The art of running slowly

3 November 2015, 14:23

I promised at the end of my last post about the Maffetone Two Week Test that I’d fill you in on the other side of my recovery/rehabilitation/experimentation with the Maffetone Method, and with a full month under my belt I finally feel experienced enough to comment.

Alongside limiting carbohydrates, the Maffetone Method encourages you to run slowly, with a low heart rate, in order to retrain your body to burn fat as fuel. The short explanation is that glycogen (“stored carbs”) is the much easier fuel for your body to use, so if you’ve got it, that’s what you’ll burn when you exercise, until there’s nothing left, and then you switch to burning fat – otherwise known as The Wall. The better adapted you are at burning fat, the less you’ll need to top up with sugar during a race or long workout, and you’ll probably not even encounter The Wall at all, as you more easily switch from one to the other. It also means you can run pretty much indefinitely (as we’ve all got plenty of fat stores), like the Tarahumara, Cretans, and pretty much every marathon runner prior to the 1980s.

In order to force your body to burn fat, you need to train at a low, “aerobic” heart rate – exclusively for a few months, and then 80% of the time going forward. To work out your own aerobic threshold, Phil Maffetone has an equation on his website, which is roughly 180 minus your age, and then -5 or +5 depending on how broken you already are. My magic number works out to be 140, so I’ve been running exclusively with my heart rate under 140BPM.

I did my first few runs solo along my normal Thames route so I already knew the distances, and could compare them to past times. My first 10km keeping my heart rate under 140 took me 1hr22. My PB is 43min. To a generally quite speedy runner, this feels excruciatingly slow.

It’s also quite a character-building experience. I didn’t think I had much ego around being passed by other runners, but it’s another level entirely to be passed by absolutely everyone along the riverside. But on a more personal level, it also requires a lot of concentration to keep myself going more slowly than even my “comfortable” pace – for the first few runs, the second my mind would wander, I’d hear a screech to reduce my heart rate. I’ve found a few coping mechanisms, though – the first was to ditch my absolute POS Garmin FR15 (good riddance to an expensive, crappy, huge watch than could never find the freaking satellite in any weather condition, and a special “up yours” to the Garmin support who didn’t even read my emails before copy/pasting token replies. Never buying another one of your crappy products ever again!) and go back to using my phone, my beloved Runmeter app, and a £20 Bluetooth HRM off Amazon (I was skeptical that the Chinese-made “CooSpo” would work, but it seems pretty good so far). Stress levels have gone down significantly since I’ve dropped the Garmin and its frustrating ineptitude.

Garmin HRM
Good riddance to the most frustrating component to my runs!

The second thing that helps is listening to podcasts. Music revs me up, but spoken word content keeps me from getting too bored, but doesn’t encourage any particular pace. It also means that, since my headphones are in to hear the podcasts, my “Reduce heart rate!” prompts are only audible to me, rather than to everyone around me.

The third is harder to achieve, but run with other people. Find friends who are just starting Couch to 5k, find friends who are tapering or recovering, find friends who are bouncing back from injury or are in just need of some mojo – run with them and talk the whole time. It’s more fun, and you can still feel like you’re part of a community and give something back to those in need of a boost, too. I’ve been running with Run dem Crew for 4 years now, and I’d gradually worked my way up the pace groups to regularly run with the second-fastest group (and on occasion, the fastest). But the slowest regular pace group is still faster than I can go and maintain my sub-140HR, so I’ve been leading the “Party Pace” group each Tuesday, bringing along the very people who are in need of a boost, shorter, or slower run. And it’s been fabulous catching up with old friends and meeting loads of new people besides. When you run fast, it’s hard to gasp out the hazards, let alone have any meaningful conversations.

Riverside wharves
A more zen view of the neighbourhood…

The whole theory with the aerobic running is that, over time, you should see your speeds gradually increase while your heart rate remains the same. Already I’ve seen my 10km time drop from 1hr22 to 1hr17 – still nowhere near race pace (not even my marathon pace!), but enough that I feel encouraged that I’m seeing progress. The idea is that on race day, you run 10-15BPM above your aerobic threshold, plus add in a few light carbs, and suddenly you’re supercharged.

It also feels like it’s a good thing to be doing while my foot and knee are still dodgy from all the track training over the summer. This is allowing me to still run (my major stress release as well as weight maintenance), but also recover at the same time. For pretty much my entire run, I breathe through my nose – I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention to whether you breathe through your mouth or nose when you run, but chances are, you’re a mouth breather. Try closing your mouth on a run and see how much you’ve got to slow down to do that. I’m running even slower. Again, it’s not about whether 1hr22 is a “slow” time or not – it’s about the relative speed and exertion for each person. It’s also not about how “fit” you are, or how low your resting HR is, but more on how well your body already is to burning fat and what sort of cardio base you’ve already got to work with.

My plan is to carry on with only running under 140BPM through to the end of November and see how much progress I can make in 2-odd months. In December I start London marathon training again with my coach, so I’ll get her view on whether she thinks it’s beneficial for me to carry on long-term or not. But I also know that any time spent running slow now is going to help me in the future – I can feel my body adapting to crave fats instead of sugar, and I don’t feel dazed at the end of a long run, even considering the time spent on my feet.

And if nothing else, it’s given me a much-needed wakeup call on the importance of humility and patience in training.

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