Sunday, November 29, 2015

On MAF Tests, Preparation and Progress

It was time for me to do another MAF Test. I hadn't done one since the beginning of the year, and even though it's a straight forward format (warmup; 3-7 miles at strict MAF; cooldown) every time you learn a bunch, not just about splits and HR. After this last round, I'm making it a monthly thing. Because, why not? It's good data collection, an MAF Tests are obviously not aggressively intense like an LT/FTP test, either, so this kind of frequency is ok. Personally I got an really good lesson on the importance of preparation and some--take note for your own tests.

So, in this post, I'll use my own data and experiences, complete with fresh input from Dr. Phil Maffetone, to give insight on how to:

- avoid mistakes before your test begins;
- use a MAF test to assess progress (or lack thereof);
- further develop the ability to be an intuitive athlete (whether coached or self-coached);
- use MAF results to structure/tweak training going forward;
- use these tests to avoid accumulating too much fatigue, overtraining or plateaus;
- correlate the tie in's with health, stress and lifestyle.

For a refresher on MAF Tests or if you're new to the concept click here. And to make sense of the heart rate (HR) info I discuss and why 150 is my number, click here.


Lead-up Preparation

So let's start here. You can examine exactly what I did exercise-wise in the week leading up to MAF testing, starting 11/14/15. Note that when I was doing the 30k I wasn't even thinking about a MAF Test coming up in the near future.

Sa- 30k trail race
Su- IMAZ spectating/sherpa'ing
M- Off, rest, travel day
T- 60' weighted hike (mostly flat)
W- AM: 8 mile ez trail run (sub MAF); PM: 60' strength (functional + weights/KB circuit)
Th- Incredibly ez activity (aka day of movement). AM: 40' fasted spin on bike trainer; NOON: 15' non-wetsuit ocean swim/flop; PM: 40' easy walk no vest
F- 15' slow weights (inc. KB swings); 75' SUP- 1mi ez/1mi hard/1mi ez + "SUP farmer carry;" it counts ;)
Sa- MAF test, round 1
Su- MAF test, round 2, yes, you will see....

Food factor: Friday pre-test I felt fresh and like I could have done more, but I didn't. Then dinner happened. I got creative, making some grain-free pizzas, experimenting with a few "clean" crusts and topping combos. That's fine, but there was cheese. Quality cheese, and all variations that I've been ok with in the past, but cheese. Lots of it. I ate too much of it. Not wise for a gal who's essentially dairy-free and still in recovery from severe gut issues.


MAF Test Round 1: Ugh

The next morning I felt the cheese effect. I woke up as usual about 5:45 but my gut was in knots. I went to the bathroom 3 times, not good news there. Damn dairy. I decided to wait it out a bit instead of starting the test right away. I had some breakfast and cold brew. Headed out around 9:30 en route to the track, and--in typical crazy SoCal style--it was a fall heat wave with dry, santa ana wind conditions.

I was not feeling well at all (and now I was slightly dehydrated from the bathroom situation), legs heavy, breakfast not fully digested. I thought, "maybe it was the weights and SUP this week; maybe it's still the 30k in the legs; maybe it's the f*$&ing dairy... maybe it's all that... maybe I should shut up and just try." I ended up prolonging the warmup to 40 minutes (!), which consisted of walking, sub-MAF jogging, and eventually settling into some MAF intervals on the track. It was hot by the time I started. I was trying not to chug my water, but I was thirsty--a red flag.

The Saturday test went like this:

Mile 1- 8:40
Mile 2- 8:53
Mile 3- 9:06
yup only 3 miles

Avg: 8:53

HR was wanting to be high-ish around mid-150s instead of steadier MAF ~150, and by mile 3 it was already creeping to 160 forcing me into a couple walk intervals. I'm sure the caffeine played into this.

I may not do a ton of MAF tests, but I've run MAF enough, and I knew this was not normal data for me at all. Body was dragging, and HR was wanting to be way too high for the pace/effort. Intuition clicking in...

During that third mile I could see the writing on the wall and decided to pull the plug because I had an idea brewing: Instead of forcing this shitty test, I would stop there, recover like a rockstar for the rest of the day, eat like a champ, and re-do the test the next morning. Since it's a MAF test, aka aerobic and moderate, doing a repeat test that soon is fine; I would not recommend the same for LT, FTP and VO2max tests though!!

Dr. Phil Maffetone agrees: "The back to back MAF Tests are OK. Normally, when healthy, you should be able to run at MAF regularly. Many people can train daily at MAF."

I was frustrated that I perhaps sabotaged the test, but I made my peace with it. I was actually motivated and fired up to give it another go and do better--I knew I had a better performance in me. The rest of Saturday I laid low, did a little cold therapy in the ocean, ate a "safe" dinner (no trigger foods), and got to bed early around 9.


MAF Test Round 2: Not giving up so easy

Sunday I woke up without an alarm around 5:15. Lately I'm sleeping like a rock again, uninterrupted sleeping bliss almost every night. I woke up feeling ready to dominate. Preparation success this time.

For the second MAF test I opted to do it even earlier and fasted, no coffee nor breakfast before (not hungry), beat the heat. I had a glass of water with lemon juice; typical morning ritual. Had a good/normal poop (sorry, TMI, but yay) and got going. My fat-adaptation is great so I don't need food or caffeine in order to function, and my body is used to fasted workouts; however, I'm certainly not training fasted all the time, too risky.

I wore the same shoes, did the same warmup route, and got to the same place--the high school track--well before sunrise, at about 6am. This time it was cooler in the 60-70s, not 80-90F hot pounding sun. I wasn't feeling 100 percent fresh and springy, but I was certainly feeling better than Saturday. I needed less warmup, about 25-30 min of the same protocol: walk, sub-MAF jog, finishing at MAF for a couple laps. I like to make sure I get in just a bit at MAF before I start the test so my body easily slips into and stays that mode once the test starts.

The Sunday test went like this:

Mile 1- 8:16
Mile 2- 8:22
Mile 3- 8:36
Mile 4- 8:41
Mile 5- 8:44

Avg: 8:32

Overall avg HR was 152, and I was able to much better control it around 150. I don't have an alarm on my watch, and I also don't stare at my watch the whole time I run, so I know it bounces around a tiny bit, but generally it was on target for MAF (sometimes even sub 150). Hydration on Sunday was so much better/normal. I only "needed" about 100ml of water for this workout, vs. saturday when I drank 700+ ml.

Decent splits, and nothing earth-shattering but a stark improvement from the day prior, even in just how I felt. (That day I had great energy--saw a client at the gym, tooled around on the SUP, and went to a friend's party. No soreness/fatigue from the tests.)

Lessons learned on preparation:

1. Don't eat potentially sketchy and/or trigger foods in the 24-48 hours before a test.

2. No caffeine before a MAF Test.

3. If metabolically efficient (fat-adapted) consider doing the MAF test fasted, or at least on an empty stomach.

4. Don't discount weather and its effect of performance.

5. Try to avoid anything overly strenuous (i.e. a race, hard strength training) in the week before a MAF Test.


Analyzing Results 
Ok so there's that. Fun right? Now, what to make of these numbers?! Because what's testing without geeking out over results and data ;)

Comparing Tests
These recent splits are all slower than the MAF test I did in January. Not a ton slower (still within 30 seconds of the average then), but still slower. Hmmmm. So then I start to question all the things like any coach and athlete should do:

My specific questions, and ones you can ask yourself!

1. Was I simply too fatigued when I tested? (That 30k! Re-test?)

2. Is slower ultra training making me slower? 

3. Is my overall training "not specific" enough for a better MAF Test result?
(Not enough time training at MAF?)

4. Other factors: Could it be an underlying health issue or stress? 

5. What to do going forward?

6. Do MAF Test results even matter, especially if I feel good and am happy?!?!?

Fresh vs. fatigue factor
January: I was arguably more fresh/rested overall coming off an extended 5-month rest break July-Nov 2014. I had transitioned to moderate MAF-based marathon training, 6 weeks later tested.

Currently: The 30k race/travel happened, and I guarantee I didn't do a 30k right before the January test, lol. Plus other potential variables may have skewed results. As for overall training fatigue? Ya, we've been actively building volume and time on our feet. No, I am not exhibiting signs of burnout/overtraining.

Specificity of training
January: I was at about ~6 weeks into a MAF-specific running (20-30 miles per week (mpw)) program. It was all about training for a marathon at MAF!

Currently: I'm not running exclusively MAF anymore. Instead, my running/hiking is majority sub-MAF (under 150 HR) and slower paces, but more mpw. I do occasional but inconsistent longish runs at all MAF, plus sprinkled in hill repeats or strides. The rest of my training is crosstraining, which varies in intensity.

Training Breakdown, Aug-Nov:

42% - running
35% - hiking and walking*
12.5% - strength training
10.5% - other (bike, sup, swim)

11:30 - average weekly volume 
(15hr/wk at most)

*this includes strenuous hiking, some backpacking, weighted vest hikes, 
and recovery walks--all types of intensity.

I feel fine, but who knows. So, this is why you test. I'm getting blood and hormones re-tested soon, and also a gut/stool re-test to check status of the nasty infections I've fought: H. Pylori, SIBO, and candida.

Dr. Phil Maffetone chimes in!!
Summary of what Phil had to say in response to my questions: 

Feedback: "Of course, you were a bit trashed the first test on Saturday. No surprise that stress raises the HR and slows the pace. Only part of this was due to the previous week's race (then add travel stress, food stress, etc.). The second test was much better... What would the results be after another week or two when you were fresh? Maybe even better, with appropriate recovery! I don't think the slower training is make you slower, but rather the stress [this includes life stress too; see below]."

Going forward: "Maintain once- or two-a-week MAF runs when your body is feeling like it can do that well, and for as long and as often as your brain dictates. Re-do a MAF in a week or two, and hopefully it will be faster than 8:16 on the first mile. There's no reason to reduce training leading up to a MAF Test. Just make sure you're recovering really well (especially sleep, and no muscle soreness). Might be good to reduce or eliminate any strength training until your MAF test improves. The primary need is to remain healthy."

Takeaways from Phil:

1. Be an intuitive athlete and exercise the brain not just the muscles.

2. Health comes first. And there is a way to be healthy, get faster and have success in ultra. (Phil did NOT say it's probably a good idea to pull the plug on ultra training.)

3. Be honest about your overall stress, and manage it.

4. Recovery is paramount.

5. Less is more.


The Plan Going Forward
With this one little weekend of MAF Testing, I have so much more clarity and a plan:

Train smarter not harder
My recent training is making me a better long-slow-distance (LSD) athlete who physically and mentally has no problem being on foot for 3-6 hours now, which is good because that was always lacking in my years doing triathlon (my long runs were traditionally 90 minutes). But I believe I'm starting to plateau and/or am being too random with training--random just like I was before the marathon this year before buckling down. So, I'm going to experiment by laying out a bit more structure in the form of a "MAF-based polarized training approach" rather than just winging it. Polarized training is proving to be safe and very effective, and I'm intrigued by it which I'll discuss more in an upcoming post. Basically for me it means I'll avoid the "gray zone" in all of my training, work the aerobic (sub-MAF+MAF) and also work the high-end anaerobic (over threshold). The goal here is to train smarter not harder and always adhere to smart recovery.

It's fine to have a generalized (random) approach to get a good base level of fitness and athleticism, but then the plan must come together with specificity for the sport--these are the basics of periodzation (and you can periodize whatever style of training you want whether a traditional threshold-based program or the MAF Method or in my case a hybrid of MAF+polarized). Meanwhile, it's always important for athletes to be flexible with the plan, intuitive and go-with-the-flow (i.e. bail on a workout if fatigued; add volume if feeling phenomenal; add recovery when needed even if the plan says workout; etc.), and not be a mindless robot executing a pre-set schedule. Don't disconnect from listening to the body.

On more recovery
Generally, I don't think too much training stress + not enough recovery is my problem these days. I even re-checked on TP, and I'm very good at taking one day off a week on average, sometimes two days off if I feel it's needed, plus having very easy recovery days. I'm not afraid to rest from training (or life) anymore. My weekly training volume is clearly not insane. I don't get wrapped up in needing to be like other runners who are doing 100-200 mpw; I do what's right for me. I think the slower MAF Test was just more acute fatigue, not me blowing up again. I'll plan MAF Tests better so they're consistent with reliable results. Reliable, meaning I do generally the same things in the week-ish leading up to a test.

Better focus on stress management
Putting the training/race fatigue factor aside, I got to thinking more deeply about my overall stress and non-training stressors, realizing it was time to touch base with these things again. I got really good in 2014 and into 2015 of finding a peaceful, low stress and more chill approach to life that works for me, and I consciously eased up on my aggressive Type A tendencies with tremendous success. But I can see in recent months how I've slipped up here and there and am tending to push myself hard again, in more ways than one. I recognize it. I will reel myself back in. It's funny, on a recent NBT podcast with Dr. Tommy Wood and Chris Kelly, they discussed that even as health practitioners who know the tools for optimal health, they still struggle because they have sh*t to do, big goals, and often crazy demanding schedules. People like us have chosen these lifestyles, and I think they're admirable ways to live, but we often need to step back and take a dose of our own medicine...

John and I are always on the go and living it up, I love our crazy life, but I know I have a hard time just relaxing especially when I feel good. I just like to be doing things. I love my work, so I work a lot even work on weekends. I love adventure, so I hate just sitting around at home. August/September had something "big" (often requiring travel) nearly every weekend--backpacking trips, music festivals, weddings, vegas and even food poisoning for me. Then October was a tough month--don't hate but for real, Kona/Ironman week was (as always) very demanding and I burn myself out, while drinking way too much coffee (my poor adrenals). Even our few days in hawaii post-Ironman are all about adventuring (probably not enough R&R). Then after kona, I had a hard time emotionally revisiting some past life things, aka the anorexia, which had been shoved down in me and needed to come out to get more closure and peace. Letting things out like that are great, but they still take a toll and are a stress. I have also been clearing out that H. Pylori infection and my gut/digestion issues have been a roller coaster. November has been starkly different in that I've back to better balance, fewer stressors and breakthroughs with gut issues (as such, I'm sleeping better as mentioned earlier). But I know the calm periods don't last forever. I fly out of town next week and will be pulling close to an all-nighter at John's 25-hour endurance car race, then the holidays, and most of all: Our 2016 is going to be a huge year for us. It's on me to work harder than ever at stress management, self-management and prioritizing. If we're going to race ultras and get married next year, among all the other plans, I need to manage my life so that I remain healthy and perform optimally. There's no negotiating this. It means everything to me to put health first.

Do MAF Tests matter?
Yes. But I also want to emphasize that it is not my goal to become an elite ultrarunner or the fastest chick around. I just want to be healthy and continue to be able to put one foot in front of the other for a long time. So the MAF Tests for me are check-in's to make sure I'm in a good state of health, managing stress, not overtraining and not undertraining either. My training is also a constant ongoing experiment in how to further understand endurance athletes in order to be a better coach. Learn by doing.

Strength Training?
Lastly, where I might actually disagree a bit with Phil is in his opinion that I eliminate strength training (ST). "That will give your body a change to focus more on re-building the aerobic system--something that's most important right now for health and a great fat burning foundation, and before building more miles and more strength," he says.

Valid point, and I agree that I shouldn't be doing ST that wrecks me, compromises my running and leaves me with ridiculous DOMS, especially the week before a MAF Test. However, I think that some ST--whether an easy functional routine or an occasional heavier weight session or slow weights--is important for health and balance so it's not simply chronic endurance. The ST keeps healthy muscle mass on my body; I don't like getting too lean from just aerobic running nor is that healthy IMO especially given my history. I don't personally think my approach to ST is overdoing it--I rarely break a sweat during sessions outside the occasional day of sledgehammer swings ;) And most of all, I love ST. I don't want to stop. It's fun, it keeps me functional (mobility and stability), strong and injury-free. But I won't completely rule out his advice.

...ok, your turn to MAF Test!


  1. Cool geeking :-)
    My MAF test results are also a bit all over the place currently (I like to do a 5km test), and well off the best paces I was putting in a few months ago before peak racing season. I have found that hard race efforts take a big toll - like making a "withdrawal" from your aerobic checking account which you then have to make small deposits back to build it back up. Looking forward to building it back up over the winter!

  2. As muh MAF training as I've done I've never done a structured MAF test, I think I may add it to benchmark. What do you think of doing the same on the bike looking for power numbers at MAF?

    1. Yes!!! Huge proponent of MAF test on the bike and associating your power numbers. Usually I do bike MAF test by time, about 30min and maintain comfortable cadence in 80s ish.

  3. I agree with your ST view, it IS fun!

  4. I agree with your view on ST, it IS fun!

  5. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. To me those results make sense. You've been taking things easy to recover from overtraining, lowering stress on the body with non-focused exercising ("non-focused training" would be an oxymoron). You can only loose fitness at this point. Or maybe did I miss something in the MAF magic, and going for walks should help you run faster ?? :)