Back to Basics: The Importance of a Strong Aerobic Base

One of my training goals this winter is to refocus on my aerobic base. Looking back on this past year of racing, there were some definite high points – won my age group once and made the podium three other times.

But I know there’s room to improve. In both 70.3 races this year – Toughman MN and Superiorman – I cramped late in the run. Was heat a factor? Maybe. Was my nutrition not quite right? Possibly.

The one thing I’m sure of, though, is my body couldn’t handle the physical demands of the effort on that day. It broke down, as evident by the cramps. And the body’s ability to absorb and handle stress is a direct function of training.

Dr. Phil Maffetone, who has coached some of the world’s best endurance athletes, talks a lot about the importance of developing a strong aerobic base. If we look at this from a basic physiology perspective, aerobic cellular respiration is up to 15 times more efficient than anaerobic cellular respiration. What this means is the body produces more energy units (in the form of ATP) per substrate molecule using aerobic versus anaerobic.

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So, what does this look like from a training perspective?

Well, back in the 1980’s Maffetone modified the conventional approach to heart rate-based training, which used 220 as the starting point. Instead, Maffetone came up with the 180 Formula (you can read more on the back story here).

The 180 Formula is pretty simple. To determine your maximum aerobic training heart rate, follow two simple steps:

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify the number up or down if one of the following fitness or health categories apply.

a)  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.

b)  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.

c)  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

d)  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.

Okay, so why 180? Or better yet, what’s the meaning of this 180 minus your age heart rate?

Here’s how Maffetone describes it:

“The use of the number 180 is not significant other than as a means to finding the end heart rate. Plus, 180 minus age itself is not a meaningful number; for example, it is not associated with VO2max, lactate threshold, or other traditional measurements.”

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So why use the Maffetone method in the first place then?

  1. It’s simple. There are multiple heart rate zones and calculating your maximum heart rate is straightforward.
  2. It correlates well with other ways to measure aerobic-based training, whether you’re taking the traditional Zone 2 approach (based off the usual 5 heart rate zones) or even perceived effort. One quick story on this. I went on my first training run with a heart rate monitor in more than 18 months the other day. My goal was to stick to my “Maf” heart rate zone, so around 150-155. After a warm up, and before looking at my watch, I fell into what felt like a moderate, steady effort. Turns out, my perceived effort scale lined up exactly with Maf.
  3. It’s a good indicator of progress in aerobic efficiency and capacity. With consistent training at Maf (the duration will vary depending on the individual, and some may not even respond well at all), ideally an athlete will see their pace decrease. In other words, an athlete becomes more metabolically efficient at a given effort. Don’t be confused, Maf isn’t always slow. Once your body gets to a certain point, holding Maf can be dang tough.
  4. It works. Mark Allen, six-time IRONMAN World Champion, was a subscriber to Maffetone’s method. If you want a more recent example, look at what this type of training did for Tim O’Donnell, who went from 32nd at Kona in 2014 to a podium finish this past year.

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Alright, now for the good stuff. How can you apply something like?

Before answering, the most important point is that it all depends on what your goals are. Are you an ultra-runner who runs 100 mile events? Or are you a short-course triathlete or 5k runner? How you answer will depend on how you can incorporate this type of training.

First, you can take the approach of Maf all the time, whether running or biking. There’s some merit to this, but you do miss out on the huge physiological benefits of high intensity interval training. Not to mention, long aerobic efforts can be hugely mind-numbing and suck up a ton of time. But, if the bulk of your racing is done at this pace, say if you’re an IRONMAN triathlete or ultra-runner, there’s a lot of specificity.

Second, you could insert Maf into a more typical periodized approach. So, the majority of training is spent at Maf, but as you progress towards a race, begin to incorporate more race-specific intensities.

Third, and this approach is becoming more common among professional triathletes, is to take a polarized approach. The majority of training is done at Maf, with a small amount of very high-intensity, short interval sessions sprinkled in.

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I’ve opted for a combination of the second and third approaches. For my run, it’s all Maf, which I’ll likely focus on for most of the winter. The bike is a little different. This is more a polarized approach, with mostly Maf and 1-2 interval sessions thrown in (something like Tabata sets or Russian Steps), both to add some excitement on the indoor trainer and to work on power.

Stay tuned for updates on how things are going. Thus far, I’m really enjoying the change. The biggest surprise though has been my running pace at my Maf heart rate. A couple years ago when I ran using heart rate my pace at Maf was pretty dang slow – well into the 8 minute per mile range. I ditched using heart rate for a little while in favor of running more by feel and pace. Now going back to it, my pace at my Maf heart rate isn’t so slow anymore. Makes for a nice challenge…

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