Tuesday I took The Maffetone Test, a test from a book by Dr. Phil Maffetone who has coached world record-breaking triathletes like Mark Allen, 6-time Hawaiian Ironman winner. The Maffetone Test involves running 5 miles, after warming up for about a mile, while keeping one’s heartbeat under a certain number in order to avoiding going anaerobic. Keeping one’s heartbeat at or under his prescribed formula means you are working out aerobically, or with oxygen. As one improves over time, the ability to go faster at the same heartbeats per minute improves. For some people it can improve a lot.
Because I cannot possibly become worse at running unless I lose a limb or two, I am counting on Dr. Phil’s (Maffetone, not the blowhard on TV) formula to vastly improve my times in both short and long races.
Dr. Maffetone’s formula is this: 180 beats per minute (bpm) minus your age (me, 47) = 133 bpm. If you’ve been injured or sick over the past year, minus another 5. So my maximum bpm to remain within the aerobic zone as a lumbering 6’1″, 200 or so lb, 47-year-old female chasing a perhaps diminishing dream, is 128. It is also the rate at which my body will learn to burn fat for fuel. When one is anaerobic, one is burning carbohydrate/sugar and that diminishes muscle or something. Let’s not forget my first semester at college I was premed but since it interfered with my drinking, something had to go. Which is why I became a philosophy/French double major, well that and my scholarship transferred to a tiny school in Paris where I thought I might be discovered. Therefore, buy Dr. Phil Maffetone’s books, go to his website and/or look up triathlete Mark Allen for a much more cogent explanation of maximum aerobic heart rates.
I dug my dusty Garmin 305 out of the closet and charged it. For the first time I read the manual and set the heart rate monitor to beep at 128 bpm. Then I strapped on the heart rate thingy and the watch part and headed out into the windy, frigid night, determined to find out if I’ve been running too fast, too slowly or, because I am so naturally gifted and intuitive, just right.
To warm up I jogged 0.8 miles towards the high school where I would test on a 1/4 mile track. Within, oh, 20 yards of my house, the damn heart rate monitor beeped to tell me I was at 128 bpm. I slowed to a walk and everybody calmed down. After a minute or so I started jogging again and within about 50 yards the thing beeped again. Surely there was some mistake, a woman of my fortitude and natural ability could not possibly be setting herself up for multiple injuries by being anaerobic in the slowest jog ever. Which of course would mean I was also terribly out of shape. I began to draft a nasty letter in my head to the Garmin company about their untrustworthy, gimmicky and craptastic gismos when the damn thing beeped again. It was a good letter.
At the track I put my iPod headphones in 1 ear only and started my laps. The wind kicked up, some trickster put Eye of the Tiger into my shuffle mix to piss me off and then things got worse from there. About every 1/8 of a mile the beeper sounded and I slowed to a walk for a bit. Because there was no light from the moon or a street light, I could not read my Garmin gismo and just had to go with the flow of running endless laps around the athletic field littered with lacrosse balls and other items.
About an hour into it I figured out I was moving at about a 16 minute per mile clip, much more slowly than my ego had been telling me. The whole exercise seemed meaningless and irritating. And I was only 4.3 miles into it, including the warm up. So I took off my shoes and started running barefoot on the cinder track.
Barefoot running is the new thing to do unless you live in a broken glass strewn inner city, which I luckily don’t. For about 4,000,000 years, give or take 500,000, humans have been running around barefoot. Around the mid-1970s, shoe companies started making running shoes that had lots of padding and would encourage people to run striking their heels first instead of the balls of their feet. Running on the balls of your feet puts about 1/3 of the force into your knees and body that running striking your heels first does. If you don’t believe me google the articles from Science News and other sources. Better yet, watch a Kenyan or Ethiopian runner. They grew up running barefoot and even with shoes tend to keep their foot strike on the balls of their feet, not their heels.
After a mile or so the cinders were not much fun so I switched to the spongey, fake grass part of the field. That felt like heaven, if heaven includes a fake lawn made out of petroleum products. The beeper seemed to go off regularly at an 1/8 or so of a mile and kept pissing me off but my runner’s high was kicking in, even with the cold and the wind and the lack of light. The soles of my feet were warm but not burning, alive but not screaming. They just felt good, whether on the scratchy cinder track or the spongey plastic field. I was feeling the cold earth and it seemed almost subversive to be out there without shoes, in the dark.
I stopped and walked home and the beeper went off when I was walking up the gentle hill towards my street. By then I had my shoes on and I was tired. It was after 8 p.m. What my Maffetone Test proved was that I was wildly out of shape. It also showed me that the pace I have been running at for 7 weeks is too fast for now.
Maffetone says that after you build up your aerobic capacity your results will flatten out and that’s when you add speed work, or anaerobic work. He says doing anaerobic workouts for about 20 minutes twice a week is enough. Hill work should be added then too. So I have that to look forward to once I leave my blistering 16 minute per mile pace in the dust.
I’m supposed to do a Maffetone Test every 3 weeks and should see improvement every time, unless I am sick or stressed or both. Or eating the wrong foods. Or not running enough to actually increase my aerobic capacity. With that in mind, I remain wildly optimistic. After all, Mark Allen, when he started training under Maffetone, was trying to break 6 minute miles in every workout. Once he strapped on the heart rate monitor he had to slow down to 8 minute 15 second miles. After a year of the Maffetone Method he was running 5 minute 20 second miles at the SAME heart rate he was running 8:15s a year before. And he was also starting to win his 6 Hawaiian Ironmans.
So why wouldn’t this work for me? I would love to break 6 hours in a marathon. So I’m going to, by increasing my aerobic capacity per Dr. Maffetone. I don’t know, I can find no reason why I can’t get a shitload better if I have the patience to stick it out for the first part of the training, the part where I have to readily admit I am in terrible shape. But I’m in better shape this week than I was last week and soon I will be a fat-burning machine to boot.