Finding the optimal training plan can feel like a complicated process, and it’s easy to overthink which one might be the best choice for you.
But maybe that’s the problem — maybe you’re spending too much time listening to your head, when you should be listening to your heart.
Alright, that was said in jest… but only sort of.
The truth is, listening to your heart (literally, not figuratively) has actually been proven as a viable option when it comes to perfecting your training and yielding significant performance results. Which makes sense, when you think about it; plenty of people naturally use their heart rate as a general guide that indicates if they’re working too hard, and the science behind low heart rate training only solidifies its viability for actually improving performance.
So let’s dig deeper into the science, shall we?
Factors Influencing Heart Rate While Running
Before we dive into the nitty gritty, it’s important to understand why heart rate training tends to work well for many athletes.
It’s primarily attributed to the fact that your heart rate is influenced by a wide range of factors, so your average BPM (beats per minute) could be entirely different from another person’s. And that’s just your resting heart rate, so you can imagine how different it may be in the middle of a good workout.
People’s heart rates are typically influenced by things like their age, gender, genetics, or overall fitness level, but there are also a handful of external factors that can have a hand in it, too. For example, something as simple as the air temperature or elevation of your route can impact your body’s necessity for oxygen. Additionally, taking certain medications or experiencing particularly stressful environments outside of your training times can also have a big affect on your heart rate. (Don’t discount mental stressors — they can definitely manifest into physical stress, whether it be in the form of stress hormones, muscle tension, or increased blood pressure.)
Since there are so many individualized factors that can affect your heart rate, using a static measure of one specific heart rate doesn’t work well. So, instead, heart rate training uses formulas to tailor your training plan to suit your individual baseline and training needs.
Let’s read more about what this training method actually looks like and how it might help boost your performance in the long run.
What Is Low Heart Rate Training?
Low heart rate training, also commonly referred to as Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) training, is when you focus all of your training on lower intensity workouts.
Which sounds overly simple, but that’s sort of the point.
The basic premise is that you use a maximum heart rate as a threshold for all of your workouts; all you have to do is keep your heart rate lower than that maximum BPM, and you’re set. (Granted, if you go the extra mile and stick to true MAF training, you’ll also be adjusting some other lifestyle habits that go hand-in-hand with maintaining that low heart rate training, like nutrition plans or managing other external stressors.)
Now, we know what you might be thinking…
If keeping your heart rate low means running at lower intensity, how is that supposed to help you get better at running? After all, if you wanted to improve your performance, why would you slow down in order to get faster?
And that’s a totally valid (and common) response. Fortunately, though, there’s actually quite a bit of research to back up the seemingly counterintuitive training methodology.
Does Low Heart Rate Training Work?
In short, it depends.
But that’s sort of the case with any training plan. There’s no one method of training that works for every athlete, so it’ll take some trial and error to see which plans actually work best for you — and low heart rate training is no exception.
That being said, MAF training is actually a super beneficial, multi-faceted approach to building a solid foundation for endurance. In fact, that’s essentially what the method was created for: establishing a stronger aerobic capacity so your body grows more accustomed to and capable of long-term aerobic exercise.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the specific benefits, shall we?
Direct Benefits of Heart Rate Training
Developing a strong aerobic system is ideal for running performance, as it’ll improve the overall efficiency and health of your body.
If you aren’t already familiar with what your aerobic system is, it’s the process that allows your body to efficiently consume and utilize oxygen as energy for your muscles during exercise.
So, if your body is better able to produce and consume oxygen while running, it’s more efficient at burning fat for fuel, which will ultimately increase your energy and endurance levels. And that means you’ll be able to run faster with less effort, plus your body will grow accustomed to a steadier hormonal balance (likely reducing your overall stress levels). On top of the performance benefits, it’ll also keep your heart healthy and add to injury and disease prevention in the long run.
But wait, there’s more — the more you practice running under your maximum heart rate, the more your body can adapt to those easier runs. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’ll ultimately allow you to fall into a natural moderate pace (without having to actively hold yourself back), leading to more effective recovery days.
Pretty sweet deal, right?
Who Benefits from Heart Rate Training?
Okay, so you know why some people are all about MAF training, but now you might be wondering who can actually reap all those benefits.
Well, because heart rate training is intended to primarily improve your aerobic base, it’s often a recommended technique for newer runners who are looking to run longer distances. That being said, that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to just one kind of athlete; in fact, it just might provide the much-needed boost to your current running capacity.
Typically the people who benefit the most from MAF training are those who require a stronger aerobic base — and there are plenty of tells that can indicate if you fall into that category. For example, if you experience constant soreness or aches while training, or you crave high-sugar fuel during your workouts, those may actually be indicators that your body’s working harder than it has to to provide sufficient oxygen and energy to your muscles.
Or, if you find yourself getting injured repeatedly, undergoing additional physical or mental stress outside of training, or don’t seem to be recovering all that well (typically indicated by an increased resting heart rate), there’s also a decent chance that your body could use a bit of extra aerobic attention. That being said, if you’ve recently experienced an injury or a training setback, MAF training can be helpful for ensuring that you don’t overwork your body without having to limit your mileage or frequency.
Granted, all this isn’t to say that MAF training will necessarily remedy all those issues. There could easily be other underlying issues that contribute to these warning signs, but if you aren’t suspecting any other factors, reassessing your training plan to focus on lower intensity training could be just the place to start.
If you’re big on speed work, though, or you like more variety in your training regimen, MAF probably won’t get you super amped for your workouts. But even if it may not be your cup of tea, it could still be worth utilizing during the early stages of a training cycle or your base building season. (Plus, it’s also a great way to ensure you don’t start out your runs too fast too soon…)
How to Practice Low Heart Rate Training
Alright, here’s the fun part: now you actually get to do something.
You’ll first need to start out by calculating your maximum heart rate. (We could break it down for you ourselves, but we figured it’d be easier to work with the official method used by the actual creator of the MAF training method.) But if the official guide feels a little overwhelming, you could also use this calculation guide for a more helpful starting point.
Once you’ve got that max heart rate figured out, it’s pretty smooth sailing from there on out.
And that’s one of the best parts about this training plan; not only can you reap a bunch of benefits from more frequent, easy runs, but it’s also super simple to adhere to. (In theory; in practice, it may take a bit for you to get used to. But that’s normal.)
The most important rule? Never go over your maximum heart rate. And that applies to everything — for your runs, your cardio, and even for any cross-training. If you ever notice that your heart rate does go over the maximum, make sure you immediately transition into a walk to get it to drop back down again.
You can still totally run the same amount of mileage you planned for your training goals, just without those higher intensity speed workouts. (But if you find that your heart rate is too high, even with accommodating walk breaks, you may want to temporarily cut down on the mileage to make sure you aren’t overdoing it.)
Of course, if you wanted to adhere to the official MAF training guide, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind regarding your diet, bodily stress, and progress management as you continue with your training… but otherwise, as long as you ensure that you’re staying under that max heart rate, you’re pretty much golden.
How to Measure Your Progress
Now let’s talk about how you can make sure you’re making enough progress through this kind of training. In order to make sure that this is the right training plan for you, perform the MAF 3-5 mile test every 4 weeks to see how your progress is coming along. Here’s how to do it:
- Start with a warm-up for about 10-15 minutes. Make sure you keep your heart rate a minimum of 10 beats below that maximum heart rate!
- Choose a running course that you can consistently use for all your progress tests. If your long runs are typically under 60 minutes, you can choose a course that’s 3 miles long, but if your runs last longer than an hour, choose a course close or up to 5 miles.
- Run as close to your target heart rate as possible for the entire duration of the test.
- Keep in mind: each mile should be slower than the previous one! The more you run and exert yourself, the higher your heart rate will climb, so you should find yourself slowing down with every mile to keep it under that maximum rate.
- For the most accurate results, be sure to always do it at the same time and on the same day of your training cycle.
As you follow through with these monthly assessments of your progress, you should see a consistent improvement over time. If you notice that your time actually ends up stagnating or becoming slower, that’s likely a sign that you need to lighten your training intensity or total workload before your next MAF test session.
Listen to Your Heart
Determining the most optimal method of training can often be tough to nail down, since there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Because one athlete’s training needs can vary so greatly from the next, it’s important to acknowledge that heart rate training isn’t the best solution for everyone.
But, if you were to try it out at the start of your next training cycle, you’d still likely gain a decent performance boost by honing that aerobic base even further. Although it may take some time to adjust to slower pacing, it can be well worth the investment to listen to your body for some extra endurance and fitness benefits.