(I started writing this post in mid November, but never quite finished it. I’ll write another post shortly on my experience to date (January 2015) shortly, but for now, here’s the original post…)
Last Tuesday, I started running with an approximation of the Maffetone method. I wanted to write a short post about what I’m doing, why, and my thoughts from the first week or so.
Over the past year, for several reasons I’ve come to the realisation that walking is a really good exercise – both on it’s own and as a benefit for endurance running. It’s a solely aerobic activity, and it’s something you’re likely to do at least a bit of during an ultra so it’s worth getting good at it. Think about it like this – suppose you’re doing a 100 miler and you walk 30 miles of it. If you work on your running and increase your running pace by 1 minute per mile (a good improvement and lot of work for a reasonably well trained runner) you’ll save yourself 70 minutes for the run. But if you reduce your walking pace from 20 minutes per mile to 15 minutes per mile, you’ll save 150 minutes – over twice as much. And it’s really not that difficult to do.
I walk quite a bit now. My walk to work and back is 2.5 miles each day, and when I’m not running I’ll go for a walk at lunch time. I’ve gone from not much walking at all to about 15-20 miles a week on top of my running most weeks. And when I talk about walking, I mean a fast 14-15 minutes per mile pace which I can now do comfortably uphill without even breathing hard.
Bringing this more up to date, about a month ago I fancied a bit of break from running. It wasn’t a particularly conscious decision, and it wasn’t because I hated running or anything like that – I just found it difficult to be motivated for any runs and would rather walk. I’ve been losing quite a lot of weight recently and that probably has something to do with it (I’ve dropped 17lb in less than 2 months). So I had 2 weeks off running pretty much completely, and did a lot more walking. It was during that time that I started reading more about aerobic fitness levels and how they appear to be an independent measurable variable in your running. And a bloody important one at that, one that I’ve been pretty much completely neglecting in all my training.
I researched about the Maffetone method after hearing about it on a podcast, but the other day my friend Colin shared a document about the Hadd training method and the first page or two provided a really clear explanation of aerobic fitness and how it relates to running. I’ll try to summarise how I understand it here.
When you walk, you’re using your aerobic system. Your breathing brings enough oxygen into your body to completely satisfy the requirement demanded by your muscles during walking. There’s no lactic acid build up, you don’t get tired (assuming your muscles are strong enough to sustain the exertion) and you can keep going “for ever”.
At the other end, when you do an eyes-out sprint, you rely entirely on your anaerobic system. This satisfies the muscles energy requirement without using any oxygen, and provides that hard, fast effort but doesn’t last very long at all. Purely anaerobic running might last you 30 seconds tops.
So, what about the middle ground? Well, there’s a gradual transition from aerobic to anaerobic as you increase your pace, but as soon as you use the anaerobic energy system at all, you’ll build up waste products (lactic acid) that need to be got rid of. Go above a certain point and you start to build up a “debt” (an excess of waste products) which can only be satisfied by slowing down, and the faster you go, the quicker this debt builds.
Determining Aerobic Fitness
The Hadd document I mentioned above raises an interesting way of getting a rough idea of the level of your aerobic fitness – or rather whether you need to improve it.
There’s a relationship defined by Frank Horwill which says that if you slow up by 16 seconds per mile, you can keep going for twice the race distance. You can use this relationship to take a look at your own times. Here’s mine:
1 mile – 5:41
5k – actual 19:51, predicted 18:58
10k – actual 43:44, predicted 39:35
HM – actual 1h47, predicted 1h27
Marathon – actual 4h01, predicted 3h01
To show the difference clearer, here’s the percentage time difference:
5k – 4.7% slower than predicted
10k – 10.5% slower than predicted
HM – 23% slower than predicted
Marathon – 33.6% slower than predicted
The important thing to look at is the gap between the actual and predicted times as the distance increases. Theoretically, a well trained athlete should pretty much follow the predicted numbers if they have a decent aerobic fitness. Now, I wouldn’t have considered myself “well trained” for any of the longer events (I was always pretty sporadic at best, consistency is something I think I’ve got much better at recently), but there’s a definite drop off in my times. 1 minute difference at 5k, 4 minutes difference at 10k, 20 minutes at half marathon and a whole hour at marathon distance.
So, that says to me that my aerobic fitness is… well… a bit shit.
There’s a bloke called Phil Maffetone who has spent a lot of time with athletes and come up with a rough formula for a training region that best improves aerobic fitness. It’s based on heart rate and the formula is simply
180 – age
This defines the upper boundary of your heart rate, and the lower boundary is 10bpm below. There are some adjustments if you’re constantly ill, new to running, old or an elite athlete, but for me I’ve just gone with the basic formula without adjustment which gives me a range of 132-142bpm.
The theory is that running in this heart rate range will promote the best improvement in your aerobic capacity, and as you improve your speed will improve within this heart rate range. The benefit will then propagate to higher heart rates (which become increasingly more anaerobic) because at least some of the energy is coming from your aerobic energy system. And when you take the distance up, the aerobic system is more and more important – Maffetone quotes 99% of your energy as coming from the aerobic system at marathon distance. So small improvements targeted at the aerobic system should produce great results.
So after all that waffle above, what’s it been like? Well, I started last Tuesday and did my 4th and longest run today.
The first run was great. It’s lovely to be able to run at a speed where you get home and feel like you could do it all over again, and again, and again. The down side is that it’s slow. Slower than 10 minute miling for me at the moment.
The subsequent runs have been frustrating. The heart rate increases because I’m not used to running slowly and/or I meet a hill (of any kind). After half an hour of your watch beeping at you telling you to slow down – when you feel like you’re running at a snail’s pace – you get annoyed. And that annoyance pushes up your heart rate, which exacerbates the problem! So I’m now trying a sort of meditation on the runs too to keep me calm, which actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea generally.
This is a first post about this method, so here are a few things I’m wondering about and hoping to answer over the next few months…
- It’s difficult to see how running really, really slowly for 6+ weeks is going to benefit. I understand the ideas behind the training, but I can’t help feeling like I’m going to lose the ability to run fast without further significant training.
- How long is it going to take before I can run at a “sensible” speed again? In fact, will it work? There’s not feedback for a good few weeks so you just have to go on trust to start with.
- Can I do any speed training at all? The suggestion from the bits that I’ve read so far are that you should keep it to an absolute minimum. My plan is to do no fast runs (nothing outside of the 132-142bpm range) until 1st January 2015 when I have my first race – the Broadstone Quarter Marathon. That will be my marker point to see how this is all working.
So, for now I’ll leave it there and come back to this in the future, hopefully with some evidence of it either working or not working!