Training with the Maffetone Method: Tips for Beginners

Okay, maybe I can't speak on behalf of the whole wide world, but the increasing popularity of heart rate training and paleo diets suggest a swing in this direction. For me, reading Christopher McDougall's new book Natural Born Heroes was an eye-opener. That's where I learned that Tim Noakes, guru of carb loading since the 1970s, has now renounced decades of his work to support Dr. Phil Maffetone's method of drawing energy from fat. I'm surprised I haven't heard this news elsewhere in running media because I think it's a big deal. While he's always had a following, the general running community has shunned Maffetone's theories for many years. Now, he seems to be emerging as the Jedi master of endurance training.

I also feel my own personal remorse for disregarding Maffetone's training guidelines when I selected my first marathon training plan a couple years ago. Had I used the Maffetone Method back then, I very likely would have prevented the overtraining injury that resulted in me dropping out of that marathon. Ironically, my biggest reason for turning him down was that Maffetone's 500-page Big Book of Endurance Training was more than I wanted to take in at a time when I just wanted a simple training plan to follow. Now I'm kicking myself because I realize his method is actually the simplest. You don't need to read the Big Book cover-to-cover to reap the benefits, but it's there as an encyclopedic reference for any question you can throw at Dr. M.

How It Works

Here's the Maffetone Method in a nutshell:

1. Calculate your max heart rate BPM (beats per minute) by deducting your age from 180, then adjust as necessary:
  • Recovering from illness or on medication? Subtract 10.
  • Frequently sick or regressed in training? Subtract 5.
  • Been training regularly for 2 years without problems? Add 5.
2. Use a heart rate monitor while you run to make sure you don't exceed this rate. Stay 0-10 beats below it.

3. Oh, and make sure you spend about 15 minutes warming up by gradually increasing your heart rate to this max number. Cool down for 15 minutes at the end, too.

Meals? Eat only meat and green veggies for two weeks (avoid "low fat" like the plague), then re-introduce unrefined carbs after that. You may feel dizzy or lethargic at first when your body can't find sugar for energy, but that will pass as you learn to burn fat for fuel.

There. That's the gist of it. If you want more detail then check out Maffetone's books or follow his very informative blog. There's a wealth of information there, but this is literally all you need to know to get started.

Training with the Maffetone Method: Tips for Beginners
A heart rate monitor is necessary gear, but you're allowed to wear a shirt over it.

Starting the Method

I've been training according to the Maffetone Method for a few weeks now, and the results are starting to show. I bought a heart rate monitor that would beep anytime I exceeded my max rate, and boy did it beep! My first time out, I wanted to scream because it felt like I couldn't run more than a few steps without it going off. It was probably a funny sight, seeing a guy start to run, then stop suddenly and walk 50 feet, then start to run, then stop... over and over.

I stuck with it though, and was exhilarated to see that after only a couple weeks I could keep up a steady running pacealbeit a slow onewithout exceeding my max rate. My first constant run happened at a 15-minute mile, then gradually moved down to 14 minutes, then 13ish. Granted, I'm still far off from where I want to be, but I'm happy with the progression.

It's definitely a humbling experience, and not unlike changing my form to a forefoot strike or recovering from an injury. After years of building up speed and distance, I'm once again (voluntarily) knocked down to running short distances at a snail's pace. There's no chance of me rejoining my running club right nowthey average about 8-minute miles, and what's the point of running with a club if you're all alone miles behind them? They'd probably think I was eaten by a bear.

Training with the Maffetone Method: Tips for Beginners
Hello? Is anybody there?

But Why?

So is it worth it? I think so, though time will be the ultimate test. Maffetone's fat-burning method isn't just for helping you look good on a beach. Other benefits include increased endurance, increased speed, more energy throughout the day, injury prevention and less inflammation. Sound too good to be true? There are plenty of successful endurance athletes who swear by this method, including 6-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion Mark Allen.

Tips for Maffetone Method Beginners

Hindsight is 20/20, right? Now that I'm past the beginning hump, I can look back and see everything I wish I knew when I started training with this method. If you're considering starting out with Maffetone then you're in luck because you get to learn from my mistakes:

1. Be Patient!
This should go without saying, but I can't stress it enough. The method works, but it takes time at the beginning before you see progress, and months to see full results. If you're used to stepping out the door and running like the wind then you may agonize over the first few weeks of slowing down. At first, that heart rate monitor will beep every time you settle into an enjoyable pace, and sometimes you'll want to chuck it into the nearest river. Remember that it's worth it in the end, and if you stick with it then you'll likely end up running faster than ever.

2. Invest in a Good Heart Rate Monitor
Note that I said "good," which fortunately is not the same as "the most expensive on the market." Most heart rate monitors come with a lot of bells and whistles that you don't need, such as GPS, pedometers or oodles of charts and data that can be synced with your laptop or phone. Maybe you enjoy all that stuff and that's fine, but all you really need is a very simple device that is (a) accurate in measuring BPM and (b) will somehow notify you when you exceed your max rate. That's it. I'm still on the search for the perfect monitor and I've found a couple that get the job done (reviews coming soon). One word of caution: most of the Fitbits and wrist-only monitors out there are only accurate for calculating your sitting heart rate and are not reliable for monitoring during activity. Chest strap monitors tend to be more accurate for running.

3. Breathe
Regulating your breath will go a long way toward keeping your heart rate under control. It's easy to forget, too, especially if you're focusing on all the different factors of your running form and trying to keep tabs on your heart rate at the same time. Remember that the challenge isn't getting oxygen into your lungs, but into your muscles. Pausing between the inhale and exhale will do wonders for that. Check out my older post on optimal running breathing patterns for more info.

4. Stay Cool
This is one I really wish someone told me. At first, I had a terrible time keeping my heart rate under the limit on hot days, but when a cold front hit the neighborhood I noticed it was much easier. I haven't read anything from Maffetone about this, and everyone's body is different, but I've consistently noticed that running in cooler temperatures seems to help keep my heart rate lower. Running in the morning or just before sunset when the temperatures start to cool off helped a lot when I was starting out. Then, after a little training, the hot days became more manageable.

Training with the Maffetone Method: Tips for Beginners
Well, it doesn't have to be THAT cold.

5. Don't Underestimate Your Buffer Zone
You'll figure this out quickly enough, but the sooner, the better. Here's how it works: you're well below your max heart rate so you increase your speed and see the numbers on your monitor start to rise. When you hit your max rate, you stop accelerating and run at a steady pace, but your heart rate keeps going up and your monitor starts beeping. Immediately, you slow down to a walk. After several seconds, your heart rate gradually stops increasing and begins to count down. You wait for it to get a few beats below your max rate and resume running. It seems to stay low so you speed up, only to notice that you're suddenly 10 beats above your max again. Walk. Run. Repeat. This can go on forever. What I'm referring to as the buffer zone is the gap between your current heart rate and your max heart rate, if you're below it. Remember, your heart rate monitor is not a speedometer. This means your heart rate does not change instantly as your speed changes. On the contrary, after a change in speed or incline it can take several seconds before your heart responds. If you're starting to run again from a walk and you're still below your max rate, wait a few moments to see what running at a steady pace will do before you accelerate. And if you do speed up, do it in small increments or you'll drive yourself crazy with all the sudden walking breaks.

6. Do the Full 15-Minute Warm-Up
I confess, I tend to take shortcuts on my running warm-ups. They're boring and I just want to run, so a quick jog around the house, a little dynamic stretching and I'm on the trail in five minutes. I learned the hard way that's not going to cut it with the Maffetone Method, and I have my friend Mikko from Finland to thank for this. I was writing on my Facebook page about how hard it was to keep my heart rate under control and he wrote back asking if I did the full 15-minute warm-up (which McDougall left out of Natural Born Heroes). Well... no, I hadn't. That's when a bell dinged in my head: about 15 minutes into my runs, my heart rate seemed to stabilize and become easier to control. It didn't take much research into Maffetone's writings to see why he strongly recommends a slow increase from your resting heart rate to your max rate over the course of 15 minutes. According to the good doctor, gradually increasing the flow of blood sent to muscles will help them burn fat better, use oxygen more efficiently and decrease chance of injury. I didn't read anything about warm-ups helping control heart rate so it's possible it's my imagination, but it makes sense to me that this would jive with the blood flow oxygen thing... and I swear it happens. The warm-up can be done by building up from a walk to a slow run, by pedaling on a stationary bike while adding resistance or by any other activity where you can monitor and control the increase. Similarly, reversing the process with a gradual 15-minute cool down is also strongly recommended to avoid shocks to your system.

There you go. I know I'm still new to the method, but the results are starting to show and I have no intention of giving up anytime soon. I'll let you know how it goes.

Have you tried the Maffetone Method? Have any good tips of your own? Let me know!

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  1. Great post thank you! I have just started the method and have gone to 14.5mins a mile and while running it almost feels like people walking are going faster then me.. After how long did you feel that your pace returned to your old pace, or does this never happen? Thanks

  2. Hi Suraj. Unfortunately, I've had a return of knee pain and haven't been able to keep up my running. From what I've read of other people's accounts, if you're running at least 20 miles per week then you should see improvements in 3-4 months. I never got to that point because my knee pain would return anytime I went over 12-14 miles per week. I'm now back to ellipticals for training, but I hope to find a solution to my pain and be back on the road soon!

  3. Get well soon Martin and thanks for nice write up !

  4. The method works for running, but you need to stick with it for a year or two to get full benefit. The early days of walking up every hill to avoid tripping the MAF heart rate soon give way to keeping control over all terrain. I'm now running at a heart rate roughly 20 beats lower than my training partners over cross-country terrain. The main thing is it keeps you free of injury so you can train consistently over the long term. I find that even with no interval training I can run a 40 minute cross country event flat out, close to 95% of maximum heart rate, with no discomfort and feeling "in control". On the other hand, it does not work for cycling. At MAF heart rate you just can't develop the muscular endurance needed for repeated 110% efforts required in a road race. But if you read the "Big endurance Book" along with Joe Friels' Training Bibles(his "aerobic threshold" workouts are essentially MAF workouts) you'll find a dosage which works for you.

  5. Great read and tips, thank you! Hope your knee pain resolves soon. I'm having similar slow results, but it is working and that's motivating. The MAF method makes too much sense to not follow, my plan is to keep going with it :)