The most common response I hear from runners starting out with low heart rate training, following Dr. Phil Maffetone’s 180 formula is: “I have to run so slow, it is very frustrating, I even have to take walk breaks (and even pace myself then) to keep my heart rate below the calculated MAF threshold level”.
If this sounds familiar to your situation, realize that you are not alone! I have connected with thousands of runners over the years and at least 95% mentioned they have to slow down significantly several minutes per mile or km compared to their usual training pace. Many athletes have to take walk breaks to stay aerobic, especially if there are any hills, wind or higher temperatures.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel with the right mindset, patience and determination. Low Heart Rate training has a Cult Like following, because of many significant benefits, such as improved race times, higher energy levels during and after a work out, faster recovery times, less stress on your body, and much lower chances of injuries. I’ve been training at low HR for more than 4 years now. Initially I also struggled to slow down in training, however I found ways to turn my frustrations into excitement. Many athletes fail to stick to low heart rate MAF training, so I am writing this post to discuss why athletes fail and what can be done to improve your changes of success to become a faster, healthier, happier athlete.
In this post we’re going to discuss:
- the logic behind slowing down in your training and benefits for race day
- what you can expect from low heart rate MAF training over the months and years
- turning frustrations with MAF training into excitement
Let’s dive right in!
Slow Down in Your Training to Race Faster
Heart rate is the number of heartbeats, usually expressed as beats per minute (BPM). The heart beats to supply oxygenated clean blood from the left ventricle to the blood vessels of the body via the aorta. The heart rate is a reflection of your body’s oxygen need. Your brain can force your heart to change your heart rate based on your body’s needs. This hr can be very low, 30 to 40 bpm in rest for those with a great aerobic function to as high as 220 in young athletes in all-out efforts.
Your body uses two main sources for energy: glucose and body fat. Most athletes, even very skinny ones, have a massive supply of calories available from body fat, while glucose storage in your body is limited. Many marathon runners have experienced hitting the wall, also called bonking. This is caused by the body’s inability to burn enough fat for energy. If you must rely mostly on sugar, you have limited energy available. Once glycogen stores have been used, your blood sugar drops depriving your muscles and brain of fuel.
Here are a two examples of runners who bonked at the 2017 Boston Marathon around the 20 mile / 32km point, because they ran out of energy from glucose and were not able to get enough energy out of body fat. The 2017 Boston marathon was a hot race year, resulting in elevated heart rates, with increased chances of bonking.
If you develop your fat burning aerobic system, your body is able to use a lot of energy from stored body fat. This can be accomplished through Diet & Nutrition, Stress Management and Training at the appropriate heart rate intensity.
The training approach that I recommend is highly influenced by elements from Dr. Phil Maffetone and his MAF training approach. I strongly believe all endurance athletes should start training with a GPS running watch with heart rate monitor. The 180 Formula created by Dr. Phil Maffetone calculates your ideal individual aerobic training Heart Rates. (for much more details, recommendations on heart rate monitors, etc download the 30 page Fundamentals PDF).
This MAF training zone is your optimal training intensity that burns mostly fat for fuel. Training at this MAF HR frequently develops your aerobic system, it improves your fat burning abilities so it teaches your body to use more energy from body fat and you improve your endurance performance.
Heart Rate Monitors are a great biofeedback device that help limit your body’s wear, tear and chances of injuries. A heart rate monitor takes the guesswork out of training and can help increase your aerobic speed significantly. Over time it can help make you a much faster endurance athlete!
You might be a fast runner, however the reason you have to slow down significantly in your low heart rate training runs is that you’re aerobically not fit. For example 6 time World Champion Ironman Mark Allen, trained most of his run at 5 min mile pace, however when he started training at MAF, even he had to slow down in training by 3 1/2 minutes to 8:30 min / mile at first. Some runners are in shape to run a 3 hour 30 minutes marathon or faster, yet aerobically they need to slow down to 11:00 or 13:00 min / mile to run aerobic in training. If you recognize yourself in this situation, realize that is totally normal and nothing to worry about.
What to Expect From MAF Training over Time
When you use the 180 Formula, you’ll come up with a number that is your MAF HR. You’ll improve your fat burning abilities by training at or within 10 beats under this number. The closer to your MAF number, the faster your aerobic development. Here are a few things you might experience in the first few weeks or months of low heart rate training:
- Within minutes of starting your run, your heart rate will shoot up and you’ll have to slow down significantly or take walk breaks
- you don’t understand why you’ll have to run this slow.
- you will get passed left and right by slow runners, you used to always beat them
- your friends might wonder what’s going on with you running so slow
- you might feel embarrassed to share any of your runs on social platforms because its so slow
- you start to wonder if you calculated the 180 formula right (most probably you did! If you’re ever in doubt between 2 numbers, always pick the lowest one)
- you wonder if you have an exceptionally low or high HR and this 180 formula doesn’t work for you (the 180 formula is a great starting point for almost all runners wanting to improve their aerobic system).
- you will finish your first few runs at very slow pace and don’t feel tired at all, you feel you could have continued running much longer. Am I doing this right?
When your lizard brain start feeding you doubtful thoughts, remember the following:
- You’re not alone, almost everyone struggles starting out with the 180 formula in the first few months.
- Realize that you will not be walking / running slow forever
- Patience is absolutely key. Most people want to see results right away. Have a beginners mind and think about your long term advantages of having a well developed aerobic base.
Aerobic progress can happen fast. If you run a MAF test, your monthly aerobic progress might look like this:
Prior to MAF training
- Mile 1 = 11:30 min / mile (7:09 / km)
- Mile 2 = 11:45 min / mile (7:18 / km)
- Mile 3 = 12:05 min / mile (7:30 / km)
- Mile 4 = 12:15 min / mile (7:36 / km)
- Mile 5 = 12:25 min / mile 7:42 / km)
- Total time = 60:00 minutes
- Average = 12:00 min / miles (7:27 / km)
After 1 month of MAF Training
- Mile 1 = 11:00 min / mile (6:50 / km)
- Mile 2 = 11:15 min / mile (6:59 / km)
- Mile 3 = 11:35 min / mile (7:11 / km)
- Mile 4 = 11:50 min / mile (7:21 / km)
- Mile 5 = 12:05 min / mile (7:30 / km)
- Total time = 57:45 minutes
- Average = 11:33 min / mile (7:10 / km)
After 2 month of MAF Training
- Mile 1 = 10:40 min / mile (6:38 / km)
- Mile 2 = 11:00 min / mile (6:50 / km)
- Mile 3 = 11:10 min / mile (6:56 / km)
- Mile 4 = 11:30 min / mile (7:09 / km)
- Mile 5 = 11:50 min / mile (7:21 / km)
- Total time = 56:10 minutes
- Average = 11:14 min / mile (6:59 / km)
Let’s look at the progress of this specific athlete. After 1 month of MAF training, at the same HR this athlete ran 2 minutes and 15 seconds faster. After 2 months of MAF training, almost 4 minutes faster at the same HR.
If you translate this to a marathon, at the same HR, per mile 46 seconds faster at same HR x 26.2 miles, this could mean almost 21 minutes faster at the same effort. The progress in the first several months is typically larger, after a while, the monthly progress becomes smaller.
If you are not progressing
Naturally, healthy athletes should improve aerobically over time. If you’re training the right way with a lot heart rate following Dr. Phil Maffeton’s 180 formula, and you’re not progressing or even regressing in your training, several factors could be blocking your progress. Analyze how you feel, any recent colds or illnesses, higher than normal stress levels at work or in your personal life, unhealthy nutrition, lack of rest, recovery and sleep, under-training or over-training, too much cross training or high HR training, miscalculation of your MAF pace, etc. All these factors can influence your fat burning abilities and slow down your aerobic development. If this is the case and you have seen very limited to no progress when starting out with MAF training, focus to improve these factors in your life first.
Change Your Mindset, Turn Frustrations into Excitement
Let’s face it, many athletes have a very hard time slowing down their pace significantly to a mellow jog or walk to keep their hard rate at or below MAF. Not only do they feel embarrassed to be slower than any other runner out and getting passed left and right by friends and strangers. Several athletes mentioned they stopped posting their runs on apps like Strava or Nike plus, because they feel judged about their slow pace by others. The biggest enemy for most athletes starting out with low heart rate training is their own ego. Take on a beginners mind, realize you have to invest time and energy to create a solid foundation. Patience and consistency in training is absolutely key to make low heart rate training work.
Ryan Holiday wrote one of my all time favorite books titled The Obstacle is the Way. He goes in much detail about overcoming obstacles in three critical steps:
- How we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach.
- The energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them in opportunities.
- Our inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty.
When being faced with an obstacle such as running at a much slower pace that you’re used to, we must try to be objective. To keep our emotions under control and see the good in a situation. To ignore what disturbs or limits others. To believe this is an investment in time and effort worth making, because you’ll build a foundation that will benefit you for years to come as a faster, stronger, healthier athlete. To focus on what can be controlled. Epictetus wrote: “Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder”.
Over the years I’ve studied a lot of highly successful athletes, entrepreneurs, artists and ruckus makers. Two characteristics that keep coming back for these top performers is Persistence and Determination. So when you feel discouraged and unmotivated to train, ask yourself the questions:
How Bad do You Want It?
In the book A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen, the author explains how your thoughts create your life and your words indicate what you’re thinking. Your word choice can make a huge difference in your thought process, for example instead of using the word ‘Problem’, consider ‘Opportunity’, instead of ‘Struggle’, consider ‘Journey’, instead of ‘Enemy’, consider ‘Friend’. Maya Angelou famously quoted:
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain”.
With this article I’m giving you permission to slow down. To run and be able to have a comfortable conversation. To finish a run and feel that you have a lot of energy left in your tank. No Pain No Gain makes zero sense and will get your injured and burned out in the long term. Once you start seeing aerobic improvements after several weeks or months, this is very motivating to see your efforts are working. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. After a few months you should improve your fat burning abilities, run faster and feel great.
A Few Other Strategies for Success
Slowing down your pace feel pretty boring, especially when first starting out with MAF training. There are a few other ways to keep your runs fun and exciting:
- Downhill Sprints – slowly jog or walk up a mountain, hill, or bridge, then run down at a faster but aerobic pace until your HR alarm goes off at your MAF pace. My ideal grade for faster downhill aerobic sprints are 200 to 400 feet drop per mile (38 to 76 meters per km).
- 8 Second Sprints – after a good warm up, run several short 8 second sprints. You will run a fast interval, however because it’s very short, your heart rate will stay mostly aerobic. Make sure your HR comes down for a few minutes before your next short sprint.
- Cross Training – you can improve your fat burning abilities by cross training in many different ways, like aerobic bike rides, swims, hikes in the mountains, ellipticals, etc. In the base building phase, I have had most success with running as many aerobic miles as my family / work / life schedule can handle. Cross training can be helpful, however I’d focus mostly on running more miles to improve.
- Make it a game – this idea came from Mike Capka in our Extramilest Facebook Group: I played games early on: 1) How far can I go without setting the HR alarm 2) What is the fewest number of alarms I can have during a run 3) How high can I go up the hill before my alarm goes off without slowing to a walk? #3 is really fun and rewarding once you can make it up the hill without slowing to a walk. It also gets to be very encouraging.
Don’t just take my word for it. Here are a few quotes of runners from around the world to shared their experiences with low HR training:
- James J: Your blog inspired me to a sub3 at the London Marathon this year[2:58:34] (24th April 2016) knocking nearly 1/2 hour off my PB. The low HR training was the key for me. I followed a 4 month plan with mid-week and weekend long runs done just under my aerobic heart rate. (Which was very slow to begin with, as you said it would be – so I didn’t panic.) No one really believed I could do it except me – I just trusted in the training and paced for a 2:58. The advice really works! Next race: The Boston Marathon!
- John H – I found your article online about running a sub three hour marathon 4 months ago. Since following your advice my bad achilles is finally getting better after 2 years of pain. I realized running slower is the key to build up that fabled aerobic base. Thank you!
- Joe R: Hey Flo, I’ve only done about 4 months of MAF, lost 6% body fat, 4 kilos and bid my best time @ Berlin (3:14:08), Boston qualified… best of all I feel great!! Kudos for MAF.. Next goal under 3 @ Boston! Thanks again!
- John K: I just ran the Phoenix marathon in Feb ’17 and was shocked to come in at 3:08 with none of the cramping that plagued me at the end of New York (3:25). At my current age, that time will definitely get me into Boston in 2018! So excited, I never would have been able to do it had I not come across your training and dietary methods. For anyone else considering Maffetone/HR training, I strongly encourage trying it. Takes some getting used to if you have a “no-pain no-gain” mentality, but the results make it worth it. Thanks again!
- Matt: After running a 3:08 marathon, I trained hard with the goal of running a 3:03 BQ time, however, I bonked and ran a 3:10 marathon. Then I read your post and was very inspired. I developed my training plan and purchased a HR monitor to do all my runs under 150 bpm. This regimen worked for me too! Last Sunday, I ran a 2:59 marathon, and I met all of my most aspirational goals for this race: BQ, sub 3 hour, negative split.
Slowing down your training pace by several minutes per mile or km can be frustrating at first. Patience is absolutely key and a significant amount of runners fail to stick to low HR training, because they are not willing to invest the time and effort it takes to break through. By changing your mindset about running slow, you can change frustrations into excitement.
Once you start seeing small initial improvements, this will fuel your fire that you’re on the right track. It’s an amazing feeling to finish a run without feeling exhausted, and realize you could keep going much longer. Over time you can become a much faster, healthier and happier runner. As Matt Fitzgerald said, the greatest athletic performances spring from the mind, not the body. The main question is: How bad do you want it?
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I’d love to hear from you, what are your experiences with low heart rate training? What has and has not worked for you and why? Please let me know in the comments below!