Exercise needn’t be a joyless, aimless affair, but it often is. One of the reasons behind it is often that we don’t know exactly how intensely we should be training.
It can be really easy to sucker ourselves into really believing the old myth “no pain, no gain” – and then we wonder why we sometimes tend to shudder at the thought of exercise! After all, it can’t work if it doesn’t hurt – and who wants to be hurt?
However, this is, simply put, a myth! Yes, exercise requires hard work and commitment, but the idea that it should be miserable, without any attainable goal or real purpose, is completely false.
Knowing why and how to exercise in a certain way can do wonders for your performance, and your desire to exercise in the first place.
And furthermore, there’s a limit to how effective high intensity workouts can be.
In fact, there are positives to actually working a little less hard than your maximum – in doing so, you’re increasing your aerobic energy output, making your heart healthier, and making things easier for yourself in the long run.
This method of training, called low heart rate training, or Maximum Aerobic Function training, could even help you run faster – but first, you’ll have to run more slowly! If you’re interested in learning more about this way of training, then read on – this article is for you!
What Is Low Heart Rate Training?
Low heart rate training, also known as Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) training, is actually a fairly simple concept to explain.
At the core of the idea is the idea of heart rate training itself. This is a training method that’s focused solely on the idea of training based on data about your heart rate. This is to give a more accurate account of the effort that your body has to put into a workout.
For example, two runners could conceivably run the same distance at the same speed and in the same time, yet one of them has a much higher heart rate than the other.
If you were to analyze these two runners based on just distance, speed, and time, then it would be easy to fall into the trap of judging them as if they were the same – they got the same results, at the same speed, right?
However, the runner with the higher heart rate is of course having to put more effort in, and expend more energy – but without looking at the heart rate itself, you’d never know.
Therefore, looking at the heart rate data is a very important way of tracking effort and progress – as it literally shows how much energy your heart has to put into keeping your body moving.
Low heart rate training, therefore, obviously takes your heart rate as its key metric. The aim of low heart rate training is for you to maintain a lower heart rate while exercising than your maximum output.
The essence of low heart rate training is fixed around this idea. You’ll have a threshold heart rate – and your aim, no matter what form of exercise you’re doing, is to keep your heart rate lower than the maximum beats per minute threshold.
Therefore – instead of jogging or running at full intensity, you’ll likely actually be performing more slowly. Instead of aiming to constantly push your body to its highest limits, you’re actually aiming to train your body to keep your heart rate lower.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the way you’ll be training is running more slowly, in order that you’ll be able to run faster down the line!
The way this works is that, by training your heart rate to remain low during exercise, you’ll be able to push the limits of what you can do without increasing your heart rate – essentially meaning that your body and heart can work at the same rate without expending quite as much energy.
The way that this works is by increasing the amount of aerobic activity that your body performs, as opposed to anaerobic activity. Of course, it’s likely a good idea to explain these two functions!
Aerobic energy production uses oxygen in the process of synthesizing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is a compound the body creates that gives muscles the energy to work.
Aerobic means “with air”, indicating that oxygen is used in the chemical process. Aerobic activity typically takes place at between 60-80% of your maximum heart rate.
At higher heart rates than this, your body essentially instead needs to use stored chemicals to synthesize ATP. Rather than the aerobic system, this uses two other anaerobic systems. Firstly, there’s the ATP-CP system, also called the phosphagen system.
This uses a compound called creatine phosphate (or phosphocreatine) to produce ATP. This energy system can only work for around 10 seconds at the most, and is used for the shortest, most intense bursts of energy, such as making a big jump, or picking up a very heavy weight.
The other system is called the anaerobic system, or the glycolytic system. This uses lactic acid in the production of ATP.
This energy system typically can be in use for 120 seconds at most – so, for example, the anaerobic system kicks in during higher heart rates, intense runs, etc – when your body can’t get enough oxygen to keep making energy aerobically.
This is what low heart rate training, or MAF training, is all about – increasing the amount of aerobic activity your body can perform over a long time, but conditioning and increasing the amount of oxygen that can be pumped around your body by your heart!
Advantages Of Low Heart Rate Training
Low heart rate training actually has many advantages – let’s have a look at some of them!
Firstly, one of the best things about low heart rate training is that, compared to normal running, it actually places a lot less stress on the body. An intensive running workout not only uses the heart, but also places stress on the joints and muscles of the body too.
For this reason, low heart rate training can actually be great for helping to reduce the risk, or reversing a trend, of over-training.
One of the primary advantages of low heart rate training is that it actually reduces the likelihood of injury when running.
Running can be hard on the legs and feet, with lots of impact of bodyweight on the ground having the potential to cause pain or injury with each step. Simply put, running more slowly means that you’ll be less likely to injure yourself!
Rather than focusing on harder and more intense exercise sessions, low heart rate training actually makes the individual pay attention to an important metric, and learn about how their body responds to training.
This can also have the effect of actually making exercise more enjoyable. Away from the stress of pushing yourself to the limits all the time, and having exercise become itself an exercise in pain and misery, you’re actually training your body while working at a really low intensity.
You’re not hurting, and not teaching yourself to hate exercise.
Just this alone, regardless of the other benefits, can be a great help to many people. You can still exercise and improve yourself, but a change in both focus and mindset can turn exercise from something to be avoided, into something that you learn to love!
Furthermore – your body’s ability can change day by day, depending on your circumstances – how much sleep you get, how busy you are, your eating habits, the weather, your stress levels – all of these and more can contribute to a difference in ability from one day to the next.
By focusing on heart rate instead of time or distance, for instance, you’re ensuring that your workout remains consistent based on your differing abilities on differing days.
And by keeping the focus on a low heart rate, you’re always going to be working on keeping your heart doing as little work as possible, so that you can reach your target heart rate.
In time, your body and heart will, of course, adapt – and the amount of work you’ll have to do to raise your heart rate will increase, as your body becomes used to operating at a low heart rate even when undergoing exercise!
Eventually, using this program, you’ll run faster than before, and with less energy expended!
This means not only an increase in speed, but also an increase in distance too. If it takes less energy to reach the same distance at the same speed, then you’ll find you have the reserves to go further!
How To Do Low Heart Rate Training
Of course, low heart rate training can’t be as simple as just running more slowly – there has to be some thought behind it! You’ll need to have a target heart rate that actually has some reasoning behind it, and isn’t just an arbitrary number.
For that reason, you’ll need a way to come up with that number!
Behind The Formula
Of course, you might be wondering why the number 180 – and indeed, if there is any science or thought behind it, or if it’s just another arbitrary number. The creator of the formula explains the methodology here, but we’ll give a quick precis here too.
Essentially, the 180 number comes from studies that Maffetone performed on athletes in the 1970s and 1980s. He recorded heart rates of athletes performing various exercises, such as running or cycling.
At the time, the prevailing methodology for determining an ideal heart rate for exercise was to use a similar formula to the 180 formula, called the 220 formula.
In simple terms, this formula took the number 220 as its base number, before then subtracting the individual’s age (multiplied by some percentage) as with the 180 formula.
When measuring the heart rate of athletes, Maffetone found that the 220 formula wasn’t as accurate or effective as once thought.
Looking for a heart rate that promoted aerobic function, while allowing the individual to avoid substantial anaerobic activity, muscle imbalance, or stress, he found that, often, a much lower heart rate than would be derived from the 220 formula was the most efficient for ideal exercise outcomes.
Over time, Maffetone developed a formula, in which he used the optimal heart rate of the athletes that he assessed as a guide, and added in modifications based on injuries, illness, and so on. In the early 1980s, this formula was essentially finalized – still remaining in use today.
MAF 180 Formula
Luckily, learning how to calculate your target heart rate for low heart rate training is actually pretty simple.
There’s an easy formula that you can use to determine what your target heart rate should be – developed by Phil Maffetone, this formula is also part of his low heart rate training program, called the Maffetone Method.
To figure out what heart rate you should be aiming for, we’ll use what’s called the 180 formula.
This is quite simple – take your age, and subtract it from 180. Then, depending on some circumstances, you’ll subtract a little more from that number, or add a little to it. Do this based on one of the groups below:
If you’re recovering from a recent major illness, are in rehab, or are taking any medication regularly, then subtract an additional 10 from that number. Do this also if you’ve been seriously overtraining, and are suffering from burnout.
If you’re injured, or get more than two colds or infections a year, or have asthma, or suffer from seasonal allergies, or are slightly overtraining, or have been training without progress or are just starting, subtract 5 points.
If you’ve been training for 2 years without any of the problems mentioned above, then keep the number the same. If you’ve been training for 2 years and have consistently shown improvement, then add 5!
The number you’re left with at the end of this formula will be your target heart rate in beats per minute for low heart rate training.
For example – a 38 year old with asthma. Take 180, and subtract 38, leaving 142. Then, add 5 points for having asthma, leaving 147 as the final total. This means that 147 would be this individual’s target heart rate for low heart rate training.
If you’re over 65, then you can add up to 10 to the number – this has to be based on a realistic assessment of your ability, so honesty is key! And if you’re under 16, then instead of using this formula, use a standard heart rate of 165.
Does Low Heart Rate Training Work?
It’s important to be clear and realistic here. There is no training method or regimen that is guaranteed to have the same positive benefit for every individual. There are no magic bullets when it comes to fitness – no matter what you choose to do.
However, by improving the ability of your body to produce ability using aerobic processes, and to keep your heart rate low, you’re conditioning yourself to run longer – which means you can also run faster in the long term.
Your heart will work better, which in turn will help your muscles work better, for longer.
You’re also putting less stress on your body – which can also be a factor for many people in continuing to progress, or even exercise at all!
How To Track Your Progress
Of course, training is one thing, but you’ll also want to know how much you’re improving – or if you’re improving at all!
If you don’t know, you could be overtraining or undertraining without realizing – so finding an effective and repeatable way of testing your performance is an essential way of progressing and improving!
It can be a great idea to do a MAF test regularly every month or 2 months, to assess your progress. To perform a MAF test, do as follows.
Choose a running course or route of suitable length – approximately 5 miles, or 8 kilometers. Use this course for all MAF tests.
Do a warm up run or jog for approximately 1 mile, or between 10-15 minutes – all the while keeping your heart rate below the number you got from using the 180 formula.
Run the course, focusing on keeping your heart rate as close to the maximum (but not over) for the whole distance.
If you’re improving, then you’ll see that your times on the course will increase. If your times are getting slower, then it might well be a sign that you’re not hitting the workout with the intensity that you need to improve.
There you are – the basics of low heart rate training and how it works! If this proves to be a great exercise method for you then congratulations – and hopefully this article helped you out along the way!