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  • Writer's pictureDoug Joachim

Build a Huge Aerobic Base: Go Slower To Get Faster

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

What would you say if I told you you could train slower, whether it be running, biking or swimming, to go faster and lose more fat in the process? It sounds crazy. However, many other coaches and I have successfully trained tons of athletes to do just that. I will teach you how to get more enjoyment from cardio while boosting your bodies' potential to burn fat.

The science of endurance training has come a long way since the introduction of the VO2Max in the 1920s. There are many methods and lots of spirited debates among scientists and coaches on which is best. The fact of the matter is that there is no one best method...not even the one described in this post. Testing and self-experimentation are vital to finding an individualized program that fits one's particular physiological and psychological profile. The trial and error process is paramount for success in sport. Sometimes though, a theory comes around that seems illogical and is immediately cast aside. Every once in a while, a crazy idea is just what we need to push past a plateau. The Maffetone Method takes classic endurance training and tilts it on its head.

The Maffetone Method is a way to train slower and become faster while burning more fat. The simplicity and ease of the program are part of the genius. This program utilizes one's heart rate to determine the maximum aerobic function (MAF). This is the foundation of endurance efficiency. The larger one's aerobic base is the better adapted they will be to generate more speed with less effort. Teaching your body to run faster at a lower heart rate is critical. Many runners spend way too much time training above their aerobic zone and work in their anaerobic zone. This may stress the body too much and decrease enjoyment levels - to the extent that one enjoys cardio!

Aerobic Zone:

The aerobic system uses oxygen to convert fat to energy in order to power your muscles. This system relies on an abundant supply of mitochondria (the part of the cell which converts nutrients to energy). Our body has a considerable fat store, so with a well-developed aerobic system, you can keep on running for a very long time.

Anaerobic Zone:

The anaerobic ("without oxygen") system comes into play when there is insufficient oxygen for your needs. For example, when you are running hard and fast, you are using up oxygen faster than taking it in. In order to create the energy that you need, your muscles start to break down their supply of glucose, and fat burning is greatly diminished during this zone.

NOTE: In actuality, oxygen is present at all times during intense exercise. Anaerobic energy systems supplement the aerobic system to meet the increased energy demands.

Many of us run above our lactate threshold. This is when blood lactate production exceeds lactate clearing and you start engaging the anaerobic energy system. It is here that your body preferentially moves away from using fat and instead raids the glucose (sugar) supply for energy. Exercising in the anaerobic window for extended periods may contribute to chronic stress and the overproduction of stress hormones like cortisol. The dose-response relationship is critical in determining safe and effective exercise levels. The MAF plan is low stress and allows for the majority of a workout to stay under the lactate threshold and build a large aerobic base.

The MAF uses training heart rate as the primary metric for developing an aerobic base. The larger the base the easier cardio will seem. Using the formula below, calculate your ideal MAF heart rate to determine the training zone best suited to build a huge aerobic base. This will allow you to go faster at a lower heart rate.

NOTE: The standard maximum heart rate formula of 220-Age = Max HR is flawed and provides a dubious starting point. It is univariate and leaves no room to consider the multiple factors that affect HR besides age: training experience; illness; strength; movement patterns etc.

The MAF Formula:

Calculating your ideal heart rate for building your aerobic base is so easy a 2nd grader can do it. Take 180 and subtract your age then add or subtract 5 or 10 depending on these factors:

  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.), are in rehabilitation, or are in Stage 3 (chronic) overtraining (burnout), subtract 10.

  • If you are injured, have regressed or not improved in training or competition, get more than two colds, flu or other infections per year, have seasonal allergies or asthma, are overfat, are in Stage 1 or 2 of overtraining, or if you have been inconsistent, just starting, or just getting back into training, subtract 5.

  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems mentioned in a) or b), no modification is necessary (use 180 minus age as your MAF HR).

  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, have made progress in your MAF Tests, improved competitively and are without injury, add 5.

Here is an example: 40 year old triathlete with seasonal allergies:

*180-40= 140 140-5= 135 beats per min (bpm)

*135 bpm is the MAF heart rate for this person.

*Training HR is 125-135 bpm

To objectively measure and quantify your progress, I recommend that you initially run a mile (or bike 3 miles) at your prescribed heart rate.

  • Get a heart rate monitor (on your phone or a Polar chest strap)

  • Do a slow warm-up to get your heart rate up to your individualized zone

  • Make sure to stay in your 10 point zone the entire time

  • Measure the time it takes to run a mile while in zone

  • At some points, you may have to walk to keep your HR in zone

  • Mark the final mile time - this will be your baseline

  • Now practice running (or biking) like this for 4 weeks -at least 3x a week - no more than 1 hour at a time.

  • Do not do any other type of cardio these 4 weeks

At the end of the 4 weeks, you should be able to complete the same run/bike distance with the prescribed heart rate in LESS time. I have seen anywhere from 5% to 20% improvements in my clients over the course of a single month. When I first did this, my mile time was 12:20, and I actually had to walk several times because my heart rate was going over zone. By the end of a month, I was able to get my time down to 10:30. And over the next 6 months, I got it to a somewhat respectable time, for a 210 lbs. weightlifter, of 7:10 - all at the same heart rate. What's more, is I enjoyed my runs and they became less uncomfortable. Give this program a try for a month - I promise you won't regret it. If you run into any problems give me a shout and I'll be happy to help!

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