Dr. Maffetone: Thank you very much for your time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you.
Mick: Many of our young readers may not be familiar with you and your system. Who were some of your athletes and please tell me about your most recent book.
Dr. Maffetone: I’ve been involved with both sports medicine and coaching—they’re intricately linked—since 1977. During these years I’ve been involved in virtually all sports, especially running, cycling and triathlon, and was the first to develop programs for training with heart rate monitors. I began working with triathletes from the start of that sport, beginning with Mark Allen and Colleen Canon, then Mike Pigg and just recently Angela Naeth, to name a few. Most importantly, I’ve also worked with average athletes of all ages, especially those in endurance sports, who seek enjoyment, and as a means of improving overall health. In addition, I’ve worked with many people in the music industry, including the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rick Rubin and others, who I trained much like other athletes. (I’m also a songwriter.) My most recent book is “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” (Skyhorse publishing). It outlines my approach to training endurance athletes in a holistic way, discussing the brain, muscle function, heart rate monitoring, fat burning and many key features of dietary and nutritional factors that are so important in sports performance.
Mick: What is your philosophy on long term development and how would you set up a basic training program for young distance runners who expect to be running for many years.
Dr. Maffetone: A key to long-term progress--continuous improvement without injury—is balancing both health and fitness. Too many athletes, including those in the 10-19 age group, are fit but unhealthy—with training and racing often contributing to ill health. Running, triathlon and other endurance activities are not contact sports, so a physical injury, as a common example, means something has gone wrong. That something can be associated with training imbalance, such as too much volume, too much speed/anaerobic work, or both. It could also be related to excess racing, poor recovery (from training and/or racing), inadequate nutrition, or other factors. I believe that an individual should make regular athletic progress, without long plateaus, and be uninjured—if this is not the case something is wrong, and my job in this situation was find out what went wrong, correct it and make sure the athlete stays on a healthy course. The most important aspect of training for distance runners is to build the aerobic system, which improves endurance, increases fat burning, and allows the aerobic (slow twitch) muscles to properly develop. Without this “base,” many runners reach a plateau too early, get injured or develop other health problems (exercise induced asthma, allergies, fatigue, etc.), and often loose enthusiasm for sports. It’s also important to emphasize individual training, and allow each runner to learn about his or her body. While I trained many athletes, they all were treated individually, so each literally had different training schedules, dietary guidelines, and other key features unique to their particular needs. An example would be a large group of 16-year olds going out for a training run. If everyone wore a heart monitor and, after an easy warm up, ran at a 165 heart rate for 4 miles, the field would be spread out significantly—some finishing minutes ahead of others.
Mick: What method will we use for the athletes over 16? Do they go to the standard Maffetone 180 - age formula (MAF) Method?
Dr. Maffetone: Yes.
Mick: Would you have everyone wearing a HR monitor every day, sometimes or would you gather data in some other way?
Dr. Maffetone: I’ve learned from experience that runners who use their heart monitors almost daily have better training and racing outcomes. In particular when training with others, where it’s too easy to run a bit faster than their max aerobic HR, which can be significant factor in not making optimal progress.
Mick: I learned from Peter Snell that training is a balance between damage and repair, which is very similar to what you are saying. If you want consistent, gradual improvement, and to avoid long plateaus, do you need to gradually increase volume over time, gradually run faster at the same volume or some combination of those? We can talk about time instead of miles. Also, do you think young runners train with too much volume, too much intensity, too little recovery or a combination? What methods do you use to measure recovery?
Dr. Maffetone: The definition of training may be obvious, but I like to describe it in the form of an equation. Training is the balance of your workouts and your recovery in the form of rest. Simply put: Training = Work + Rest
Regular physical training helps build muscles, improve neuromuscular activity (all those important connections between brain and muscles), increase oxygen uptake, improve fat burning, and other important benefits. Training involves stimulating the body with sufficient stress, but not too much, to provoke these benefits. In physiology this process is called overload. In the case of a muscle, for example, you must work it slightly harder than it is normally used to in order to rebuild and improve its function. Training involves programming your body in certain ways, especially through the work of physical activity, to perform better during competition. Training also requires recovery, which comes in the form of rest. Sleep is the most important way for people to rest. Those who don’t rest enough risk overtraining, even if the workouts are ideal.
Mick: Please tell me how you would use heart rate in the development of young distance runners. I know you have something you call Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate. I'd like to get into this.
Dr. Maffetone: I developed the 180-Formula for athletes to determine the best training heart rate that would develop the aerobic system. One exception of using this formula is in those 16 years of age and younger, the formula does not apply. Instead, use 165 heart rate for these individuals. The first step is for a runner, say one who is 16 or under, to warm up slowly for 12 to 15 minutes, then run on a track while maintaining a 165 heart rate. Determine the mile time (seasoned runners can run 3 to 5 miles) at this heart rate. Let’s say the first mile split after warming up is 9 minutes a mile. In three to four weeks, perform this test again—same warm up, same 165 heart rate. If aerobic training has been successful—meaning all training occurred at 165 heart rate or lower—the runner should now be able to run faster than 9 minutes for a mile (perhaps 8:45 or 8:30). As aerobic pace (at the same heart rate) improves, this is also translated to faster race times. This should occur without having performed any anaerobic/speed work. A number of factors could prevent aerobic development, including training over 165 in this example. This is what building an aerobic base is about—getting faster at the same heart rate without hard training. Once an aerobic base is firmly developed, speed work or other anaerobic training can follow.
Mick: What is the aerobic training you would have your athletes doing in between these tests on the track? Are they running every run at a HR of 165? Are the runs longer, shorter or both?
Dr. Maffetone: Training would consist of a warm up, where the runner jogs, very slow and gradually raises the heart rate, for at least 12 minutes, then maintains a period of running at 165 heart rate, then cools down (just the opposite of the warm up). For most, reaching 165 heart rate should not be difficult. If it is, make this part of the process more gradual by progressing from 155, for example. Over time, a running will be able to run at 165 for longer periods of time. I like the idea of alternating easy and hard days. Even in the aerobic phase, where each runner reaches a 165 heart rate, an easy day is shorter, and a harder day is longer. How short and long depends on the athlete’s experience, aerobic base, and health. I also like a day off for most athletes.
Mick: A lot of coaches are in their 40’s and 50’s and, using your MAF, should run with their HR about 140-145 or less. For kids —16 and younger— you use a flat 165. Using the MAF, many of these coaches shouldn’t be running with their kids. How important is it for kids and adults to get the HR correct and use it every day?
Dr. Maffetone: It’s vital to train at the appropriate heart rate if building the aerobic system is the goal. Coaches and parents who run with their kids and follow the same guidelines will find that, during a training run, adults, like other kids, will run at their particular pace, which may be faster or slower than others. Those adults in their 40’s and 50’s who have built a good aerobic system may find they can run as fast as many kids even though their heart rate is much lower. In fact, the aerobic system can continue developing for years, and I know many runners in the 40’s and 50’s who can run faster at their max aerobic heart rate than most 16-year olds, and can race faster as well.
Mick: Do you think there could be wide variances in appropriate HR between individuals? For example, could a 175 HR be an equivalent effort to another athlete with a HR of 145? Do you think your athletes have different Max HR and how would you deal with that?
Dr. Maffetone: The maximum heart rate does not factor into the 180-Formula (and it can be quite variable and changeable among runners). But the Formula does factor in the individuals fitness level, and health status. While there are variations between heart rates of different athletes, they are not as dramatic as your example. What can be dramatic is the difference in pace between runners at the same heart rate. For example, three runners of the same age train at 165 heart rate: At this pace, athlete A runs 7 minutes per mile pace, athlete B, 8:30 pace, and athlete C 10 minute pace.
Mick: Do you have general guidelines for total mileage by age and/or experience?
Dr. Maffetone: I don’t, other than to say that most young runners train more than necessary. I also rely on the time for each workout, rather than miles. By emphasizing heart rate and time, instead of miles and pace, it’s more a qualitative approach to build the aerobic system, rather than emphasizing quantity. And, once an athlete gets used to time and heart rate, it’s less stressful (an overlooked aspect of training in all age groups).
In a group of athletes, each individual will be at a different level of fitness, so you might not have everyone doing the exact same number of minutes per day or week, but would you generally increase the number of minutes per day and week? Yes, training should involve a gradual increase in total minutes training as the week’s pass. And it’s important to use minutes not miles, because as the aerobic system develops, running for a given period of time at 165 heart rate, for example, will result in it being a longer distance because they will get faster over time. In the case of a well-developed young runner, 45 minutes at 165 heart rate may start off being about 9 minutes a mile, so 5 miles of training. After a few months of good aerobic development, this same runner may progress to a 7 minute per mile pace, so in 45 minutes he or she will cover more than 6 miles.
Mick: OK, So they will gradually run more miles by developing the ability to go faster at essentially the same effort and by gradually adding more minutes.
Dr. Maffetone: Exactly.
Mick: Do you alternate longer run, shorter run, etc? What might the schedule look like in the base building phase? I like alternating longer and shorter days as it helps aid recovery. Ones schedule will vary with running experience, aerobic base, race goals, etc. But as an example, a cross country runner with a year of training, who also ran over the summer, might have a September schedule that looks like this: Sunday: easy 30 minutes Monday: 45 minutes Tuesday: 30 minutes Wednesday: 60 minutes Thursday: 30 minutes Friday: 60 minutes Saturday: off
Mick: If we have a beginning point of 20 minutes per day at a HR of 165, how would you plan to develop the aerobic base over months and years?
Dr. Maffetone: For a beginner, the plan is similar—warm up, run at the max aerobic heart rate, cool down. Whether one starts with 20 minutes or has progressed to one hour, the pattern is similar. Monitor the MAF Test throughout the year to assure improvements are being made (and if not determine why). Balance aerobic base periods with those of anaerobic and racing.
Mick: Is there a maximum number of minutes you would cap training at? How many weeks of building would constitute good aerobic development?
Dr. Maffetone: The longer runs would depend on race goals, and the age of the kid. If one is racing cross country, I might not exceed 90 minutes once a week during the aerobic base period, and perhaps 60 minutes when the race season starts. I might even reduce that to 45 minutes toward the end of the race season. Total weekly minutes might be similar to the above schedule, possible a bit more with one longer 90 minute run. This would be for a high school student, and in general, younger kids would have lower total minutes.
Mick: How long does it take to build the kind of aerobic base you advocate? How many months per year should be devoted to building base and how many years?
Dr. Maffetone: The aerobic system will develop well given the proper physical stimulus (training) and nutritional intake (diet). The complete development of the aerobic system can take years—as seen with improvements in aerobic running pace and race pace year after year. Within 12 months, and two aerobic base periods, a significant amount of development can occur. I have often seen runners who start with an aerobic pace of 10 minutes per mile progress to 8 minutes within the year. Those with more dedication, who train well, warm up and cool down properly, and have a great diet, can often make more progress—it’s not unusual to see one progress from 10 minutes to 7 minutes in a year’s time. A problem with young people is they often have long periods of little or no training. During this de-training period, aerobic development will diminish, sometimes significantly.
Mick: How many weeks would you devote to anaerobic training and racing?
Dr. Maffetone: For endurance athletes who choose their own races to make their “season,” I usually suggest as race season of about 3 months at the most. So in the spring, after a winter base, about three months of racing (but this may only be 6 or 7 events). This is followed by a summer aerobic base period of perhaps three months, then a fall race season of around three month. This is a general guide and is tailored to the athlete. In high school, one cannot control the race season, which is a bit of a challenge. That’s why the beginning of the race season can also serve as the start of anaerobic training. It’s important to emphasize that the anaerobic training period is where most physical injuries occur, and where overtraining develops (these two problems are often linked). (I couldn’t agree with you more regarding managing the anaerobic training period - Mick)
Mick: How might these anaerobic weeks be structured?
Dr. Maffetone: The anaerobic stage can be made up of a variety of different types of workouts depending on the athlete’s needs (in particular the race distances). One or two anaerobic workouts a week is usually sufficient for endurance events, separated by a couple of days. For example, for the cross country runner, Tuesday mile repeats (at just faster than race pace), and Friday 400 meter repeats at the same pace, with adequate recovery between intervals and with appropriate warm up and cool down. Total workout time: 60 minutes. But this schedule would not be appropriate when there’s a race during the week.
Mick: How would you manage your athletes in the American high school system, where your athletes might race 15 times or more per season, for three seasons? Certainly, we would want to keep our athletes fresh, healthy, happy and we definitely want to avoid Overtraining Syndrome.
Dr. Maffetone: Keeping young athletes fresh (so they perform their best), happy (the most important aspect of youth sports is to have fun), and not overtrained, can be difficult with this schedule. It’s an ongoing problem, and a reason why too many young runners drop out of the sport. If I were managing the process, the priority would be first to build a good aerobic base. This would almost have to begin before the “season” starts. I would then use the races as anaerobic workouts, so no anaerobic training would be necessary. As the season progresses, I would make sure runners were adequately rested—this might mean having more off days from training or even skipping some races to assure being fresh for the important events, while avoiding injury and overtraining.
Mick: Do you use resting HR to check on how your athletes are recovering? What other methods of monitoring recovery do you use?
Dr. Maffetone: Resting heart rate is still a good general indication of recovery. There should be a gradual lowering of resting heart rate as training progresses. Acute elevations in resting heart rate are usually an indication that some type of stress—overtraining, poor recovery, diet/nutrition problem, etc.—is interfering with body function. Also, while the early stages of overtraining are associated with elevations in resting (and training) heart rates, chronic overtraining often lowers the resting heart rate too much, often giving the athlete an erroneous indication that all is well. There are not simple devices that can measure heart rate variability, which is a much better daily indicator of recovery than resting heart rate. For serious runners, this equipment is worth obtaining and using daily.
Mick: Do you recommend working on any kind basic speed development year round?
Dr. Maffetone: Nothing anaerobic during the aerobic base period. However, there are various techniques that can build leg turnover that can help prepare for future races. I call one of these “downhill workouts” where a runner maintains the max aerobic heart rate during a long downhill run. This results in much greater speed while maintaining the max aerobic heart rate.
Mick: Do you recommend doing tempo runs? When/how many minutes/what HR?
Dr. Maffetone: All runs are “tempo” runs—humans move in an incredibly similar fashion regarding tempo. Endurance runners all run about 180 steps per minute, within a range of tempo between about 170 and 190 steps a minute. This is one example of how the brain plays a key role in each workout. The normal range of tempo allows the brain a bit of room to adjust the pace as necessary. Muscle imbalance, fatigue, caffeine, time of day, the weather and other factors can affect running efficiency for a given workout, and the brain will sense these factors to compensate and make appropriate changes such as slightly slowing our tempo, or speeding it up. By building a great aerobic system, the brain and body can better organize not only tempo, but gait, fuel usage and many other factors that contribute to optimal balance. In order to do this, the brain may decide 176 is a good tempo, at least for the first 20 or so minutes, then it may change to 182, and so on. This is a big part of the recipe for success. It results is the most efficient run possible, both during each training workout and every race.
Mick: How do we run faster? For most runners, this occurs with a slightly longer stride, with only a minimal increase in stride frequency. But these changes are within the limits of your optimal gait—usually within the 170-190 steps per minute range.
Dr. Maffetone: My recommendation is to not try counting your steps during a run (a technique that sometimes become popular), especially avoid trying to run at a 180 steps-per-minute tempo as this could consciously disrupt what your brain is trying to subconsciously do. So with proper training, the brain develops its natural tempo. I'd like to talk about the physiology of how our athletes will improve.The physiology is related to the increased burning of fat, which is what the aerobic muscles use for energy. This can be tested in an exercise physiology lab by measuring oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide output. It’s called respiratory quotient, and gives the percent sugar- and fat-burning at various heart rates. The 180-Formula came from these types of measurements.
Mick: Can you talk about developing capillary beds and mitochondria? Why is this important? What is the best way to do this and how long does it take?
Dr. Maffetone: The mitochondria are the powerhouses of the aerobic muscle fiber—this is where fat is burned for energy. Capillaries are the blood vessels that bring nutrients (oxygen, vitamins, minerals, fat, sugar, etc.) into the muscle fibers, which help the mitochondria function well (and also removes by-products of metabolism such as lactic acid). In the short term, just about any training program will develop the aerobic system. But too much hard training will cause overtraining-related injuries and ill health. Building the aerobic system will also develop the mitochondria and blood vessels, but without risk of over training. How long the process takes depends on the athlete, their discipline (with training, resting, eating, etc.), and experience. One aerobic workout begins the process of improving the function of the muscle fiber, mitochondria, and circulation. This is the easy part. What is often more difficult for athletes is avoiding excess physical, chemical and mental stress, and maintaining proper balance of the training equation.
Mick: Would you have your athletes cross train? Please explain.
Dr. Maffetone: I would but for a very different reason than those typically given. From before birth through the age of 20 or so, the body undergoes dramatic development—especially the brain and nervous system. Of utmost important is the physical activity that plays a key role in this process—the more variety of physical movement the better the overall development. This obviously contributes to muscle and bone growth, hormone balance, immune function, etc., but also includes brain function on all levels from language and speech to intelligence. There are many things young athletes can do for cross training. And a number of these can be aerobic, including swimming, stationary or outdoor biking, walking, and playing various games (at or under 165 heart rate) including basketball, soccer, baseball and others. I think weight lifting and similar activities, which are always anaerobic regardless of the heart rate, are find if kept to a minimum and not performed during the aerobic base period or during the race season.