With the end of March, I finished my first six months of using the Maffetone Method as a training program for running. For those of you unfamiliar with the Maffetone Method, you can find more information on Phil Maffetone’s website.
What led me to begin the Maffetone Method? It was two distinct things, really. I talked about both in a previous post, but to recap: I was fighting of a potential foot injury, and I stumbled upon one of Phil Maffetone’s books in the chiropractor’s office.
So began one of the more interesting experiments I’ve done for myself in a long long while.
Like all experiments, I knew I would need data for this one. So I created an Excel workbook. If you haven’t read other parts of this blog, then you don’t know that I’m a pretty sizable Excel geek. I created a workbook and started tracking the data I had available, namely, the date of each run, the number of miles, the pace per mile, the number of calories burned, the average heart rate, and the maximum heart rate.
All of this went into the Excel file, and then I started playing with it, creating statistical formulas with it, and graphing it. The first thing I did was to come up with the average pace per run. Easy enough. It’s just the average pace of all the laps in each individual run. The next thing was to throw out the highest and lowest average pace. My reasoning for this was two-fold: I knew eventually I would start racing (which I did back in January) and so, if I had one race per month (which I knew I wouldn’t, but just in case) then this adjusted average would throw the race pace out. Conversely, anybody can have a crappy training run (I’ve had several, such as this one) and an off day shouldn’t negatively affect your overall numbers. So the high and low pace went. That left the adjusted average pace for the month, and this would become the basis for measuring improvement.
But there’s a whole other piece to the Maffetone Method, and that involves heart rate. In order for the method to work, you’ve got to keep your heart rate at a specific target. Maffetone’s very basic formula is 180 – current age = target heart rate. As you get older, as I am, that drops the target WAY down. Running slow takes some getting used to, although after six months, it’s pretty easy to find a rhythm. But to do this, you need to strap on a heart rate monitor while you run. And this leads to the second major data point I needed to track: heart rate.
Heart rate is a tricky one, I found. I live in the Northeast, where there are hills and hills and more frickin hills. Going up the hill while trying to run at a slow pace means you usually have to drop down to a walk, which I loathe. Even then, the heart rate is going to go up and down. So I’m largely tracking to average heart rate, which is the measure of what your heart did the entire time you were running. Again, I’m throwing out the highest and lowest average for the same reasons I did so with pace: racing and crappy runs.
All this was a nice set up, except for two problems.
The first was a bad heart rate monitor. It was fine for a while, but then it started to do all kinds of weird things, like jump up to 179, then drop to 75, then stabilize around 142. This caused more than a few whiskey tango foxtrot moments for me. In addition to the jumps and drops, it was just not as responsive visually as I needed. Maybe it was recording the data correctly and in real time, but when it would go down as I went up a hill, only to go up at the very end and keep going up as I started down a hill made me realize it was probably shot. (Yes, before you ask, I tried replacing the batteries.) So at the end of March I got a new one (which I like a lot, but that’s for another post).
The second was that I cheated. Not really on purpose, and with the best intentions. I wanted to capture ALL the calories I was burning during a workout, which meant turning on the heart rate monitor even during the warmups and letting it ride during the cool downs. Thus, I was capturing calories burnt better, but I was also influencing the average heart rate by allowing the lower heart rates during warmup and cool down to lower the average. I did this during the first few Maffetone runs in September and all the ones in October, then I stopped. From November on, the heart rate data is cleaner than it was before, which might not be saying much given the quirkiness of the monitor.
Okay, so that’s enough background. What does the data tell me about the last six months? Well let’s take a look at the artwork (note: this is more or less the same artwork I posted in my update on my sixth month running, but today we’ll be focused on a few different things):
The first thing I looked for was improvement. In its simplest terms, am I running faster now than I was six months ago? At first glance the answer appears to be No, I am not. In fact, I lost a few seconds overall in the adjusted average pace. But that’s compared to October. October seems to be an outlier of sorts. What you don’t see in here are the three runs I did at the end of September when I first started following the Maffetone Method. September’s adjust average pace is a good 45 seconds higher than October. And after October, my pace shot back up into the 12 minute range and has been coming down slowly since. (Not for nothing, but this slow improvement is the kind of improvement I would have expected from the Maffetone Method, and not wild swings.)
What’s the story with October? I can’t speak in absolute certainty, but I’m will to hazard a guess. I think it comes back to the “cheating” I explained above. Knowing that a walking warmup and walking cool down would lower my average heart rate, I think I, consciously or unconsciously, allowed my heart rate run higher during the main body of the run. This would naturally lead to a faster pace, as I could go longer with an elevated heart rate and let the cool down bring the average heart rate down. I say “consciously or unconsciously” because I don’t have a specific recollection of thinking of this strategy through and then executing it, but that was six months ago. So it’s possible. And September? With only three runs in that month and a new method to adjust to, the high pace was largely a matter of “getting used to it”.
In tandem with pace, I looked at my average heart rate. As with pace, this represents a number with the high and low thrown out. What did I see when I reviewed it? I found my heart rate was slowly going up. Not a lot. The highest average heart rate we see above is in February at 144. The lowest, excluding October, is 140. In addition, we seem to have a correlation between the rising heart rate and the falling pace. This one alarmed me. Because if my pace was dropping only because my heart rate was climbing, it means that I’m not really making much progress, only running a little faster without having improved my aerobic capability. Which could lead me to conclude that the method failed.
This is not what I wanted to hear.
It turns out that March, despite what a crappy running month it was (see above that I only got outside six times), my heart rate dropped back down to 142, as it was in January, and my pace between January’s adjusted average and March’s adjusted average dropped 9 seconds, from 11:41 to 11:33. This restored some hope I had that I might actually be improving.
So, assuming I am improving and not just running faster while elevating my heart rate, and if we throw out the skewed data from October, we can see that I improved by 48 seconds, from November’s average pace of 12:21 to March’s pace of 11:33. Over a five month time period, that’s a 9.6 second improvement per month.
But does that mean anything? Let’s put it in some perspective.
If I keep up this slow-run method of training, gaining (for the sake of argument, let’s round down) 9 seconds average per month, then in another two and a half years, the equivalent of thirty more months, I could knock 270 seconds off my average pace. That’s a 4 1/2 minute decrease. That would bring my pace down to 7:03 per mile. With a heart rate remaining in the 142 range. That’s frickin enormous!
Now, let’s add some reality to this. I’m not likely to decrease my pace by 9 seconds every month. There will be off months, there will be setbacks, there will be plateaus. I’m fighting with my foot again, which could be hugely problematic later in those two and a half years. In other words, shit happens. But let’s say that, on average, my pace only decrease by 5 seconds per month. That’s 150 second improvement, or 2 1/2 minutes, which would bring my pace down to 9:03 per mile while keeping my heart rate in that target zone. This is big stuff.
That’s my overall data analysis. But I’m not quite done here yet.
Let me take a step back for a moment from all of this data. I think I’ve sprained my math ligament anyway. I need to hobble to a chair to sit down. What I haven’t done yet is talk in the broad sense of how I feel. I’ll cover that now in two areas: injury and fuel.
The first is injury. How this whole Maffetone Method business got started was that I was developing a pain in my heel and went to the chiropractor to seek help, where I discovered Maffetone’s older book on endurance training. Truth be told though, it wasn’t just my heel, it was also one of my knees getting sore and a tugging going down my hip. The heel was just the biggest problem in the way.
I received treatment in the form of chiropractic care, and my legs and feet started to feel better. I also bought a new pair of shoes that are more minimalist running shoes than I had before. I bought those in early December. Here we are four months later. How do I feel?
The answer is qualified. I feel mostly pretty good. For the first three months or so, my foot felt fine. Only now, within the last few weeks, have I begun to feel the dreaded pain in the bottom of my foot. It could be that I need new shoes again. It’s been four months and about 150 miles on them. It might be time to replace them. I’m not ready to make that call just yet, I’m hoping to get more out of the ones I have, but I might not be able to do it. Especially now that winter appears to be over. With the arrival of Spring and the increase in light, I know I’ll want to go out, if not more often, than at least longer when I do go out.
But the rest of my body feels fine. My legs are good, my knees are not sore, I don’t feel any tugging anywhere. So for the injury side of things, slow running has helped keep me running while keeping me from being injured.
The second item is fuel. What I mean by that is how often I’ve “bonked” when running. When I was running last summer, I would always have at least a gel for a 6 or 7 miler along with a small running bottle filled with vitamin water. For longer runs I’d take a full set of the Clif Blocks.
I’ve run up to eight miles twice since using the Maffetone Method, with the average runs increasing to where I’m doing 5 miles for a regular run.
I have not “bonked” once. Not even shaky. For me, this is one of the most telling things about the Maffetone Method. Since I’m not “bonking”, I don’t appear to be relying on whatever glucose I have in my system. I should therefore be burning fat for fuel. (If only I were eating better, I might be losing the winter weight faster…)
So that’s where I am after six months. I’ll keep posting a month by month review of the immediately preceding month, and at the end of September, expect to see my running year in review.