I always thought the best way to train was to push the heart beyond its comfort zone on a regular basis because only that way would it get larger and more efficient. So my previous training plans looked largely like this:
Mon: rest day
Tues: easy run
Thurs: hills / strength session
Fri: rest day
Sat: easy run
Sun: long run
And in reality, this kind of system worked for me. I got fitter, I ran faster, and I could fit it in around my daily working life. The short-fast ones on work days, the longer ones at the weekend. And I was really happy with my marathon time. BUT I was still in a lot of pain at the end of the race last year (especially lower back pain… grrr….) and now I’m thinking of stretching myself, I’m wondering how I will ever manage an ultra.
However, I’ve been reading Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson, (prizes for the most off-putting subtitle. It reads: “how to be a fat burning beast”). So I’m experimenting with the 80/20 rule – 80% slow and long, 20% fast, which is almost the inverse of every training rule I’ve followed so far. I’m running with a heart rate monitor. And I’m not allowing my heart rate to get above 180 MINUS my age. According to Mark, who is influenced by ultra runner coach Phil Maffetone, I need to be running at a speed that pushes my heart rate no higher than 151 beats per minute.
Initially, I thought this sounded decent. Given my low resting heart rate of sub-50 bpm, I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll be able to run and stay in that general region”. But oh no. Keeping my heartbeat that low makes me sloooooooooow. 11-minute-mile slow. So slow that I have to walk up all stairs I encounter on my run and sometimes even gentle inclines. Like road bridges, famed for their gentle slopes. The other night I ran home along the southbank and there was a race for testicular cancer going on, and I was literally lapped by everyone.
In essence, the Maffetone method is intended to help you build a really strong aerobic base to burn all your body fat, rather than consistently stressing your anaerobic system, which should be reserved for all-out sessions. It’s in line with a lot of the ‘primal’ thinking out there, where humans should only eat meat, fish, fruit, veg, nuts and seeds, and follow imaginative training regimes that suggest you could race your friend to a ‘mammoth leg’ (read a heavy log lying in the field) and then have a game of tag while one of you runs around with the log.
Now I do like the primal way of eating. One summer I took the Whole 30 challenge, which was pretty tough but most certainly worth it, and it changed my eating habits for good. And usually I don’t mind looking stupid when I run. But this slow running? It’s almost boring, and I never thought I’d say that about long distance running. So we shall see what benefits it brings, though I’m aware that with August only 3 months away, speed running is right around the corner. I think I might have to go back to Maffetone in the autumn in preparation for the ultras next year.
What do you think? Could you take the Maffetone test? For 2-3 months, you can test your progress every four weeks by running 5 miles at the heart rate of 180 bpm minus your age. (You can add 5 if you’ve been training regularly for 2 years without injury). Each time you do the test you should see your times (slow though they may be) drop gradually. Crucially you are not supposed to do any training above this heart rate during this period. This, apparently, will build your aerobic base, which will ensure you are, ahem, a fat burning beast. (Or a lazybones. I’m not sure 🙂