MAF Training for Runners


If you’ve spent time researching different training methods to help improve your pace or time, chances are you’ve come across MAF training for runners. It’s a run training philosophy that’s based on heart rate rather than speed or intensity.

Runners who are looking for a new way of training should give MAF training a try. It’s known to be one of the healthiest and most sustainable ways of training, so it’s well worth a go.

You can actually incorporate this kind of training into your already existing training schedule. In this article, we’ll explain what exactly it is and how to do it so you can see if it’s the kind of training that will work for you.

It’s important to note that MAF is a way of training, but the method itself also covers nutrition and stress.

It’s technically more of a lifestyle change than a training-specific method, but we’ll be looking at how to use the principles in your running training.

What does MAF stand for?

MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function. This is a phrase that’s applicable for all kinds of aerobic sports, not just running.

Triathletes can benefit even more from this kind of training, as it can be used in running, swimming, and cycling, as well as other cardio exercises.

But the word MAF is also considered to be short for Maffetone, which is the name of the founder of this type of training!

Who Made MAF Popular?

MAF training was created by Dr. Phil Maffetone, a sports nutrition, exercise, and medical expert. He authored “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”, and he used his 40+ years of research and clinical practice to come up with the idea.

Part of Dr. Maffetone’s philosophy is the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all diet or running plan. MAF training is described as an “open system”, which you can incorporate into any training and nutrition plan.

How Does MAF Work?

The MAF Method is built on 3 pillars for health and wellness: exercise, nutrition, and stress. It’s designed to bolster all 3 of these to kickstart your aerobic system, which aids in burning fat, increasing fitness levels, and improving performance.

The training part of the method is all about your heart rate. That doesn’t mean pace isn’t important. But when you’re doing MAF training, it’s more important to focus on staying in the right heart rate zone.

By running according to heart rate zones, you’re effectively training your body to run faster and for longer at a lower heart rate. This builds up your stamina, helping you to run for longer before fatiguing.

What Heart Rate Range Should I Target?

You may have heard that calculating your maximum heart is 220 minus your age. Calculating your MAF heart rate is just as easy – 180 minus your age. As a few examples:

  • If you’re 32 years old, your MAF HR would be 148 bpm.
  • A 58-year-old’s MAF heart rate would be 122 bpm.
  • And a 20-year old’s MAF HR would be 160 beats per minute.

Generally, we speak in terms of a MAF heart rate range, which starts at 10 below your MAF HR. So, for the above examples, the MAF HR ranges would be 138 to 148 bpm, 112 to 122 bpm, and 150 to 160 bpm.

This is for fairly healthy people who exercise regularly. If you’re ill, recovering from a medical procedure or major injury, or on medication, subtract an extra 10. If you’ve been sick, subtract an extra 5 while you’re recovering, just to be safe.

Anything within that zone is aerobic. Anything above that is anaerobic. The key to using MAF training effectively is to stick to the generally accepted aerobic/anaerobic ratios.

What’s the Difference Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Training?

The word “aerobic” means “with air”. “Anaerobic” means “without air”. That doesn’t mean you’ll be exercising without breathing, though! It’s more about the volume of air you’ll be taking in while exercising.

Aerobic refers to the body producing energy by using oxygen that’s entered the body during inhalation.

Usually, aerobic exercises are a more endurance-focused type of workout that increases the heart rate and breathing rate over a prolonged period of time.

Anaerobic, on the other hand, is more of a HIIT-style exercise that happens in short, high-intensity bursts. It relies less on the oxygen you’re taking in and more on your body’s stored energy.

In terms of within a single race, aerobic is the more easy-paced running sessions and anaerobic will be the shorter bursts of all-out effort.

What’s the Aerobic/Anaerobic Ratio From Mile to Marathon?

To perform at your best in competitive races when you’re using the MAF training method, you should split your miles into aerobic vs anaerobic miles.

This allows you to allocate your energy healthily and effectively, without taking too much of a toll on the body.

Here are the ideal aerobic and anaerobic ratios for four of the most common distances (aerobic/anaerobic).

  • ½-mile: 66/34
  • 1 mile: 84/16
  • 5K run: 84/16
  • 10K run: 90/10
  • Half-marathon: 97.5/2.5
  • Marathon: 97.5/2.5

Once you’ve understood how to calculate your MAF heart rate zones, it’s not difficult to make sure that you stay within these zones for the required splits.

What are the Benefits of MAF Training?

Training at a low heart rate might sound like a pointless endeavor. True, you won’t burn as many calories as you would getting your heart rate up. But the percentage of fat burned in comparison to total calorie burn is actually surprisingly high.

But quite apart from calorie burn, MAF training is a superb way to improve your aerobic capacity and stamina. Your cardiovascular system will thank you for this kind of build-up. If you’re a long-distance runner, this kind of training is invaluable.

Because you’re essentially running at a slightly slower pace than usual, MAF training actually results in less injury than other training methods. If you’re prone to injury during intense training sessions, MAF training could be worth a try!

Learning to run faster and for longer by strengthening your aerobic base means that eventually, your body gets used to burning fat for fuel instead of relying on oxygen. This not only helps with fat burning, but it helps you to run further on less energy.

How Do I Monitor Progress?

There’s a handy MAF test you can perform every month or so, which will give you a good indication of your progress. Set aside some time to spend on a 5-mile run. It would be easiest to do on a track, as you’ll need to take note of each mile split.

Don’t forget to warm up. Even though this isn’t technically part of your training routine, it’s still an exercise! Spend 10 to 15 minutes warming up.

Then, go ahead and run your 5 miles at your MAF heart rate. You’ll need to monitor your heart rate and ensure that you’re staying within your range.

As you go, monitor your time on each mile split. This is where you’ll see if you’re making progress or not. Each passing month, your time should be improving. As long as you’re running faster (even just a little), you know you’re improving!

Keep in mind that your MAF heart rate should be roughly the same every time you do this test. Unless you’ve had to adjust it to accommodate illness or medication, in which case it may fluctuate.

How Come I Don’t Get Faster With the MAF Method?

If you’ve been working on the MAF method for a few months and you haven’t seen any change in pace, it may be worth examining the other important elements that have a bearing on your physical fitness.

Firstly, overtraining is a common reason for a lack of progress. Are you training too much, too often, or too hard? Are you feeling unusually fatigued and lacking in motivation for your workouts? Overtraining could definitely be the culprit.

Another common factor is poor recovery. You need at least 8 hours of sleep, and your nutrition should be on-point if you want to recover properly. You also need to allow enough time between sessions, and do recovery activities like foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and perhaps a little yoga.

Also, poor running form or not warming up properly can diminish your performance. Lastly, if you’re running above your MAF heart rate inadvertently or miscalculating your MAF heart rate, chances are you won’t see the improvement you’re looking for.

What Type of Runners Would Benefit from MAF Training?

MAF training may be considered the healthiest form of training, but it’s not for every runner. However, some runners may benefit from it more than others.

Beginners & Overweight Runners

If you’re closer to the beginner level, MAF training would be an ideal start. That way, you’ll get your body primed for aerobic fitness from the very beginning. It also takes away the pressure of having to focus on pace and continually push yourself to go faster.

Runners who don’t care much for tracking their pace or hitting new PRs, but instead want to stay fit, healthy, and happy, may also benefit more from MAF training than any other kind.

Lastly, runners who are overweight and looking to shed some pounds may find that MAF training gives them all the right tools to do that without the added risk of injury.

Runners Prone to Injuries

Runners who are prone to injury could benefit from MAF training over other types.

Considering that MAF training accounts for illness, injury, and even medication, runners who are prone to any kind of health problems may get better results out of MAF training than they ever have with other kinds of training.

On the other hand, even if you’re in perfect health and have no injuries, MAF training could be the ideal way to keep up your fitness in the off-season without risking injury.

Those Who Run for Fun/Stress Relief

If you run to reduce stress, stay active, get out in the fresh air, and get away from the screen, then MAF training could be for you. Chances are you aren’t following a strict training program if you aren’t planning on running competitively.

But incorporating MAF heart rate training into your easy runs could have health benefits that are much more far-reaching than on the road. Building up your aerobic capacity means you’ll burn fat more easily, you should find that your breathing improves, and your health, in general, takes an upward swing.

Also, not having the pressure of pushing yourself to reach goals or hit a certain pace means your runs are likely to be much more enjoyable!

You can simply relax into your run and know that as long as you’re staying in your MAF HR zone, your body is in a good, healthy space.

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.