mundane adventures in running

Review: The Maffetone Method

I have never met a carbohydrate i don’t like. I eat a shitload of carbs. Rice, bread and pasta mostly, but also fruit juice, dried fruits and occasionally a can of Coke.  I find it hard to conceive of a life without carbs… what, what what would I eat?

I’ve tried fasting before. I found that I couldn’t run on fast days. I’d try, but it would leave me freezing, skittish and exhausted. I even find I have to eat breakfast before I go out running in the morning. The thought of even doing 10k without some friendly familiar wheat carbohydrates in my belly leaves me cold. The last marathon I did, I packed my race belt with Island Delight veggie patties to make sure I had the carbs I needed to get through.

So it comes as a constant surprise that the low carb Atkins phenomenon has extended from the world of freaky diets and into running. In running blogs and media, I seem to be coming across more and more references to Ketone, low carb, fat burning aerobic sessions. The references run the full gamut from the fairly gentle do gels really help? through to the extreme: cases of people who can run Marathon de Sables on a litre of water and half a kilo of butter.

At first, I read these things with a mix of anger and incredulity: what, these bastards want me to stop eating pasta? fuck them, fuck them all! Particularly when my dad gave me a copy of Why We Get Fat for christmas a couple of years ago. Deny me my bread will you? Punch the father, punch the father. 

It was reading Natural Born Heroes and being introduced to Phil Maffetone for the first time which made me start to make me think about trying it myself. The idea of being able to fuel myself on fat sounded appealing, I’m 40 next year, and while i’m fairly trim, I carry a lot more fat than I did in my 20s. I could do with losing a little. I also love the idea of running long distance with the reserves I have on my body, not fuelling myself on the way. There’s a third reason: I am bloody minded. The de-carbing diet Chris Mcdougall refers to (eat no carbs for two weeks, see how you feel) sounded like the kind eccentric self inflicted misery I LOVE. I read Eat and Run and did six months as a vegan. This is like that.

I started looking for a Maffetone book.

First I came across some of Phil’s music on Youtube. Watch this clip and answer the question would you take sports science advice from this man?

Second, I looked on Amazon. Much more fruitfully. I found two books. First, the Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. This book appeared to be from my least favourite genre of sports book, the very long sports book. It’s the most up to date one, and the one which Phil himself recommends. So, even though it promised to give so much more, I thought I’d just try the classic, Maffetone Method.

So read it. It’s just pretty straightforward stuff: work out your aerobic threshold, never run over your aerobic threshold. To get your number: it’s 180 less your age. Adjust for injuries, for training history, for being cool. I get 141, which is a slight difference to where i was before… I had been using 145, but truth be told, it was a bit too difficult. The mantra continues: never run over your aerobic threshold. Ok, maybe once you’ve run at under it for a long time, maybe then you can start to worry about anaerobic training, but only then.

The positive side of it is that i believe it can help me train harder and more consistently without overdo-ing and without injury. While each run is pretty hard, 140 winds up as a sub 5 min/km pace, which is faster than I’d reckon on doing on most training runs, the cumulative load does seem light. October was my heaviest running month without injury ever (I did more in September 2013, but got achilles tendonitis and had to take a couple of months off as a result). I put my success in October down partly to not doing ANY speed work at all.

Oh, and another massive positive is that it is easy to do. No mucking about with zone, just tick over at around 140 and your fine.

There are some lovely aspects to Phil’s approach. It is very inclusive, he is at pains to point out that this method should be good for anyone. He is also holistic, he talks as much about mental stress as he does about physical stress. He clearly knows a lot, his science seems ok (although my wife, with her twenty odd years of medical experience disagrees).

So, given that my current running goal seems to just be run shitloads, all quantity, no quality, Maffetone is working for me.

But there are negatives. First, I miss speed work. Maffetone’s good reason for not including it is that you are more likely to injury yourself. Fine, and true, but I do think I could knock out 6X500m sprints without killing myself. His bad reason is that anaerobic training will somehow be at the expense of aerobic training. I don’t understand this: why should training your anaerobic muscle tissue be to the detriment of aerobic? If i’m swapping out an aerobic session for an anaerobic one, so be it, but what id I’m swapping out a rest day? And… and… surely I should have some variation in my training, surely my body will thank me for knowing how to sprint if I need to?

Something else: weirdly, I miss negative splits. This is true running geekery; I miss an abstract training principle. I like to slowly speed up for the course of a run, especially a longer run. Running to your heartbeat is horrible for this. On a Maffetone run, I warm up, then I get into the right pace for a 135-140 heartbeat (which as I mentioned is pretty hard), then slog it out for another 80 minutes, getting slower and slower. Maybe it is good for training, but it’s a demoralising run: so much nicer to start of gentle then achieve a far faster pace for the same 140 bpm heartrate later on towards the end of the session. It’s so rewarding to find your legs after 15km, rather than feeling that your heart is just racing faster and faster as you slow to a snail’s pace.

Other things. I wouldn’t normally call a book out for bad typography, but this book seems remarkable in its barrage of type faces. It is set in mental. There are pages which appear to have 4-5 different type faces in them. It’s a jarring look, and one which makes you value graphic designers as an asset to society in a way you may not have before considered.


It’s written like a lot of sports books: pretty horrible. The prose all over the place, discursive in a bad way. It often feels like he remembers something mid chapter, and spends a couple of paragraphs getting distracted. In fact whole chapters, like the one about choosing sports shoes feel out of place (which is a shame, as his thoughts on sports shoes are interesting, probably right, and pretty avant garde for something published in 2000).  An example is the repeated mentions of SAD. I get that SAD could be relevant to training and to stress… but it feels like it might be worthy of a book in its own right,

The remaining chapters talk about Phil’s attitude to stretching and warming up, recovering from injury and even menstrual problems. His advice seems good (especially on warming down and stretching), and is generally well explained with just enough, just convincing enough science. The main problem with it is that it’s not that exciting, and quite close to what I do anyway. Except the last chapter which discusses diet. Phil advocates a two week ‘test’ (NOT a diet) where you stop eating all carbs for two weeks and see you how feel. He’s strict too, no milk (lactose) no beans, no chick peas. No toast for breakfast. No potato in my fishcakes. No panko on my tofu. The idea is to test yourself. I think he’s trying to set you up for a damascene moment. Phil wants you to establish you are carbohydrate intake is too high. He wants you to take the test, feel amazing, and then change your diet in a less extreme way to get a long term benefit. After two weeks, you can slowly reintroduce carbs, but with a focus on whole grains, avoiding sugar, and not over-doing it (which seems sensible). I haven’t done it. I might do it. I am scared of it.

Weirdly, the lessons I have learned from this book are three: there’s no shame in doing much more low heart rate training, and it’s a good way to avoid injury; I probably eat too many carbs, I could find out for sure by doing a two week carb fast, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough; I should warm down more comprehensively on my runs.

I don’t think I’d recommend the Maffetone Method. Admittedly, I do Phil an injustice, he says himself that the big book of endurance training is the one to go for. Maybe try it if you’re stuck, if you’re repeatedly injured, if you worry about how stress is negatively impacting on your training, or if you want a view of why over training has stopped you from menstruating.


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