July 22, 2008

An Interview with Endurance Expert Dr. Philip Maffetone

It was October 1993. I was standing on the side of Alii Drive watching the Hawaii Ironman. Mark Allen, four-time champion of the event at the time, had just finished the 112-mile bike and was beginning the marathon. As I watched him run by, five minutes behind the leader, I noticed his smooth cadence in the sweltering heat. Could he catch the athlete ahead of him? As the veteran chased his younger rival in the final hours of this grueling race, I knew the real race didn’t begin until the run, Allen’s strongest event. I also knew, despite being nearly a mile behind the younger athlete, Allen trained using what is now known as the Maffetone Method.

The antithesis of the "no pain, no gain" training that emphasizes pushing your body to exhaustion, the Maffetone Method is a holistic, low-stress method of training. Created by Dr. Phil Maffetone this method trains the body to burn fat for fuel, giving the athlete the key to the vault that stores the body’s energy reserves. It essentially teaches one to run slower, in order to run faster, longer. The principles behind the method are designed to maximize the aerobic system that is responsible for 99% of the energy derived in endurance events.

As the race wore on, the younger runner found himself struggling to hold his lead. His early poise slowly gave way to a grim reality. He was no longer the hunter, but the hunted. With every step, Allen’s stride grew stronger, his confidence bolder. After some 125 combined miles, Mark Allen overtook his rival to win the race, setting a new course record. Allen went on to win an unprecedented six Hawaii Ironman Championships using Dr. Phil Maffetone’s training principles.

Dr. Phil Maffetone is described as "one of the most sought-after endurance coaches in the world." He entered the endurance sports scene in the late 70’s. In addition to working with some of the world’s top endurance athletes, Dr. Maffetone has written dozens of books and articles on health, fitness and nutrition, including Complimentary Sports Medicine, Training for Endurance, The Maffetone Method, and In Fitness and In Health. I caught up with Dr. Maffetone this summer while he was traveling through Europe and giving lectures.

Will: First thank you for doing this interview. It is a pleasure and a privilege to interview someone of your stature and to share your insights with my readers. I'd also like to say thank you for the contribution you have made to the world of endurance training.

Exactly how and when did you get started in the field of endurance coaching and training?

Dr. Phil: I’ve always been athletic, especially in track and field, starting in high school. When I first opened my office in 1977, I had gotten out of shape, so I started walking, then began jogging and soon was training for the NY City Marathon. I met a lot of local runners, and many started coming to see me for their injuries. I soon realized that most injuries were associated with various training and lifestyle imbalances. I applied exercise physiology, biofeedback, nutrition and various coaching methods in addressing the needs of athletes who had a full spectrum of injuries.

A key feature of my practice from the start has always been looking at the big picture, the so-called holistic approach. If a runner had knee pain, there was a good chance the cause of the problem was not in the knee but elsewhere – and sometimes not just the foot (which was common), but factors such as nutrition or stress. Often, training was associated not only with physical injuries, but fatigue and poor performance. So it became a necessity for me to consider more than the injured part, but to evaluate a runner’s training log, diet, shoes, and whatever else could affect health and fitness. As a result, I soon began implementing "coaching" as part of my practice.

Will: One of your trademarks is the 180 Formula, which is designed to develop the aerobic capacity of endurance athletes. How did you come to develop the 180 Formula?

Dr. Phil: I started using heart rate monitors in the late 1970s, and all I had as a guide were the old 220 formulas. But training at these heart rates seemed to induce excessive stress after a very short period of time. I tried searching for the scientific rationale for these formulas and realized there were none. So I began evaluating runners on a treadmill using slower paces, attempting to find a less-stressful and more effective training pace. I eventually performed these tests with a gas analyzer (the athlete would breath through a tube so oxygen and carbon dioxide could be measured), which gave me important information on fat- and sugar burning at various heart rates (along with other factors such as VO2 max).

I began using training heart rates based on the highest fat-burning levels before the shift to more sugar burning took place. These training intensities were much lower than the 220 formulas, much less stressful, and I saw much more rapid improvements. For example, athletes could soon run faster at the same heart rate, and even burn more fat for energy (and not just while running, but at all times). I soon realized a new formula would be very useful as most runners were not able to have an expensive treadmill evaluation, and the 220 formulas were unacceptable. By experimenting with the math (I basically worked the numbers backwards), I was able to get a formula that correlated extremely well with what the treadmill tests were providing. This became the 180 Formula.

A heart monitor is a simple biofeedback tool (the hardware), and the 180 Formula (the software) is what makes it useful. Biofeedback can help any athlete because it’s a means of more objectively evaluating progress (or lack of it), impending injury and ill health, and other factors. (I’ve used biofeedback in many other ways throughout my career, including developing various biofeedback techniques such as those for muscles and the brain.)

Will: Mark Allen, six time Hawaii Ironman Champion, and Stu Mittleman, elite ultra runner and world record setter, are two athletes you've written about and that used your training program to become world champions. Now they are coaching and, I assume, using your methods. Do you still collaborate with them or other former athletes that you coached and who are now coaching themselves?

Dr. Phil: Yes, I have kept in touch with many of the athletes I’ve worked with, and some are coaching with programs based on my approach because it helped make them successful. Mark Allen is a great example. I started working with Mark around 1984, and he used my program in what I would describe as the perfect way. The intention of my program is not to give a pre-conceived, cookbook plan, but to help build a balanced body in an individualized way. For endurance athletes, developing the aerobic system is the foundation because it provides almost all the endurance energy for training and racing. It’s also important to continually evaluate our endurance needs and make the appropriate changes to training, racing, diet and lifestyle as we develop, and grow older so we can continually improve both health and fitness. As a doctor and coach, my job is to assist athletes in this endeavor, and Mark Allen was particularly good at putting this foundation, and philosophy, into practice. He learned how his body worked, performed MAF Tests regularly, used his heart monitor honestly, ate right for his body’s needs, etc. His discipline brought him success.

Will: How strict should one be when running at or below MAHR (max aerobic heart rate)? For example, if I'm running below MAHR for an hour workout, and my heart rate creeps up and over my MAHR by five beats for 10 minutes or so, is that really a big deal?

Dr. Phil: It could be a very big deal, especially if it happens often enough. The problem is, you don’t know how often is too much – you may not know it’s a problem until you do your MAF Test and find out you’ve not made progress for the past month (the MAF Test measures how fast you can run at your MAHR). The real question is this: Are you training at the proper max aerobic heart rate? If you are, you’ll get maximum training and health benefits at that heart rate. As you go over that rate, those benefits can start to disappear, and worse, you can do harm. So why risk such rewards by running at a little higher heart rate? This is an important training discipline.

Training at a heart rate higher than MAHR produces real stress. This results in the production of stress hormones that could cause a number of physical and chemical (and even mental/emotional) problems – from mechanical imbalances and blood sugar stresses to reduced fat burning. These are also the foundations of overtraining which is associated with performance breakdowns, poor physical health, depression and other problems (I have a detailed article on my website called The Overtraining Syndrome).
A very common mistake is training at a heart rate too high – and for some runners, even two or three beats too high can have serious consequences. So when using the 180 Formula, be honest. When in doubt, use a lower number as this won’t cause any problems, and the loss of possible aerobic benefits will be insignificant.

Will: Running ultras is usually synonymous with running hills, often long hills. Many runners power walk these hills, which keeps their heart rate down. Yet many elite runners do intervals on hills that are 3 or 4 miles long, running for up to 20 or 30 minutes at anaerobic threshold. Can this kind of training fit into your program?

Dr. Phil: Yes, anaerobic training can be very helpful. But whether it’s hills at higher heart rates, track intervals, or weight training (which is always anaerobic regardless of your heart rate), incorporating anaerobic training before fully developing your aerobic system can be a problem. Consider that in an ultra distance event, 99% of your energy comes from the aerobic system, and only 1% from the anaerobic system. So the more well developed your aerobic system, the more your body is equipped to race long distances. This is the foundation of training that Mark Allen and other great endurance athletes developed.

Only after you build a great aerobic system should you add anaerobic training, if at all. The MAF Test – which measures how fast you run at your MAHR – is the best guide that helps determine when you’ve accomplished this task. As you build the aerobic system, you should be able to run faster at the same heart rate, including the hills. For example, if initially you can’t run up a hill without going over your max aerobic heart rate, eventually you’ll be able to accomplish this as your aerobic system develops. You’ll also race faster – having done no anaerobic training.

Adding anaerobic training to your schedule may improve your pace further, but you risk overtraining; it’s a fine line for many athletes. Three other important features of anaerobic training: 1) it won’t take much to benefit from it, 2) you will need more rest/recovery from it, and 3) if you perform too much of it, the aerobic system can quickly deteriorate. To be safe and still obtain benefits, I often suggest only three or four weeks of anaerobic training to get maximum anaerobic effects, and for many ultra runners, just a single, longer workout once a week. Consider a 10 or 15K race as a very effective way to get an anaerobic workout.

So if you’re going to add anaerobic training, proceed carefully and only after allowing your aerobic system to become well developed, and perform a good aerobic warm up and cool down around it. Be sure to monitor your MAF Test every two weeks or so during this period, and if you start running slower at your MAHR – stop anaerobic training immediately.
Most importantly, anaerobic training is a significant stress, as I discussed earlier. The average person who has a full time job, a family and other things to do in life often has little room for another stress.

Will: Running a 100-mile race places a different kind of stress on a runner compared to a marathon or even a 50 mile race. Depending on the course and the level of the athlete, one can expect to be on their feet for up to 20, even 30 hours or more. Should one use a lower heart rate range when training for a 100-mile race as compared to training for shorter events like 10ks or the marathon?

Dr. Phil: Many athletes enjoy training at heart rates below their max aerobic level, so I think this idea is fine. But it’s not necessary to train slower. Running ‘wear and tear’ is essentially the same at a 140 heart rate, for example, whether your pace is 12:30 or 9:30 per mile. (Perceived exertion, however, is different at these two paces.)

For most runners, training at max aerobic heart rate during all runs (except the warm up and cool down) is most efficient to build the aerobic system, including a high level of fat burning and aerobic speed. Ideally, training should incorporate the full range of aerobic muscle fibers – from those that move us very slow to our fastest aerobic pace that does not exceed max aerobic heart rate. This is easily accomplished when a proper warm up, which begins very slow, and cool down, is a part of all training runs.

In addition, and since the ultra races can be very long, training the body to endure being on your feet is also important. For this I prefer walking, which can be a very important part of building the aerobic system. It also incorporates additional very slow moving aerobic muscle fibers not usually trained when running slow. I even had Mark Allen walk during certain phases of training for the Ironman races.

Incorporating walking into your schedule is easy. For example, you can perform a long walk as part of a warm up, then slowly increase your pace to run at MAHR, finally slowing down to finish with another long-walk cool down. Depending on the event you’re training for, your level of fitness and time, you might make this a long weekend workout with a two-hour warm up walk (getting faster as your go), then a two-hour run followed by a two-hour cool down (getting slower at the end). Add or subtract time based on your particular needs.

For most runners, I don’t believe it’s necessary to cover the race distance, or even the estimated time of the race, during training. The body is quite capable, physiologically, of covering much more distance (and time) than it does during normal training.

Will: I've been reading some of my fellow bloggers who are using the 180 Formula in training, but are racing marathon distances (or less) at a much higher heart rate, in some cases 20 or more bpm higher than their MAHR. They seem to be getting positive results. Should one expect to have a higher "racing" heart rate than "training" heart rate at marathon distances or shorter? What about for longer distances, such as a 50 or a 100 mile runs?

Dr. Phil: When you’re in races of marathon distance and less, you normally run harder than a training run – it’s an anaerobic event. So your heart rate should be much higher in this type of race than a training run. The longer the race, the less difference between the training and racing heart rate. In events of 50 or 100 miles, this may not be the case as your race pace may be similar to your training pace.

Will: One of the biggest challenges in a 50 or 100 mile race vs. the marathon is the need to consume calories throughout the entire event to sustain energy. This is often difficult because the stomach doesn't always cooperate. What advice can you give to athletes regarding nutritional needs in races lasting up to 24 hours?

Dr. Phil: my advice is generally the same for any endurance athlete needing to consume calories during a race: find out what works for you. This involves experimenting during training (not racing). I can make some basic suggestions. The first is water – you’ll usually finish the race dehydrated, so drinking small amounts of water throughout the race, and often, is important.
Carbohydrate liquids can provide both nutrient (carbs) and water. These carbs actually help maintain our fat-burning process. I prefer monosaccharide carb liquids because they don’t require digestion (which uses energy), so there’s no stomach bloating or gas from undigested carbs, and you can absorb the sugar much easier. These liquids include fruit juice (I don’t recommend citrus) diluted with water, and honey diluted with water. Vegetable juices work well too, but I’ve known only a few athletes who used them. (I also like adding sodium chloride to this type of drink.)

Solid carbohydrate foods are important too, but use those that are easy to digest. The best are ripe fruits. While they are in a monosaccharide form and don’t need digestion to get the sugar available for energy, they do need to be well chewed.

I don’t recommend grains (flour products like breads), potatoes and most sports drinks because they contain carbohydrates bound together that must be digested before they can be absorbed. For example, white sugar (sucrose), maltose sugar products (including maple sugar products) and other commonly used carb sources contain two sugars bound together that require digestion. Grains and potatoes are made up of three sugars bound together (called starch) that require even more digestion. Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth and most athletes don’t chew sufficiently for this phase of digestion (especially liquids). During a race (and even training) digestion is normally very inefficient, so give your gut something easy to deal with. Creating digestive stress commonly causes intestinal upset – gas, bloating, and even diarrhea. And, you may not get the full load of nutrients from your foods.

But there’s another issue just as important. The whole idea behind building the aerobic system is to burn more body fat for energy. You’ll also burn more fat during a race, providing a significant amount of your energy needs. This makes the supplemental nutrition part – eating during a race – a lot easier because you won’t need as much. Supplemental carbohydrates are important during and immediately after racing, and very long training sessions, but not before you train and race.

Will: Your book Training for Endurance discusses the "chemical injury" which describes the impact stress can have on athletes. For those of us who work full time, have a family, and try to squeeze in training and racing, how critical is stress if we are also seeking to improve our performance?

Dr. Phil: In the truest definition, stress may be our biggest problem in sports; it’s usually the factor that limits an athlete’s potential. So the more you can moderate stress, the better you’ll train and perform, and the healthier you will be. Stress can be physical (e.g., bad running shoes), chemical (e.g., poor diet) and mental/emotional. Pick each category and do a self-assessment: many stresses can be eliminated by making simple changes, which then allows the body to better deal with those you can’t change.

Those who combine busy lives and try squeezing in training and racing can induce significant stress if not careful. This is another reason why staying strictly aerobic during all training is a good recommendation for most athletes. In addition, reduced training volume can sometimes reduce stress so much that you end up healthier and racing better. Continual and honest self-assessment is the best place to start.

Will: Are there any methods that you can recommend to athletes that can help them deal with stress?

Dr. Phil: In addition to eliminating the unnecessary stress from your life, improving brain function not only allows the body to better adapt to stress, but it can help training and racing. I’ve incorporated many types of biofeedback during my career, including EEG (electroencephalograph), which measures brain waves. The brain’s alpha waves in particular can dramatically reduce stress hormones allowing the body to recover and adapt better. Listening to music can significantly increase alpha waves.

My approach has always been to teach athletes how to do things on their own, and regarding this question, I developed a way to do a form of biofeedback that helps reduce stress easily and without equipment. I call it Respiratory Biofeedback, and on my website there’s a short article called The 5-Minute Power Break which describes this very simple technique. In a 5-minute session you perform on your own, a lot of great brain function can be established which will help reduce the harmful effects of stress.

Will: I've noticed on your website that you are very passionate about music. What are some of your favorite types of music? Who are some of your favorite artists?

Dr. Phil: About six years ago, I woke up and realized I needed to learn music because I had so many original songs in my head that had to come out. So I dropped everything and became a songwriter. Along the way I realized the music I was writing (like other music) had profound effects on the brain. Today, I include music performances in many of my lectures, play out regularly and have just recorded my second album (with more than 200 songs written). I first learned about music therapy in the mid-1970s, but being a part of the process as a songwriter has been quite fascinating.

I like almost all music, and I write what would be called folk-rock, although I’ve written a lot of rock, country and other styles.

In recent years, traveling with the Red Hot Chili Peppers as their doctor allowed me to learn a lot of music theory, and meet a lot of great musicians, many of whom I’ve listen to for years. With my songwriting, I work with producer Rick Rubin, and spending time in LA has brought me to many studios to see other music greats. I also worked with Johnny Cash in Nashville, which was a profound experience.

My favorite artists are many, starting with the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Others include Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Mozart, James Taylor and many others. Also, discovering great but little-known singer-songwriters is a continually wonderful experience.

Will: What inspires you?

Dr. Phil: Things that get me excited. These include music (listening, writing and playing for others), learning (I still read the medical/scientific journals regularly), continually building my health and fitness, lecturing and teaching, and love.

Will: Thank you for the great interview and I look forward to reading more of your articles and books!

Dr. Phil: Thank you, Will. Keep up the good work. Almost all my articles, along with a number of book excerpts, are posted on my website (for free). And, of course, my music is there too.

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July 19, 2008

My Western States' Suitcase

Yes, its true. I can't bring myself to unpack my suitcase.

Yes the one I took up to Western States three and half weeks ago. It still sits next to my bed. I don't even remember what is in there. I'm pretty sure everything is fine, like I don't think there are any perishables to worry about in there. Although I vaguely remember seeing a stain when I picked it up at baggage check. I think one of the high pressure sun screen dispensers blew up somewhere inside it. I remember smelling something like that.

My wife is starting to get a little weird about it all. "When are you going to unpack that thing," she's asked several times. I've gotten by with a "yea, I'll do it tonite" a few times. She hasn't brought it up for a few days now. I took a picture of it today. Mainly because I'm not sure what might happen over the next few days. One fear I have is that I will come home one day, and it will be gone. All that sits inside of it, dispersed to remote regions around the house. Not to be seen again...

Oh, the memories.

July 1, 2008

The Effect of Alcohol on Athletes

After finding out last Wednesday that the Western States 100 run was cancelled, the rudder of my ship fell off. "What now?" I asked myself. I was navigating uncharted waters with no goal or goal driven motivation. After several days I noticed I was "tipping" a few more beers or glasses of wine to make up for the loss and disappointment of it all. Then, after running a few times, I knew my liquid "Western Cancellation" diet was taking its toll on me. I started to feel physically tapped despite being in great shape. So I did a little research and found an article that gave me pause. Its entitled "Alcohol and Athletes". I've never been one to shy away from a few beers the night or week before a race, but after last week's experience and reading this, I'm thinking twice about it.