Monday, September 28, 2015

Beyond MAF: How to Add Volume, Go Longer, and Feel Your Best Ever

Recently--among the backpacking lovefest posts--I blogged in July that I was having a hard time running, and that my mind and body were resisting it. So I listened and let it go for a while, still remaining active in other ways including walking, which apparently some of my closest friends hate, i.e. lucho and michelle barton lol.

Well, it's funny how things evolved by listening to my body, giving it some time, and not forcing anything. Don't let the title "Beyond MAF" imply that I'm ditching the MAF Method; I'm just evolving and tweaking it to fit my needs and goals. Since MAF has no set template or plan and it's about health and performance, that's allowed right? ;)
Last Monday's walk/run, super happy cause I had just registered for Boston 2016.
You see, in embracing the "traditional" MAF Method to train for the M2B Marathon, that meant the majority of the time I ran I was running a sub 9 pace (usually sub 8:30 actually). That worked pretty well for marathon training and my goals, and I believe that's the case because my run volume was relatively low for marathon training standards. Then I had aspirations of moving to ultra, but not so fast--literally.

I scaled way back on running, but kept up with the "fit for life" routine and walking. Lots of walking. Dude, 2015 will be the year of discovering a love for walking. I walk whenever I get the chance--to the gym, to the store, and just for the hell of it. Read about that transition here first if you haven't.

Coincidentally, my friend, Dr. Tommy Wood, wrote a great piece on the benefits of walking including highlights of:

"walking increases your ability to handle oxidative damage. This makes is both an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant."

I swear, this has been the case for me, I can see & feel the benefits. Not to mention the side benefits of all of a sudden being able to get in a lot of miles per week, listen to and absorb some great educational podcasts (the kind that are too hard to soak in during tougher workouts), appreciate random beauty in life that you miss when you're driving... and run again!

As they say: Early to bed (in Vegas!), early to shred (Red Rock Canyon!).

New Game Plan for Volume
Anyway, it's been almost 12 weeks since I've taken a new approach, and so far so freaking good, including the many unforeseen side benefits. So here's my experience on how I made a safe, healthy progression to adding volume and going longer in a way that's sustainable and fun. Take note if you're looking to go longer and break into the ultra world.

1) It's not all about MAF (max aerobic) heart rate;
2) How "easier than MAF" is an extremely effective strategy to build endurance volume/fitness, be consistent and not break down;
3) The value of letting go of GPS watch obsession, pace, HR, needing a "perfect" workout for your log.

Warning: I have not tested this in an actual race yet; however, I do see that my body and mind are responding extremely well. At the end, it's about the individual's needs. So apply to your training as you see fit, if at all.

Riding high in Laguna Beach. That's Highway 133 below, one of three ways to get in and out of where I live. How many times I've driven/run/biked/walked that road? Countless. I prefer the high-up trails though.

Rest first
If you're at a crossroads and something isn't clicking with the current routine, and/or you feel off, there's a good chance you simply need to rest and/or change things up for a while; 2-6 weeks perhaps. This is what I did. Also like I did, you can still do little runs of 35 minutes or so, just 1-2x a week. Then any cross-training within reason is fine. On runs, totally let go of any pace goals, get out of your head, and shift the perspective in order to adhere to the purpose of resting and reseting the body... For me, I wore the Garmin but 100% ignored pace, and any run I did do was absolutely 2-3+ minutes slower than normal MAF pace. I was ok with that, which was weird but cool!

Wait for it... don't force it
After the downtime, things will happen without being forced. Have faith. For me, it was 4-6 weeks later of some major changes, and one day I set out to do my walk but instead I just felt like running. That happened a couple times--I had no agenda going into it, just listening to the body. Running--albeit slow running--was coming back naturally and felt refreshing and good. Then, several weeks later I was ready to take it up a notch and I had the urge to do some short 20-45" hill repeats. I've kept in those repeats 1x a week generally unless the body is tired.

Meanwhile, I still kept walking because I liked how that was building volume and making more time on my feet doable. Before I knew it I was getting 30-40 mile weeks of run/walk/hike.

Then a couple 50+ mile weeks (plus my crosstraining). Feeling great.

What's it all for?
I think in that July post you could probably sense I was a bit down on racing. It happens. I think I was in a funk. Exercise was fine, but I was over the idea of training for a bit. Then it came back. I didn't force it. My mind wanted it again--that new goal/race for which to strive. I think it's because I was so into this new style of training--more volume, slower miles and feeling proud of all my workouts whether they ended up being a 10-minute pace average or 20-minute pace average. This was novel, not caring about the average pace that would be seared on my TP log. And I think that's why I want to break into ultra--it's about the journey--whether that ends up being fast, slow or both.

Race mojo back. Let's do this.

Adding long workouts
You can let go of pace, but you can't let go of the long workouts--long sessions and eventually back-to-back days on the feet are the crux of ultra training. John's also in for a couple ultras next year, so we began planning some longer days in our schedules, which started in August (about 7 weeks ago from writing this). About twice a week we're doing 2.5- to 3.5-hour sessions that combine running and hiking/walking.

The backpacking is also very complementary to this, and I think backpacking was a crucial component of mentally adjusting to long days on two feet and going whatever pace is necessary. It's a different approach mentally speaking than the longs runs I was used to in triathlon/marathon training, which were still much more about a pace/HR goal.

With these new long workouts, it is not about "we need to run at X pace and X heart rate and do X intervals." Nooooooo! It is about "we're going for 3+ hours, here's the route. We will walk/hike as needed and run when it feels comfortable, and, hey, if we end up adding a little intensity or not it's all good." You go out with the intention to get the volume, not burn yourself and make it home holding a consistent effort. All the while, practicing hydration, and of course developing amazing fat-adaptation at these lower intensities!

And let's face it, very few people actually run (as in RUN) an entire ultra; yet, very few people (from what it seems like) actually practice enough walking in their training, which seems backwards to me.

Running Red Rock Canyon in Vegas. At any given moment the ability to cover 15-16 miles is a great feeling!

But what about MAF and a certain level of intensity to get faster/fitter?
An example of a trail that puts my HR over MAF
at a hiking pace. #steep
I won't lie, I haven't worried about holding MAF-specific HR this whole process, but meanwhile I can see and feel the effects of more fitness in my body. Since my goal is to go long, it's all about volume. Get in the volume--at any pace. I bet I'm mostly moving at a HR of 90-130--that's 20+ beats below my MAF! Granted, I know for certain I still get to my 150 MAF on the hilly trails around here, or the occasional "regular" runs. And sometimes even higher than MAF. But mostly it's slow, sub-MAF. Sustainable.

There is an undeniable inverse relationship between volume and intensity, and to get more volume (and have a sustainable, healthy program) you have to let go of intensity (MAF, while moderate, is still a measure of intensity).

Mantra for those looking to build volume: 
Move at paces and efforts that feel comfortable in order to get the distance and be consistent--don't let the HR monitor or GPS dictate what that is. 
Listen to your body, it will guide your appropriately.

However, one may argue if you're always going "slow" isn't that just a bunch of junk miles and not building fitness and endurance? I say, it depends. If volume if sufficient you're likely still building new fitness and ok. Also, it depends on the goals. This approach will likely not work for a 5k or 10k PR or an Olympic triathlon PR--eventually you need more intensity not just sh*tloads of volume. But if you're like me and goals are totally about building endurance and going longer, then this is your ticket to balancing health+performance.

In fact, I did try to build more volume all at MAF for a couple weeks initially and it was risky. I could and can tell that holding true MAF on all or most my workouts was going to cause me to crash and burn--it's simply too fast and too intense for the type of volume I'm looking for (I consider a sub-9 min mile MAF pace fast, that's me). And who knows, maybe in a few years when I'm more experienced it will be a different story and MAF will be doable with this volume. For now it's about tweaking one major stimulus at a time: volume.

I've said it before, I've never been a high-volume runner, ever! Even when I did the marathon this year, I had to be careful with volume in order to do well at the MAF and intensity I was trying to hold on key workouts. So this volume thing is still new territory for me. Volume being 40-50+ mile weeks all the time.

What, if any, "intensity" is allowed?
All that said, you don't want to plateau or get bored so how to appropriately and safely tweak the intensity (when the body gives the green light):

-Run at MAF but usually no more than 90min.
-Add a weighted pack of 10-20+lbs to the long days
-Short hill repeat/hill bounding workout
-Crosstraining: strength, kettlebells, cycling, swimming, SUP, etc. Note that all crosstraining doesn't have to be intense.

Crosstraining these days includes backpacking trips at places like Big Sur. I'm sure most runners out there will recognize this bridge, eh?! #bixbybridge

Mental side effects
The approach of getting in the volume regardless of pace was important shift for me, as someone who's always been so wrapped up in my pace, needing a certain pace, and holding on to a pace at the cost of sacrificing volume... none of that crap anymore. It's been freaking liberating in fact!

I used to be that anal endurance athlete who'd do anything to get the "perfect" Garmin file to upload. I'd stop my watch on stairs, or if I was forced to stop or walk for whatever reason I'd stop the watch so it wouldn't screw up my run file that I'd upload so I could have my "perfect" data in my "perfect" training log. Same with the bike. I'd even start new files so the "good" pace would have it's own file not to be slowed down by the warmup or cooldown. Ha.

Seen (and appreciated!) on my workout.
I know too many athletes who are just like this. So let me say, when you stop obsessing over the numbers a new world opens up--mostly you increase self-confidence and self-satisfaction in the work you're doing, not letting that get diminished if the "pace isn't good enough." There's a good chance you'll feel better training, be happier with YOU and what you're capable of doing with your body, you'll recover faster, be more consistent and not get deflated because of what the watch says. I often like to have my athletes ditch the data if they seem to be getting too number obsessed or down on themselves for unwarranted reasons.

Also in letting go of pace you're able to soak up more benefits of the workout like more enjoyment on your route, soaking in nature (I hope you get out on trails as much as I if you're looking for more volume!), appreciating little glimpses of beauty all around, enjoying the company of the person(s) I'm with, or really absorbing a podcast if I'm alone. Even listening to music is more fun because you'll feel your body jive with the rhythm of the song and a sense of oneness with the workout.

That said, I know many of us pursue this endurance sport stuff because we generally want to get better, get faster/stronger, increase fitness, etc. Seeing the results in the form of faster paces and more efficiency is helpful--but it's not everything. Not every workout will be faster/better, and if we keep striving for perfection we'll hate ourselves after a while. Enjoy the process more, worry less about outcomes. Learn from the process and thank your body for what it allows you to do. Don't whine over what you didn't or weren't able to do.

Maybe it's worth investing more energy into non-training time too to increase fitness--sleep, nutrition, stress management, and awesome post-workout recovery techniques:

I often finish my workouts here, at which point I literally run straight into the ocean to cool off, clothes and all. It's a great natural "ice" bath and immediately starts the recovery after workouts. Good for body and soul.
You may not have ocean access, but developing a peaceful post-workout routine is a good way to calm the nervous system and maintain consistency in training without breaking down.

Is it working?
I think you answer lies in your ability to sustain the mileage and build the mileage. Can you or not? I've been able to, and it's been over 10 weeks so it's not a fluke, I just keep feeling better actually. Granted, I'll finish workouts feeling tired at times, naps have happened, and I have certainly had rest periods woven in, but I find that I generally have awesome energy, I recover really fast, I'm engaged in the workouts, motivated and eager. I never dread a pending workout thinking, "ugh... gotta get on my shoes and out the door; this is gonna hurt." There's no whining--because even if I'm not my best that day I'll just hike or walk and not run, and I can still log 4-6 miles and that's a success. Being intuitive and smart. Before you know it you go for a 20-30mpw person to a 50+ mpw person.

Should you be testing to see if it's working? 
This is tricky perhaps and a level of faith is needed. My MAF test pace is not likely getting faster. I'll be quite honest in saying that. But it's about specificity of training! I'm not really training with a faster MAF pace as a goal. I'm sure if I did another MAF test right now it would be slower than this one. I simply have some volume fatigue in my legs, and maybe if I rested for a bit and did a MAF test I may see decent results. But I don't really care about that right now because I have a different "test" I'm using.

The key test/re-test is a combo of: 
1) building the long workout + 2) weekly volume consistency = can you hang in and keep that up?

All the while, it's important to still have benchmarks to ensure you're not digging into a rut of fatigue or literally going backwards. Most importantly: how do you feel? Then specific to workouts, here are a couple:

If I go out with the intention to run at MAF and it's an 8-10 min pace range, and that feels good not a slog or burning like it's 5k effort, then I still see this as a successful build of fitness and run endurance. And if that's at/near the end of a 30-40+ mile week, which has been the case, even better.

Other signs it's working...

1) Look to your crosstraining: are you thriving or surviving?
Few examples from me. This weekend I had a couple good eye-openers that my body is loving this style of training and it isn't all tense, out of whack, weak or imbalanced. Saturday I did a gnarly (heavy + relatively intense) strength training workout with a client and didn't even get the usual DOMS that I'd suspect from that kind of workout (included 6 X 5 DL @ 145# and 100 sledgehammer swings each arm). That night I danced away at a wedding... still no major DOMS crept up... Then Sunday, I went to bikram yoga for the first time in 4-6 weeks (sorta fell off consistent yoga for a bit) and literally I think I had one of my best sessions in life coming off a 40+ mile week. Focused and nailed the poses, no signs of being overly tight or tense, in fact waaaayyyyy loser than "triathlete tawnee."

2) Are you injured?
This is easy. Your body will breakdown if the stimulus is too much to handle or something, some variable, isn't ideal for you at the moment. It may need an increased focus on functional strength training and correctives, or an adjustment of volume/intensity or all of the above.

Personally, (knock on wood) I'm very injury-free right now and feeling very strong. I think the weighted hiking is helping a ton too to build joint integrity and whatnot. Plus, I'm telling you, I'm certain that too much/too high of intensity is at the root of most injuries out there. Eliminate that and you're in much safer territory.

So what's the schedule?
Set out your game plan and don't rush it. We've allowed 10 months to build toward our A race, and we were talking about the race a long time before that, remember in May when I said I was ultra inspired? I guess a couple "hiccups" along the way, but that notion held strong in the end... the ultra life has chosen me; I've chosen it. By the time we get to doing Badwater Salton Sea, it will be 10 months of specific training for that one event. It's like Ironman, especially for novices, give it a full year to build to it! Have a plan, and build a smart schedule in advance! And as much as I know that you can't expect training/race day to go perfectly as planned, we do have the plan laid out on how we will tackle our training and race execution, no half-assing/underestimating what this distance entails*.

Here's our 2016 outlook:

January - 50k or 50-miler
Feb - no race
March - Backpacking trip(s)
April - Ragnar SoCal (again!); the Boston Marathon
May - 'A' race: 81-mile Badwater Salton Sea
June - Get married
July - Backpacking honeymoon: 70+mile thru hike; crew at Badwater in Death Valley
August & Beyond - TBD

*Please note, it's not our goal to run as fast as we can in Salton Sea or our ultras. Our goals are to make the distance, make the cutoffs, experience new adventures, and figure out how to make this a sustainable lifestyle, not one that drills us into the ground with excess fatigue and problems.

Don't forget that it's about feeling good and doing what's best for you.