What is the Maffetone 180 Formula?

Yellowstone Half Marathon - Winded BowhunterI was researching different workout programs to assist me in getting my heart healthier, burning fat more efficiently and increasing my physical endurance.

Was there even such a program? No…

But, there is The 180 Formula methodology, which I found talking to a few ultra runners!There’s a bit of a misconception in regards to athletic training: going at your max aerobic HR instead of a higher heart rate doesn’t mean that your training will be less effective, it just means that you’ll be training your aerobic system instead of your anaerobic system.

Max heart rate is a measure of cardiovascular power. It doesn’t say a lot about aerobic function. A lot of people want to put these two measures together, but they’re actually unrelated.

There’s a bit of a misconception in regards to athletic training: going at your max aerobic HR instead of a higher heart rate doesn’t mean that your training will be less effective, it just means that you’ll be training your aerobic system instead of your anaerobic system.

There are no real programs that leverage the 180-Formula. The reason for this is that the body is continually changing and adapting to an innumerable amount and variety of stressors, and what worked a week ago may not work now. Following a 6-month program (or whatever) really means that you are betting that you are a person of type X exposed to stressors of type Y and that’s just plain irresponsible.

There is no real way to develop the aerobic system at maximum speed, except to exercise at the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) heart rate (MAFHR). The problem most runners experience (wanting to be able to run faster) really begins with the fitness community’s overemphasis on high-intensity training. Simply speaking, most of us never developed our aerobic system. Your speed at the MAFHR accurately portrays the status of your aerobic system. Really the only thing you can do is to acknowledge where your aerobic system is at, and go from there.

However, you can use the MAF Test as a diagnostic tool. If your MAF speed (at the heart rate given by the 180-Formula) has been rising steadily for 3-6 months, it’s time to incorporate sports-specific strength and power training (80% of your total training should still be MAF, 10% of your training should be between MAF and your lactate threshold, and 10% should be beyond). During this time, do MAF Tests every week to see if your speed begins to plateau or drop. If it does, scale back on your strength training for a week or two until your speed starts rising again, and return with 84-8-8% instead of 80-10-10%, etc. That way, you’ll know for sure whether you are training correctly, and you’ll have much more freedom to invent a training program that will cater to your body’s needs and better than some cookie cutter program.

For this is the reason why all elite athletes do 80% of their training at an easy speed or intensity: they (and their coaches) know the importance of aerobic development. It’s usually the non-elites that do 60 to 80% of their training more intensely in an effort to “catch up.” But the body’s just not built for that, so they get hurt.

The MAF Test:

The MAF Test can be done with any exercise, can even be performed on stationary equipment, except weight-lifting.

To perform the test, you must first obtain your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR) with the help of the 180 Formula. While working out at that heart rate, determine your walking, jogging or running pace—the time that it takes you to cover a certain distance—in minutes per mile, cycling speed in miles per hour, or repetitions (such as laps in a pool over time), and make a note of it.

During any MAF Test, your times should always get slower with successive repetitions: the first mile should always be the fastest, and the last should be the slowest. If that’s not the case, it usually means you haven’t warmed up enough.

The MAF Test should indicate faster times as the months go by. This means the aerobic system is developing and you’re burning more fat, enabling you to do more work with the same effort. Below is an example showing the improvement from the testing of myself:

Miles    September    October     November      December
Mile 1      16:32           15:49           15:35               15:10
Mile 2      16:46           16:06           15:43               15:22
Mile 3      17:09           16:14           15:57               15:31

The 180 Formula:

To find your maximum aerobic training heart rate, there are two important steps.

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:
    1. If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
    2. If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
    3. If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same
    4. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

For example, if you are 30 years old and fit into category (2), you get the following: 180–30=150. Then 150–5=145 beats per minute (bpm).

When scheduling your training, don’t think in terms of distance. Think in terms of time!

If you’re just in it for the fitness, 1 hour 3 consecutive times a week (includes 15 minute warm up at 20 BPM below MAFHR, run 30 minutes at MAFHR, and cool down 15 minutes 20 BPM below MAFHR), followed by 2 consecutive days of rest or if you’re competitive 1 hour 5 consecutive times a week, followed by 2 consecutive days of rest. The more you do, you’ll see more benefits, but of course, if you do too much you’ll begin to see diminishing returns.

If you are new to running, what I would recommend is starting 1 week with 5 consecutive days of running. Do 15 minutes at MAFHR. If that works for 5 consecutive days and after the two days of rest, bump it up to 30 minutes at MAF. Starting with a low training volume and increasing if you can handle it will benefit you a lot more than overreaching at first.

You may want to split your workout into two sessions daily. The reason that doubling up on workouts works so well is not that you do double the amount of exercise, but rather that your body gets reminded that it needs to adapt twice a day instead of one. Your nervous system has more reasons to adapt. One 2-hour long event is still “one event” as far as the nervous system is concerned. Two 1-hour long events are “2 events.” So, even if you keep your training volume steady, you’ll see lots of improvements if you train twice a day. In other words, the exact same training volume split in the morning and the afternoon would yield greater results than if it is put together. (Also, think about the fact that you have the opportunity to recover between periods of exercise). Is that a good idea as you’re developing the aerobic base? Yes, it is!

If you want to make it interesting, you can sprint for 10 yards and then quickly scale back to your MAF heart rate. However, do this as sparingly as possible.

Training exclusively at MAF is for building an aerobic base, recovering from an illness, an injury, or overtraining. At any other time, 15-20% of your total training volume should be anaerobic. As long as hill sprints fall into that 20%, that is within MAF guidelines.

Go slower on hills, or walk if you have to. If you’re able to maintain a running form, you’ll see your hill speed begin to rise in a couple of weeks.

Generally, people run for the entirety of their runs in about 2 months after they started the MAF 180, supposing that they are walking more than 50% at the beginning. This is just an estimate, as people’s biomechanical and physiological circumstances are very different from one another. Generally, 1 hour -1.5 hours, 5 times per week is the best for exercise adaptation.

Keep in mind that you will not be at your training pace, but your speed will improve over time. For example, in a 12-month period, people have seen improvements of 8-10 minutes in their 5k pace, while remaining at the same heart rate. That said, once you have a few months of exclusive training at the MAFHR, it’s ok for your training to be 20% anaerobic.

Remember, that your aerobic system is getting developed in relation to your heart rate, not your speed. As it develops, your speed will begin to rise naturally. It’s important to allow these gains to be made on their own time.

Other ways that you can do your MAF workouts are on the exercise bike, as well as walking or a jump rope. The jump rope will help develop the aerobic system without the added shock of landing (jump-roping has very little shock as compared to running, since there is no forward motion “stopping” component), meaning that your heart rate won’t kick up as far. Jumping rope should kick it up a little more than cycling, however.

If you’re training for a marathon, keep in mind that the marathon is 99% aerobic. This means that you don’t really need any anaerobic training to run the marathon, except for your ability to maintain a good level of power in your legs. So do this for those last 6 weeks, do a little bit of power training on a track (but don’t focus on it being anaerobic). Do 7-second intervals where you get up to your maximal speed. As soon as you hit that speed, taper off and jog around the rest of the track. You can do that for 1 to 2 hours, 2 times a week, with a good warm-up and cool-down before that. Do your regular MAF training the other 4 or 5 days.

The MAFHR isn’t your marathon race pace. Your marathon pace should be 10-15 BPM above MAF. That said, you need to develop aerobic power for the marathon, not anaerobic power. If you go more than 10-15 BPM above MAF, you’ll end up hitting the wall. “The wall” is the premature depletion of stored liver and muscle glycogen. This is to say that you can’t use more than a little of your anaerobic system (10-15 BPM) anyway, since your target pace will plummet as soon as your glycogen gets depleted. The less trained your aerobic system is, the faster your glycogen will be depleted, and the faster you’ll hit the wall.

Only at the advanced level, when you’re trying to break the 3-hour mark, do you really need to juggle anaerobic development with aerobic development. The aerobic system should really be the one responsible for taking 90% of people down to the 7-minute mile mark, and 9% of people down to the 6-minute mile mark.

“Power” isn’t in the muscles. It’s in the brain’s capability to send more voltage down the nerves into those muscles. (Of course, in order for them to accommodate that voltage, they have to grow). But with this exercise, you’re training the brain’s capability. That’s what you want, especially for an endurance event like the marathon. If you train the brain, the muscles will follow. And the benefit is that your muscles won’t be NEARLY as exhausted afterward.

Finally, TAPER DOWN! Take a good week to really tone down the training. Let your body recover. It will need its strength for the marathon. I usually do 80-70-60-50-40-20-10 (in terms of percentages of usual training volume). In this period, your body will be insisting that you train, as it’s got energy to spare. You don’t need to train. Nothing that you do a week before the marathon will improve your race time, at this point, it’s time to let your body rest!

I am now training this way in hopes of creating a healthier heart, which allows me to stay in the mountains longer, perform better on my trail runs and Obstacle Course Races!

These are my results of my MAF Test performed by walking on a track, at a heart rate of 140, calculating time in minutes per mile:
Mile 1 – 17.26
Mile 2 – 17:30
Mile 3 – 17:59

Feel free to post your MAF Test Results prior to the start of your training and your every month thereafter to see how you are improving!

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