Basebuilding the Maffetone Way

It's been a while!  Right after my last post, I ran the Indian Celina trail half marathon, which turned out to be an important day in my running year.  It was the day I realized something needed to change.

I didn't have a good day.  From the very start, I couldn't seem to get my breathing under control. My heart rate seemed very high at a slow pace.  I had had the same issue in the trail 7-miler the week before.  I was pushing the pace and thinking I was running fairly strong until suddenly, I wasn't.  I ran out of steam greatly at mile 10 of 13.  The course was beautiful and challenging, but I just didn't have the stamina I thought I had.  I was training adequately (I thought), but I was having diminishing returns. After the race, my friends and I walked back out onto the course for some pics:

My fast heart rate was a concern.  I'd had my heart do some acrobatics one day during speedwork at the local track.  My rhythm was off, and it felt like my heart turned a couple of flips.  On several nights as I lay in bed trying to sleep, I was having palpitations.  I was wired, but tired.  All of the time.  I thought maybe my dose of Synthroid was off.  (I have autoimmune Hashimoto's hypothyroidism.) When I looked at the bottle, I realized that the pharmacy had given me the generic version, and with thyroid meds, that's not a good thing.  Unlike most generic drugs, thyroid meds can vary too much.

I had also been having some minor chest pain, so I made an appointment with my primary care doc.  My EKG came back normal.  My chest xray did, too.   However, he wanted to do a holter monitor test on me.  He arranged for me to wear a heart monitor for 7 days while I went about my business normally, including running.  The test came back normal.  That was GOOD news.  As a runner, I've always worried that I'm overstressing my heart.

However, blood work came back with borderline anemia, explaining some of the fatigue and the fast heartbeat. My TSH was 0.4, which was a little toward the hyperthyroid (overmedicated) side.  (Normal is 0.3--3.0.)  I started on iron immediately and got a new Synthroid prescription.

The doctor also felt like adrenal fatigue and/or overtraining could be an issue.  I had several months of personal stress, I was trying to run too fast too often coming back from my injury, and my Hashimoto's medication wasn't quite right. This combination can stress the adrenals. The doctor advised me to eliminate or greatly reduce caffeine to start.  I went from two large cups of Starbucks k-cup coffee (blonde roast and breakfast blend--very caffeinated!) each morning to one cup of 1/2 caf and one decaf.  The two cups of strong coffee weren't even giving me any energy anyway, and they definitely weren't doing my heart any favors.

Enter the Maffetone Method. (Or should I say re-enter??  I used this for a while back in 2012 then forgot about it.)

The Maffetone Method is a gentle method of running  at a maximum aerobic function (MAF) heart rate attained by subtracting my age from 180.   That would put me at 135.   Dr. Maffetone has coached countless athletes, including elite triathlete Mark Allen.

With my new heart rate monitor, I could make sure every run was at MAF heart rate or below for a minimum of 12 weeks.  Yes, every run. (This is where he differs a bit from Joe Friel and Lydiard and some other heart-rate training advocates who allow some faster runs during base building.)

Why?  To ensure a truly easy pace, build stamina and mileage with little chance of injury, build capillary beds, increase mitochondria, and increase fat burning! 

It would also be gentle on my cranky right IT band.  It would make me healthier as an athlete. This brief explanation doesn't do this plan justice.  Please check it out for yourself!

I re-read The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing  from the public library by Phil Maffetone and devoured all the posts on  During my first MAF test, I was surprised to find that even though I had been running most of my miles at about a 10:30-10:40 pace, my true "easy" pace (according to my 135 heart rate) was about a 13:30 pace.  That shows a terrible lack of aerobic development because I was primarily running my runs in the anaerobic zone, even long ones.  (For the record, the "talk test" doesn't work.  I can talk just fine at a too-high heart rate. I'm still going too fast.)

For the past three months I have loved and hated MAF running.

 I've loved the peacefulness of running slow and easy.  I've loved being able to run 4 or 5 days in a row without rest. The recovery from this running is phenomenal! I've loved finishing runs only slightly spent.  I've loved having my legs not hurt every day. (I was absolutely not recovering well before this.)

 However, I've hated it on those days when my heart rate monitor won't stop screaming at me because my heart rate has spiked. I've hated feeling slow when I meet other runners on the road or trail. I've hated having to constantly hold back on runs.

And I've both loved and hated doing 90% of my runs alone.  It has been lonely and refreshing at the same time.

But I've finally learned what it means to run easy.  I've built up a base of 25-30 miles per week with little stress, and I feel great!   My IT band feels better.  Weirdly, I just have a greater peace and greater energy. I can now run at about a 12:15 pace at a heart rate of 135.   If I continue with MAF training, I could eventually get down to a 10:15 pace at a heart rate of 135.  Then 9:15.  That would change my running life completely!   I've also been running on low or no fuel to increase my fat-burning ability and spare muscle glycogen.  I've run 2 hours + on just water.

In addition to Maffetone, I've recently read Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson and Brad Kearns and have been listening to the podcasts.  It's a GREAT book, and I highly recommend it.  The training protocol in there would work for triathletes or runners.   This isn't "chronic cardio."  This type of training increases health rather than detracts from it.

I am finishing my third month of basebuilding this month.  I'm taking Sisson's advice (his program utilizes MAF, too) and integrating some speed and strength training for the next four weeks, then running a half marathon.  After that, I'll go back to MAF running for a while.

So, what have I learned over the past three months?
1.  To be patient.
2.  That running can be relaxing.
3.  That the kind of training I was doing wasn't increasing my overall health.
4.  That running gently makes me feel like I can run all day.
5.  That I don't need caffeine.
6.  That I was doing all of my easy and long runs TOO FAST.  Marathon goal pace is not an appropriate long run pace every week.  Marathon goal pace + one to two minutes is.  Goal paced running has a place within some long runs and on some short runs.
7.  That I was running all of  my runs in that gray "moderate" area-- neither easy enough to be easy, nor hard enough to build improvement.
8.  That little of my running should be done in that gray "moderate" area.
9.  That I can burn fat on my long runs and not take in gels every 40-45 minutes.
10. That I knew this all along.  When I went through my RRCA coaching certification course six years ago, I learned all this.  I just got away from it.
11. To be patient.  (It bears repeating!)

"Be patient.  Do good work.  And improvements will come."    

 --John Hadd    (another heart rate training advocate)