Reflections on The Maffetone Method: What’s Right and What’s Dubious

In serious running circles, I’m not sure if there’s anything more divisive and derided than Philip Maffetone’s The Maffetone Method. Some people seem to be true disciples of his philosophy, and many others seem to think it is nothing but pure quackery.

After seeing many posters come to r/AdvancedRunning to ask questions about Maffetone’s MAF method – and typically get scolded for following his advice – I thought it would be worthwhile to check out the book. What exactly does he recommend, and does it actually make any sense?

After reading the book, I think he gets an unfair reputation in some ways. He makes some great suggestions, especially for people who are just starting out in their running journey. But, he also makes some claims and suggestions that just defy reason.

Let me run through a few of the highlights and lowlights here – what he gets right and what he gets wrong.

An Overview of Phil Maffetone’s The Maffetone Method

Let me start with a brief overview of the book itself, for those who aren’t familiar.

The full title of the book is The Maffetone Method: The Holistic, Low-Stress, No-Pain Way to Exceptional Fitness.

I’m specifically referring to the original book, published in 1999. However, there is a more recent e-book – The MAF Method: A Personalized Approach to Health and Fitness – that is essentially a boiled down version of the original work. There’s also a much longer work – The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing – that, I’m assuming, gets into more detail about how to apply his principles to serious training. I plan to skim through this and write a follow-up post at some point, but I haven’t read it yet.

Here’s Maffetone’s basic argument.

Fitness “experts” claim that you have to workout really hard to see results. No pain, no gain. Right?

Wrong. According to Maffetone, these “experts” are going about things the wrong way. In most cases, people need to slow down their training and work at a much lower intensity.

He specifically recommends that you figure out what heart rate corresponds to the top end of your aerobic zone and target that intensity with your workouts. By doing so, you can develop your aerobic function and reap extreme benefits.

Some of those benefits include running faster, having less stress, preventing injuries, and losing weight.

Sounds great, right? Too good to be true? Maybe, maybe not.

What Phil Maffetone Gets Right in The Maffetone Method

Let’s start with what Phil gets right in this book.

If I had to pick out two things, it’s his recommendation to focus on aerobic running and his explanation of the anatomy of an injury.

Aerobic Training Is Important

By and large, his suggestion that you focus on low intensity, aerobic work is a good recommendation for a serious athlete. This is not actually a new concept. High volume training goes back to the middle of the 20th century, with Arthur Lydiard probably being the most famous name associated with the approach.

By putting in a lot of easy miles, you can develop your aerobic capacity and build a base for your speed. Easy volume promotes all kinds of physiological adaptations, like the development of mitochondria, that enable your body to more efficiently move and use oxygen. The net impact is that you will eventually be able to run at a faster pace but at the same intensity as before.

Whether you’re following a plan from Hal Higdon, Jack Daniels, Pete Pfitzinger, Matt Fitzgerald, or Luke Humphrey, you’ll see the same basic formula. Run a lot, at an easy to moderate pace. Run a little at a harder intensity. The balance varies a little bit, especially in the more advanced (and higher volume) plans. But no one (except maybe the FIRST training plan) is recommending that you spend the majority of your time running at a high intensity.

I think the real audience who does need to hear this advice isn’t runners – it’s the general population. Whether you’re thinking about old aerobics videos, Tae Bo, the Insanity workouts, or something more modern like CrossFit, the kind of workouts promoted to the general public always emphasize high intensity work.

People are busy, and they want to get the most bang for their buck. I think this came to a head in recent years with research into HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training. There’s plenty of research that shows that quick bursts of training do increase your VO2 max. In the short term, this seems like a great way to train. But these studies rarely track people’s progress long term, and it’s likely that they plateau before long.

So if there’s one thing that Phil gets right, it’s that people should slow down. No pain, no gain is a recipe for burnout and injury in most cases. But to the extent that his work is aimed at the running community, this is a straw man argument. Because serious runners already know this.

The Anatomy of an Injury

The other part of the Maffetone Method that I thought was interesting was his discussion over the anatomy of an injury.

At some points, his recommendations and explanations seemed a bit far fetched. But the core idea – that an injury develops over time – makes sense. The corollary – that you need to treat the cause of an injury and not the symptom – also makes a ton of sense.

Whether you’re having hip, knee, or foot problems, there could be any number of causes. In the abstract, it’s often the result of a muscle imbalance that causes your body to overcompensate in certain ways. A good physical therapist can take a look at you, see how you move, and diagnose what’s wrong. Through rehab – likely including some low intensity aerobic work – you can fix the root cause and get healthy again.

This is a super important concept for every runner to understand. It’s not uncommon for runners to get stuck in a revolving door of injuries. They get hurt, they rest, and when they eventually start running again they get hurt again. That’s because they treated the symptom – through rest – without addressing the root cause.

And that’s why asking the internet, “Why does me knee hurt when I’m running?” isn’t a good approach. Maybe it’s your quad. Maybe it’s your hip. Maybe it’s your shoes. Maybe it’s your form. There is no single answer – other than go see a good physical therapist who can take a look at you and figure out what is happening.

What Phil and His Followers Get Wrong

So let’s accept that Phil’s premise is correct. Good endurance training is built on a foundation of high volume, aerobic work.

That’s not the problem. But here are a few problems that you should consider before deciding that you’re going to adopt his approach to training as a runner.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All – The MAF Formula

Perhaps the biggest problem – and the one he is most often criticized for – is the attempt to generalize his advice with the use of the MAF formula. If you’re working from the assumption that you need to spend time running in the aerobic zone, the first thing you need to do is figure out what that intensity is.

There’s plenty of good ways to do that. But for simplicity’s sake, Phil includes the MAF formula in his book and his work. It’s fairly simple.

Start by subtracting your age from 180. In my case, 180 – 39 is 141. That, essentially, is my target heart rate. He has a few recommendations for adjusting this up or down, but they are very general. In my case, since I’ve been training consistently for more than two years, I can add 5 – yielding an MAF heart rate of 146.

As an average across a population, this may work out just fine. I bet if you took 1,000 people and tested them to find their aerobic threshold, the formula would be fairly accurate. But heart rate zones can vary massively from person to person.

Often, people ask for help because they use the formula to calculate their MAF heart rate, and they then have to run extremely slow to keep their heart rate that low. It’s always possible that they are very out of shape. But if they’ve been at it for a couple months, and they’re still chugging along at 12-13 minutes per mile, chances are they’re just targeting a ridiculously – and artificially – low heart rate.

Your Aerobic Threshold Heart Rate Isn’t Static

A related problem is that, once you figure out this target heart rate, it isn’t static. With training, your aerobic threshold itself will be pushed higher. And with varying conditions, the pace you can run at your aerobic threshold will also vary wildly.

One of Phil’s key recommendations is to regularly test yourself to see if you are making progress. And that makes sense, conceptually. It’s not uncommon for people to run time trials to measure their progress.

In the case of the Maffetone method, the test isn’t an all-out time trial, though. Instead, you warm up until your heart rate reaches your MAF heart rate. Then, you track your pace over the next several miles. If you do this every month, the pace at which you run should come down.

If you perform this test in perfect conditions each time, that may be the case. But in reality, the weather can have a huge impact on the results.

It’s the middle of August, and I’ve written this summer about my experience running in the Florida heat. There is no question that heat and humidity make you slower, and that when the weather cools off you can run much faster at the same intensity.

This morning, I went out for a 10 mile run. I started at an easy pace and I increased to a more moderate pace. I averaged 8:17/mi with a heart rate of 145. The weather was warm, but not impossible – low 70’s with humidity above 70%.

In February, I went out for a 10 mile run. Similarly, I started off easy and worked up to a moderate pace in the back half. I averaged 8:16/mi – basically the same as today. My average heart rate was 139.

The difference? The temperature was in the high 20’s and the humidity was around 40%. The weather was perfect.

If I was using Phil’s MAF test, I’d have gone significantly slower today than I did six months ago. The results would suggest that I’m getting worse. But I am in much better shape today than I was then, and the proof will be in the pudding when I run my next marathon in a couple weeks.

If you are going to use the MAF test – or something similar – make sure to do your best to hold the weather conditions equal. This probably means either running inside on a treadmill, or only comparing the results to those run in similar conditions. This works fine if you’re testing your progress from January to March – it does not work if you want to see consistent progress from April to August.

Your Aerobic Zone Isn’t Necessarily Easy

Another problem here – and I’m not sure if it’s an error on Maffetone’s part or simply a misunderstanding by his followers – is that aerobic running isn’t slow and easy.

If you’re just starting out, then yes. It will be painfully slow. But for a well trained runner, you can run fairly quickly and still be working at an aerobic intensity.

Phil’s book refers to the MAF heart rate, and that’s unique to his work. But in reading the book, it seems that he’s really talking about what others would call your aerobic threshold.

As a runner, you’ve probably heard the term “threshold” used before. Typically, it’s in reference to your anaerobic or lactate threshold. This is similar to your T pace in Jack Daniels’ Running Formula. It’s been variously described as “comfortably hard” and the pace you could hold in a race for an hour. It is a moderately hard intensity.

But there is a lower threshold – sometimes called your aerobic threshold or ventilatory threshold. There are real ways to test for this. But if you’re estimating it based off a race performance, this would be equivalent to your three hour race pace.

If you’re a well trained runner, how far are you racing in three hours? A marathon, more or less. In other words, for a well trained runner, your aerobic or ventilatory threshold shouldn’t be far off from your marathon pace. If you’re significantly faster (i.e. a 2:30 marathoner), then it’ll be a little behind pace. And if you’re slower (i.e. a 3:30 marathoner), then it will actually be a little faster.

But the point is, it isn’t a long, slow slog. In Advanced Marathoning, Pete Pfitzinger recommends running your long runs at 10% to 20% slower than your marathon pace. Jack Daniels’ E pace is similar. In both cases, most people would probably consider these to be moderate intensity. In the case of Jack Daniels, many complain that the E pace range seems too hard.

People often assume that aerobic running should always be slow and effortless. That’s simply not the case.

Aerobic Running Doesn’t Cure Every Ill

My final gripe with Phil Maffetone is that he essentially recommends aerobic running as a cure for everything that ails you.

If you’re new to running, trying to lose weight, or rehabbing an injury, then yes. Focusing almost exclusively on easy, aerobic running is a good idea. Starting with walking may also be a good idea. When I was first getting back into running, I spent three months walking 30 minutes a day before I slowly started to incorporate more running. It definitely helped, and two and a half years later I can comfortably run 70 to 80 miles in a week.

But there is little to no evidence to support the idea that you should focus only on easy, aerobic running – especially if you’ve been running for a while.

To the contrary, some type of periodization makes a lot of sense. Start with low intensity, high volume work. Then shift to lower volume with more intensity. Rest, recover, and repeat. This is how you build a strong body over the long term and produce better results.

I’m sure there are some runners who have been hammering their training hard for years, with high intensity and low volume. They’ve plateaued, because they’ve eked out all they can from their current volume. They would definitely benefit from a base period of 3 to 6 months of increasing, easy volume. But they need to alternate between the easy and the hard – not throw one out to focus exclusively on the other.

What Are Your Thoughts On the Maffetone Method?

Overall, I’m glad I actually read the book. Based on what other people said about Phil Maffetone, I kind of expected it to be a waste of time. But there are some valuable insights in there.

What I really found interesting, though, was the intersection of Maffetone and other running coaches and running plans. People seem to think he’s different. But his suggestions aren’t that crazy. If you calculate your aerobic threshold correctly, spending a lot of time at an aerobic intensity is good training.

And now that I’ve read this book, I actually want to do some research and write up a more thorough explanation of what the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are. I’ve learned some things as a result of reading this book and then looking for some answers elsewhere, and I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned.

Have you read Phil Maffetone’s The Maffetone Method? Have you put his principles into practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

And if you haven’t read the book, I think it’s worth it. It’s a quick read, and frankly the more you read about training the better off you are. It really helps you understand the big picture, instead of blindly following one training plan or another.

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