With all races being cancelled at the minute, I thought now was the time to try some different methods of training to see if I could improve my running. I made myself promise to try each thing for 1 month and see how my body felt in line with my performance.
Before we get stuck in I would like you to understand that this is an entirely opinion based post. I have no formal sports science or nutritional training - only the knowledge of my own body and performance over the last 8 years or so.
I was starting to notice that my heart rate was spiking quite dramatically, even on smaller climbs. A rise in heart rate is to be expected, but I felt it was higher than it used to be.
It had been a while since I'd concentrated on the slower endurance training (neglect is probably a better term). With no pressure on me to train for any races I decided to go back to basics and get some slower paced runs in. I'd been wanting to experiment with MAF (The Maffetone Method) but didn't want to risk any drop in performance around races.
Firstly, what is MAF?
If you'd like to dive a little deeper in to it (which you really should) then head over to the Phil Maffetone website. There's a lot more to it than I'm going to cover here, quite simply because I wouldn't do it justice.
Getting Started (The MAF HR 180 Formula)
There's no need for a lot of waffle here. We're looking to train in a low HR zone - I need to know my targets. This is how you get that:
Subtract your age from 180, then modify from one of the categories listed. For me this worked out to be 180 - 34 = 146 (Training consistently for ~ 2 years without injury).
I had my target and was horrified by how low it was. For reference, here are my current HR zones from Polar.
Usually when I'm doing endurance based workouts I'd be working in Zone 2 and probably sit around 155BPM. The only time I'd be in Zone 1 is for warmup or cool down segments as this is classed as the recovery zone. I had no idea how I was going to keep my HR at 145 considering the terrain I work with. Wales isn't exactly known for being flat. Working in that zone on hills means walking - and that is precisely what is suggested.
So now we know what I was trying to do, how did it go?
So what has MAF done for me over 4 Weeks/16 Runs/115 Miles?
Week 1 - 06/4 to 10/4
I started off with 5 runs a week, Monday to Friday. This is not an uncommon load for me. By the first Friday, I was bored senseless and had to have some fun which included some hills and trails hence the range of HR zones. Other than that, I kept my heart rate around where it should be. Attempting to adjust to the slower pacing was... difficult. I kept feeling like I was going backwards, especially on some of the hills where I was hitting 12+min/miles. It was truly infuriating.
So ignoring Friday, all looked alright.
Week 2 - 13/4 to 17/4
Another 5 day week. Monday was off to a rocky start. It's probable that I hadn't recovered from my Friday off-the-rails run and my average heart rate showed this. So I took it a bit easier for the next few days. Tuesday and Thursday show some zone 5 heart rate activity which were erroneous readings from the Polar H10. At one point it had my HR at 175BPM - I can assure you, it was not. The H10 does this occasionally, I just have to learn to ignore it while it takes 30 seconds to figure out what the hell it's trying to do.
By Friday, I was feeling a little beat up and fatigued. Considering the low training load, this was uncommon for me to feel this way and I assumed that I was starting to get sick. I felt a little slow and sluggish over the weekend too but nothing came of it. So apart from Monday & Friday, HR was in the right zone and pacing was looking similar to week 1.
Week 3 - 20/4 to 24/4
After feeling so beaten up after week 2, I opted to go for a 3 day week this time around to see if it helped. I mirrored my recovery activity that I used in week 1 as well as having 2 extra days. This didn't seem to make much difference and I was struggling to keep my pacing right and my heart rate down. The more I saw my HR bouncing, the more frustrated I was getting, which in turn caused HR spikes. At this point I wanted the whole thing to just be over and to go back to my usual training.
Week 4 - 27/4 to 01/5 (Today)
I woke up Monday and almost celebrated that this was the last week of this experiment. Friday could not come soon enough. This week ended up being the same as week 3. Pacing was off, HR was too high - I just could not find the balance between pacing and HR to keep myself leveled out. The weather has been a little windier for the last 2 weeks. But nothing more than 13mph with faster gusts, which is regular for the area. But as you can see, the HR was up, the pace was down.
While seeing what is happening from week to week is useful, how does this look for the month overall?
Above you can see my training report from Polar broken down in to heart rate zones by day for the bars. Overlaid on the line graph is my Average Pace (blue) and Average Heart Rate (red).
I started off with an average heart rate of 145BPM and an average pace of 09:23min/mi. Apart from Friday in Week 1 skewing the results the heart rate has been steadily rising over the 4 weeks, while the pace has been steady-ish. I finished the month with an average heart rate of 149BPM and an average pace of 09:26min/mi. Getting slower with a rising heart rate was not what I had in mind.
The immediate reaction for some people is that I'm obviously "overtraining". I certainly don't feel overtrained and Polar would be inclined to agree. The Polar platform has almost the full 8 years of my data and I have found to be pretty accurate with how I "feel".
You can see that the first Friday put me in to a strained state for a couple of days but came back in to a balanced state. The following weeks I was well within a balanced training state with recovery practices and nutrition identical to the first week apart from the 2 extra rest days per week. I was even occasionally dipping in to undertrained which is certainly how I feel too. To avoid skewing my mental state, I completely avoided checking these charts for the entire month.
Polar could be wrong, right? It's possible. So lets take a look at some Strava data too. I've picked the 8ish mile route to compare throughout the month as it's the one I run most often. It's also the flattest circular route available to me with only about 360ft of climbing.
Apart from Week 1 - Day 2 which seemed to be a good day. Overall, that also shows a trend of me getting slower with a higher heart rate (even ignoring 3 older results). Well, how about my fitness, that's improving right?
Overall, my fitness is has been on a downward trend. However, so has my fatigue level - finally a positive. I was way above this level of fitness during my Ironman training for September 2019 so I know what my body can do and has done with regards to Strava fitness and fatigue trends.
Honestly, I'm disappointed. I wasn't expecting miracles with only one month but on the whole it seems like my fitness is going downhill - and that's certainly how my body feels too. I've found the whole experience to be incredibly frustrating.
A huge positive is that I have enjoyed some of the slower runs where I've been able to just look up and enjoy the scenery rather than being concerned if I was hitting pace for intervals or repetitions. I'm going to make sure I get more of these in to my training in future and remember to enjoy myself.
Maybe MAF just needs more time and I know full well I need to be more patient but that's a skill I'm lacking. When winter rolls around again I'll be giving it another go and devote perhaps 3 - 4 months to it and see if I do better.
For the next 4 week training block I'll be basing my training on power using Stryd. I haven't done much with it yet but have been tracking all my runs for the last few months to get the data in there to work with. I have to admit, I expected my Critical Power to decrease during these 4 weeks but surprisingly, it's stayed steady at 246 watts (4.27 W/kg).
As you can see from the power curve, there are certainly some areas I need work on over the coming weeks. I just thought it would be interesting to show these for the MAF training block.
You may have many criticisms over my thoughts of MAF and I'm happy to discuss them. But I'm not a professional athlete, I don't do this for money (although I'd love to get paid to run), and at the end of the day it comes down to our enjoyment of the sport. This is not something I enjoyed.
If you want to reach out to me, head on over to https://fosstodon.org/@gray and get in touch.