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MAF Method: Here’s How The Maffetone Method Of Moderate Running Works

Moderate running for the win!

I first learned about the Maffetone Method long before I became a running coach, but rather in my own competitive running career when I was interested in trying heart rate training.

The Maffetone Method, often referred to as the MAF Method for short, is considered low heart rate training, meaning that all your aerobic-based building runs are performed at a low intensity.

If you have ever heard of the concept of “run slow to run fast“ or have done a lot of zone 2 training or workouts in the “fat-burning zone,” you already have some familiarity with some of the same principles used with the Maffetone method for endurance athletes.

In this guide for runners, triathletes, cyclists, and other endurance athletes, we will discuss what the MAF Method involves, its principles, benefits for marathon runners and distance runners, and how to do the Maffetone Training Method in your own training plan.

A person running with the MAF method.

What is MAF Training?

The Maffetone Method was developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone.1Dr. Phil Maffetone – founder of the 180 formula and MAF test. (n.d.). Dr. Phil Maffetone. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://philmaffetone.com/

It is also frequently referred to as the MAF method or MAF training, which may sound like a shortened version of Phil Maffetone’s namesake training approach but is actually an acronym for maximum aerobic function.

Maximum Aerobic Function is the concept upon which Dr. Phil Maffetone developed this specific approach to aerobic training for endurance athletes such as distance runners, triathletes, and cyclists.

Essentially, he believes that by following the MAF Method, you will maximize the adaptations to your aerobic system, which will help you build a tremendous aerobic base for endurance events such as half marathons, marathons, and half or full Ironman triathlons, and improve your health.2Maffetone, P. B., & Laursen, P. B. (2016). Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy? Sports Medicine – Open2(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-016-0048-x

The MAF Method involves deliberately aiming to keep your heart rate low while running and using your heart rate to guide how fast or hard you can run.

A person running on a path.

How Do You Do the MAF Method?

To determine the appropriate heart rate for MAF training (called the MAF heart rate or MAF HR), you need to use Maffetone’s 180 Formula.3Maffetone, D. P. (2015, May 6). The MAF 180 Formula: Heart-rate monitoring for real aerobic training. Dr. Phil Maffetone. https://philmaffetone.com/180-formula/

‌First, subtract your age in years from 180.

Then, there are various factors that can modify your target heart rate for the MAF Method training program:

  • Subtract 10 if you currently have or are recovering from a major illness or surgery, or are in cardiac rehabilitation, taking any regular medication, or are in the burnout stage of overtraining (chronic overtraining).
  • Subtract 5 if you are currently injured, are overweight, get frequent illnesses (2 or more colds or infections per year), have seasonal allergies or asthma, or a beginner or just getting back into training, run inconsistently, have not been improving recently, or are in the early stages of overtraining syndrome.
  • Do not modify your number, simply use 180 minus your age, if you have been training consistently at least four times per week for two years without injuries, overtraining, or other interruptions with your training plan.
  • Add 5 to your number if you have been training for more than two years without any problems, continually progressing with your race times, and feeling good in training.

For runners over 65, the MAF 180 Formula may not work well, so you might need to experiment and see what feels right based on your effort level

For runners under 16, a MAF HR of 165 bpm is typically used.

Whatever number you end up with is considered your MAF heart rate in beats per minute (bpm).

A person running on a path.

This figure is the maximum aerobic heart rate you should reach for in all of your aerobic training runs.

Furthermore, the first mile of all of your Maffetone Method running workouts should be a warm-up run at a slow pace so that your heart rate is 10 bpm lower than your calculated MAF heart rate.

Your MAF heart rate should feel like a low-intensity effort, such as the effort level for easy runs for aerobic base-building

Let’s consider the example of a 36-year-old male runner who has been healthy and running consistently for two years.

Using the MAF 180 Formula, his maximum heart rate for low HR running would be 180 – 36 = 144 bpm, with the first mile of every run not exceeding 134 bpm.

If the same runner had been running consistently for over two years, he could bump this up to 149 bpm for all training runs, with the first mile at 139 bpm.

Most runners typically fall into the second modification category, in that they have one factor that compromises their “haleness” as a runner, whether that’s from carrying excess body fat, getting frequent colds, training inconsistently, or otherwise.

Therefore, most runners typically subtract five from their baseline 180-age number. 

Our 36-year-old runner would have a max training heart rate of 141 bpm if any of those conditions applied to him.

How Do You Do the MAF Test for Running?

For most runners, transitioning to MAF training is surprisingly difficult because it is challenging to keep your heart rate below your MAF method heart rate without needing to walk up hills. 

The good news is that your aerobic system adapts, and your heart rate will decrease when running below your aerobic threshold, enabling you to increase your training pace and race pace4Maffetone, P., & Laursen, P. B. (2020). Maximum Aerobic Function: Clinical Relevance, Physiological Underpinnings, and Practical Application. Frontiers in Physiology11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00296 while still keeping your heart rate at or below your MAF heart rate.

To assess your progress over time, you should periodically complete Maximum Aerobic Function tests (MAF tests), which you can compare to a baseline test.

How To Do a MAF Test

  1. Do a warm-up by running 10 to 15 minutes at a pace that keeps your heart rate at least ten bpm below your target max heart rate using the 180 MAF Formula.
  2. Choose a 5-mile (8k) route that you can use for your test and all future re-tests. If your current long run is less than 60 minutes, choose a route only 3 miles (5km).
  3. Set out on your course, running as close as possible to your target maximum heart rate for the entire distance. Note that your pace may need to slow down towards the end of the MAF test because your heart rate will naturally trend upward due to cardiac drift,5Souissi, A., Haddad, M., Dergaa, I., Ben Saad, H., & Chamari, K. (2021). A new perspective on cardiovascular drift during prolonged exercise. Life Sciences287, 120109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lfs.2021.120109 especially in hot weather.
  4. At the end of your test, you will be able to see how long it took you to run the 5-mile distance while maintaining, but not exceeding your target heart rate.

Beginners should aim to repeat the MAF test every month during the first couple of months of transitioning to low heart rate training and every eight weeks after 3 to 4 months.

Over time, you should be able to complete your selected run at a faster pace without exceeding your maximum target heart rate. 

This is indicative of the biochemical and cardiovascular adaptations you are striving for, notably the increased efficiency of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, the improved ability of the muscle fibers to extract and utilize that oxygen, and greater fat oxidation6Purdom, T., Kravitz, L., Dokladny, K., & Mermier, C. (2018). Understanding the factors that effect maximal fat oxidation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition15(1). rather than relying on carbs.

On the other hand, if you notice that your times are slowing down, it’s indicative that you are running too fast on your training runs, not sleeping or fueling well, or are dealing with external stresses that are raising your stress hormones and compromising your recovery.

A person running on a fall day.

Does the Maffetone Method Work?

The Maffetone Method can be a very effective training approach for many runners, especially those with a history of injuries, overtraining syndrome, or simply have not been making progress in their race performances with the training method they have been following.

The MAF training method is said to help reduce the risk of injury and overtraining syndrome while improving your aerobic capacity and increasing the ability of your muscle fibers to burn fat instead of carbohydrates at your maximum aerobic heart rate.

However, transitioning from running at higher heart rates to the low heart rate required by the MAF Method can be a frustrating and difficult process. 

Here are a few tips for starting the MAF Method for runners:

#1: Put Speedwork On Hold

When you first start MAF Method training, you’re supposed to stop all speed workouts because every single training run is supposed to be performed at or below your target maximum heart rate.

Then, as long as you are progressing and improving on your MAF tests, you can re-introduce speed workouts using the 80/20 rule after a couple of months.

The 80/20 rule of running states that 80% of your training runs should be kept in this easy, low heart rate zone, and 20% of your workouts can be high-quality, high-intensity workouts that take you into the anaerobic training zones, such as track workouts and intervals.

A person running on asphalt.

#2: Wear a Chest Strap Heart Rate Monitor 

Most GPS running watches have wrist-based optical heart rate monitoring, but a chest strap heart rate monitor can improve the accuracy and reliability of your heart rate readings. 

There are already so many factors that can influence your day-to-day fluctuations in your heart rate, so having the most accurate heart rate monitor can improve the precision and accuracy of your Maffetone Method training

#3: Increase Your Cadence

As a running coach, I often encourage injury prone runners to try and increase their cadence and decrease their stride length as a first step to improvement in running form and running technique.

Running with a faster cadence can improve running economy and reduce the risk of injury.7Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4

‌Because your Maffetone Method heart rate is so low, training runs can feel painfully slow at first.

Therefore, having something else to focus on—like increasing cadence—can make you feel engaged as you should be able to focus on proper running form because of the low-intensity effort level.

A person running on a path at sunset.

#4: Be Patient

It is going to take time for your cardiovascular system to adapt to the low MAF running method.

But, if you want to reach your maximum aerobic function (per Dr. Maffetone), you need to be consistent and stick with low heart rate training every day rather than only trying it once or twice a week.

Even though your average training pace will slow down significantly at first, most runners and endurance athletes who follow the MAF method over the long term find that they are able to actually run faster both in terms of race times and training runs as their aerobic system adapts.

To explore other training methods, check out this next guide:

References

  • 1
    Dr. Phil Maffetone – founder of the 180 formula and MAF test. (n.d.). Dr. Phil Maffetone. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://philmaffetone.com/
  • 2
    Maffetone, P. B., & Laursen, P. B. (2016). Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy? Sports Medicine – Open2(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-016-0048-x
  • 3
    Maffetone, D. P. (2015, May 6). The MAF 180 Formula: Heart-rate monitoring for real aerobic training. Dr. Phil Maffetone. https://philmaffetone.com/180-formula/
  • 4
    Maffetone, P., & Laursen, P. B. (2020). Maximum Aerobic Function: Clinical Relevance, Physiological Underpinnings, and Practical Application. Frontiers in Physiology11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00296
  • 5
    Souissi, A., Haddad, M., Dergaa, I., Ben Saad, H., & Chamari, K. (2021). A new perspective on cardiovascular drift during prolonged exercise. Life Sciences287, 120109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lfs.2021.120109
  • 6
    Purdom, T., Kravitz, L., Dokladny, K., & Mermier, C. (2018). Understanding the factors that effect maximal fat oxidation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition15(1).
  • 7
    Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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