one for 18-36 hours (not sure if I buy that but that is what I have read).FWIW – I still do two hard workouts a week (with an anaerobic component).GZ

  3. I too have seen the anecdote about Mark Allen's easy pace/MAF HR being 5:20 pace, but this defies common sense. If it were so, you'd expect Mark to have run a marathon well below 5:20 pace (ie, sub 2:20). In fact, in my own experience, your MAF pace corresponds to race pace at somewhere around 40 miles. 40 miles at 5:20 pace would be even more amazing than 6 Ironman wins!

  4. Paul – that is a good point. I had not thought of it that way. I will dig up the specific Noakes reference to cross check it.I need to think about this though. I am sure that there are athletes that could run at 5:20 pace without their HR cracking 150. I am not sure that means they could hold that pace for 40 miles, even assuming they have the muscular endurance to do that.

  5. don't you love the fact he said he quit everything quite recently to study music?

  6. Yeah, some of the stuff that Maffetone says doesn't make much sense. As I had told King Arthur Martineau on my own blog (he referred me to your post) – "I'm not a true Maffetone low-HR runner either. However, I can't argue the data that came out of my VO2Max test that I did with Eric (Sachs) a few weeks back either. So for now, I'm on a 42 day training plan that I compared to info from Maffetone, the updated stuff that Mittleman figured out on his own, and data from coaches like Daniels, Lydiard, & Van Aaken. There's a common thread to all of them – all advocate that you need a more solid aerobic base before you do anything else."So for me, I'm following the Maffetone rules for now. But once I get to a point where I don't see any further gains – I can finally start introducing other forms of training to help me out.

  7. Greg, thanks for writing this post. You have brought up several good points. Hearing other points of view, particularly from a runner of your caliber, is very helpful. Let me offer a few thoughts here.Regarding the one-size-fits-all comment on the 180 formula, the Maffetone method isn't as rigid as you've described. While it doesn't adjust for each athletes' individual maximum heart rate, which indeed can vary greatly, it does call for adjustments based on the individuals health and conditioning. In your case, under the 180 formula, you would add 5 beats-per-minute given your condition as a competitive athlete. So your MAHR under the 180 formula would be 150, not 145. If you were an average joe, you wouldn't add 5 beats, and if you were an average joe with a history of heart problems or the like, you would subtract 10 beats. Is this an exact formula? Certainly not. To keep this in context, however, I offer the following excerpt from Maffetone in the interview:"I soon realized a new formula would be very useful as most runners were not able to have an expensive treadmill evaluation, and the 220 formulas were unacceptable. By experimenting with the math (I basically worked the numbers backwards), I was able to get a formula that correlated extremely well with what the treadmill tests were providing. This became the 180 Formula."The point here is that Maffetone designed the 180 formula using his own empirical research as a tool for a broad base of athletes.As to 10ks and marathons not being anaerobic events, I agree with your statement. But again, to put this in context, I don't believe Maffetone was suggesting 10ks and marathons are purely "anaerobic" events, rather events that tap into the anaerobic metabolism much more than ultra events.Regarding your comments on specificity and simulating the demands that will be placed on the body on race day, I don’t think Maffetone’s method excludes this. His position isn’t that athletes should absolutely avoid race pace or faster training, rather they should be sure to develop their aerobic system before focusing on anaerobic training. In other words build your base, then work on speed. As he stated…"anaerobic training can be very helpful. But whether it’s hills at higher heart rates, track intervals… incorporating anaerobic training before fully developing your aerobic system can be a problem. Consider that in an ultra distance event, 99% of your energy comes from the aerobic system, and only 1% from the anaerobic system. So the more well developed your aerobic system, the more your body is equipped to race long distances. This is the foundation of training that Mark Allen and other great endurance athletes developed".He’s simply saying that anaerobic training shouldn’t come until after the aerobic base is built. And when it does come, proceed cautiously, as it increases the prospect of injury particularly when combined with the stresses of everyday life. The premise here is that training at MAHR will, over time, make you a faster runner at a lower heart rate. It is also likely to make the athlete less prone to injury and illness, and possibly give rise to a longer, more consistent career.So, do elite and other endurance athletes need to train at anaerobic threshold and higher to maximize their potential? I believe they do, but I don’t think Maffetone suggests otherwise. Again, all in the right doses to avoid breaking the body down. As he stated, “…if you perform too much of it, the aerobic system can quickly deteriorate”.Thanks again for your post, Greg. I look forward to meeting you in person one day.

  8. Very good comments, everybody. Just a few additional points:(A) Mark Allen's website includes a page (www.markallenonline.com/heartrate.asp) where he discusses his paces at various heart rates. He says he was able to run 5:20/mile pace at a heart rate of 155.(B) Regarding the "+5" in the MAF formula for competitive athletes, Maffetone says in an online article (available only to people who have registered at his website, which is free) that the +5 is for people who "have been competing for more than two years duration without any of the problems listed above, and have improved in competition without injury." I have not improved over the last couple of years — in fact, I've gotten slower — so I wouldn't add 5.(C) I strongly disagree with the advice that one shouldn't do any speedwork until the aerobic base is fully built. (Maffetone isn't the only coach who believes this, by the way.) I believe that almost everyone can benefit from some speedwork once per week, even during the base-building phase. This speedwork doesn't have to be exhausting, all-out, timed, or on a track. It can be something as informal as a fartlek workout or a few fast "stride-outs" toward the end of an easy run. This adds variety (the spice of life) to your training and keeps you from having to start at square one speed-wise when you get to the sharpening/racing phase. Plus it's _fun_ to run fast once in a while. People who think that this sort of thing interferes with aerobic development are being irrational.

  9. CrowtherYour last comment C – AMEN. I agree! I am amazed however at how much push back I get on this topic, even by non-MAF types. They insist on a phase of development that is low intensity without any sort of turn over work.My experience has been that periodic turn over work is even more critical as one gets older and does more slower work.

  10. Greg,I compete in olympic and half iron triathlon and also 5K to half-marathon running races. I've used heart rate monitors for the past 18 years of racing. Even though I'm 51 years old, my max heart rate is 196, and I interval train once per week on the track, usually with my heart rate in the high 180's. The once per week high intensity track workout had proved to be critical to improving my run speed. If I used this formula, I would be running in the 120's to 130, which seems pretty low for my main mileage. This is a 9 to 10 min mile pace for me at this low heart rate. As has been previously pointed out, I cycle and swim year around during the week, so my running is relatively limited and focusing on speed and turnover has paid the biggest dividends. I believe I'm a good example of the great amount of heart rate variability by age that you pointed out.

  11. I disagree with the notion that you have to "fully develop your aerobic system" before you add speedwork. Yes, there are periods in your training where you train mostly (or even exclusively) in the low heartrate zone – I just call them "easy runs" and "regular runs". For me, that's during the month or so after a focus marathon, or an Ultra that I ran hard. But I believe that even during the base building phase it is important to add faster paced runs to your training once or twice a week. 4 – 10 mile tempo runs, a 10 x 3:00 min hard, 2:00 min easy fartleg, or even mile repeats on the track, but 10 – 20 seconds slower than max effort (e.g. if you could do 5 x mile in 4:45, run 5 x mile in 5:00).I also don't agree that beginning runners shouldn't do any kind of speedwork. I mean, if someone starts running in HS as a freshman, they shouldn't do any speedwork til they are a junior?On a different note, I'm not a big fan of HR formulas or HR based training. And, as Greg can vouch for, it's not because I don't believe in science in general.Instead of trying to monitor more and more variables such as HR, lactate, VO2 max, etc to guide your training, learn to listen to your body. And analyse your races and workouts. If a typical set of mile repeats goes like 5:35 5:40 5:50 and 6:03, may be the next time start out in 5:45. If you don't pass more people in the second half of a race than pass you, you're probably going out too fast.Don't let any of those scientific tests tell you what you can or can't do. Case in point:About 17 years ago both my coach and I had a treadmill HR and lactate test done at the sports medicine institute at the University of Tuebingen, Ger, where many of the German Olympians were tested.Based on those tests he was told he should be able to run the 10k in 33:00 min. 2 Weeks later he ran a 31:00 on the track.They told me, at age 19, I should be able to run a marathon in 2:12!!! At the time I was able to run a 10k at that pace (about 31:00 min).So my point is: don't let some formula, even if it's based on scientific tests, hold you back or set unrealistic expectations both in training and racing.

  12. Healthy Running Babe and Bobby S.:Your comments are about as long as my original post, so I'm not going to go through each one point by point, but here are a few things to keep in mind.My first reaction is that I'm glad that you have found the Maffetone method effective. If it works for you, you are certainly justified in sticking with it. Nevertheless, I have no desire to try it for myself because I find it illogical, as explained above. Yes, my progress has hit a plateau, but I see that as a symptom of getting older, not a symptom of poor training methods.On to a few specific issues raised by Bobby S. First, you say, "[Maffetone] found that if his athletes (he worked with all different levels) worked at this heart rate [MAF] and lower, they would develop great aerobic systems, and stay healthy." Yes, this is what Maffetone believes, but exactly what does it mean to develop "great aerobic systems"? The bulk of the peer-reviewed research literature indicates that VO2max is boosted most significantly by high-intensity training (above MAF). Isn't VO2max a valid measure of one's "aerobic system"?Second, you say that "[MAF] has no constant relation to heart rate," citing the example of two people with identical max heart rates but different MAFs. Your example is OK, but I'm concerned with the opposite case — two people who have very different max HRs. If they are similar in all other respects (age, health, training status, etc.), their MAFs will be calculated to be the same — let's say a HR of 135. But for a guy with an unusually low max HR, his MAF will be close to his max, whereas for a guy with an unusually high max HR, his MAF will be far below his max. Why should one guy be doing his training so much closer to his max HR than the other guy when they are similar in all other respects? It just doesn't make sense.Third: "Maffetone never says that anaerobic training is inherently dangerous." Well, he doesn't use those exact words, but here's a representative quote from his website: "Building a great aerobic base is accomplished by training _exclusively_ aerobic for a certain number of weeks and months. During this period, anaerobic workouts (including higher heart rate training, competition and weight work) should be avoided. Anaerobic activity can actually impair the aerobic system, therefore, each workout during aerobic base training should be only aerobic." Why would he forbid athletes from doing ANY anaerobic training during their base-building period unless he considers it dangerous? Heaven forbid that an athlete grow bored of MAF training during this period and desire to run fast once in a while….

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