Using The Maffetone Method to Improve Results

Train The Right Way With Polarised Training And The Maffetone Method

My overriding philosophy on training effectively for triathlon is a concept known as polarised training. This basically means  having a polarising effect with training so you’re either training easy or you’re training
hard.  There is a distinct difference between the two paces and intensities. In this article I'll cover what polarised training is and why you should incorporate it into your training with the assistance of the Maffetone Method.

As human beings, we are capable of outlasting anything on the planet. We are built to go for long distances and while we are not the quickest we have the best endurance. Why? Because as caveman we had to for survival.  To eat and catch our prey we had to be able to outlast them, so it is actually in our genetic make up to go for long distances at an easy pace.

When it came time to catch our prey, we went hard and quick for a short period of time. Our prey was quicker at the start but could not outlast us. The prey fatigued and was caught in the end.

The same principle exists with the way do triathlon training. Easy training represents going at a perceived effort level of 6-7/10. Hard is 8-9/10 perceived effort. The perceived effort scale is 0/10 being completely still while 10/10 is your best effort.  At that perceived effort of 6-7/10, you’re working at an effort that is comfortably hard.

Also at 6-7/10 perceived effort, you should be able to hold a conversation although it is slightly laboured. At a hard pace of 8-9/10 it is more one to two word answers or when it is really hard you would struggle to talk at all.

The middle or moderate zone 7-8/10 has a place in endurance training but if we spend too much time in that zone we’re not going easy enough to improve fat burning or  develop aerobic capacity and we’re not going hard enough to improve strength and speed from the hard interval based training.

Many triathletes make the mistake of going too hard on the easy sessions and then not being able to go hard enough in the hard.  They spend too much time in the moderate zone and their performance plateaus.

On a weekly basis the majority (about 70%) of our total training time should be the easy aerobic kind. The remaining 30% should consist of 20% hard training and 10% moderate.  So if you train 10 hours per week about 7 hours of it should be easy aerobic, then 2 hours hard and 1 hour moderate.

However there are situations with some athletes that I suggest a change to that  balance.  A 10 hour training week might look like 5 hours easy aerobic training, 1 hour moderate and 4 hours of high intensity.  It comes back to the athlete, their goals and also their own individual  psychological make up.

Training at a higher intensity for a shorter period of time will deliver similar results to training at a longer period at a lower intensity.  As an example a hard interval session of 4-5 x 1 km reps on the road at 85-90% of maximum heart rate will deliver a similar physiological adaptation to an easier 60-75 minute run performed at 60-70% of maximum heart rate. So 20-25 minutes of hard running (not including warm up and warm down) versus 60-75 minutes of easy running.

Some athletes will love the intensity and the burn. The challenge of the hard interval session while others much prefer the easier longer session.  As an age group athlete many will not have a lot of time and to maximise performance a program with more intensity can and does work.

However it is important to note that  psychologically it is more demanding, injury risk is higher and over the long term it can lead to burn out.  There is still a polarized program with most training done easy or hard but the balance can be manipulated depending on the athlete.

Ideally using a heart rate monitor is a great way to get an accurate measure of your exercise intensity.  A 6-7/10 represents about 60-70 per cent of your maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is most effectively measured through a specific test in a laboratory.  However as most people don’t have access to a laboratory there are tests you can do yourself to determine your maximum heart rate.

If you’re a beginner triathlete, I don’t recommend doing maximum heart rate tests until you have been training
consistently for at least a couple of months.  For the more experienced triathletes, there are a couple of field tests you can perform to see what you maximum heart rate is. I recommend doing one on the bike and one on the run.

For the bike performing 2 x 20 minute  intervals at your best effort will give you quite an accurate reading for your maximum heart rate. Do an easy 10-15 min to warm up then 6-8 x 1 minute on 1 minute off before starting your first 20 minute effort. The goal is to hold the highest possible effort through out the 20 minutes. Take a 10 minute easy spin between each 20 minute interval. Record your highest heart rate  achieved in both. You'll find that you will most likely achieve a higher reading in the second interval.

For the run, start with an easy 15-20 minute jog then 6-8 x 80-100m strides/run throughs at a solid pace with a jog back recovery. The test involves finding a flat piece of road or a track and running a 4 km time trial at your best effort. Another good way to measure a max heart rate is do a 5 km race such as Park Run.

Racing will always push you higher than if you do a run on your own. The run heart rate will be around 5-10 beats higher than your maximum bike heart rate. It is important that in both tests you give it your best effort to ensure your reading is an accurate one.

Your swim maximum heart rate will be lower than the bike heart rate by 5-10 beats. There are water proof heart rate monitors however intensity in swim training is often better measured by perceived effort and times so you can focus on swimming and less on worrying about what your heart rate is indicating via a wrist watch.

The preferred formula I like to use for aerobic based training is known as the Maffetone Method. This comes from a doctor well known in the endurance community from the United States, Dr Phil Maffetone.  Dr. Maffetone devised a formula based on his decades of experience in training endurance athletes of all abilities.

This formula is 180 minus your age with that number being the maximum aerobic heart rate you train at. So if you’re 40 years old, your MAF heart rate is 140 and all easy or aerobic training is below 140 beats per minute.  Over time I have found the Maffetone Method of training delivers fantastic benefits with improved aerobic conditioning. For some people trying to run at their MAF heart rate may actually mean walking to start with but over time the walk becomes a jog before it becomes a run. Using the MAF formula for your easy aerobic training is generally about the same as about 6-7/10 perceived effort.

A power meter is also a great device for measuring intensity on the bike. Unlike heart rate, it is not effected by external variables such as weather and terrain. Power meters cost in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 but they can be very effective in assisting you measuring progress in your training. Cycling involves training on varied terrain and by using a power meter you get consistent feedback on your intensity regardless of the conditions and terrain.

Personally I like using a heart rate monitor as your primary device to measure intensity. It can be used across swim, bike and run and when used properly can be very beneficial. However any device that measures intensity should be used as guide.

Our best computer is us and our 'gut'  instinct. We need to learn to trust what our body is telling us and make decisions accordingly taking into account the readings that any particular device might be giving us.

All my training programs follow these principles which you will see in the Tri Goals sprint and Olympic distance programs. I highly recommend using the Maffetone Method as a starting point to determine your easy and hard thresholds for training and to get results.

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