The 180 Heart rate formula created by Phil Maffetone has revolutionised thinking in heart rate training for speed, endurance, health and fitness. Maffetones 180 formula was pivotal in returning triathlete, and ironman Mark Allan to winning form to an outstanding six Ironman wins and a streak of 21 event victories.
Maffetone Method step by step
- Calculate your MAF maximum aerobic heart rate using the formula below
- Perform and initial MAF test (see article below) to establish your baseline
- Train regularly without exceeding your MAF maximum aerobic heart rate
- Consider rest and nutrition essential to your health and fitness
- Repeat the MAF test every one to two months to track progress.
Phil Maffetones 180 heart rate formula in summary
The base formula is deceptively simple:
- Subtract your age from 180
- Subtract 10 if you are or have recently had cold, flu, injury or diminished performance
- Subtract an additional 10 if you are recovering from surgery (including heart surgery) or are recovering from a significant illness or on medication
- Add 5 if neither of the two points above applies and you have been training more than two years without injury
A 35-year-old who has trained without injury for 3 years
180 – 35 + 5 = 150
A 35 year old who has trained for 3 years without injury, but has had frequent colds this year
180 – 35 – 10 = 135
A 40 year old with little regular training
180 – 40 = 140
The formula isn’t appropriate for those under the age of 16, and Phil suggests a heart rate of 165 for anyone under 16.
The goal of MAF training
Maffetones method is based on a core principle of training almost exclusively aerobically. The MAF approach minimises cortisol release and allows maximum opportunity for the body to strengthen in time rather than be broken down by overtraining.
MAF training increases performance at an aerobic level, effectively creating a strong foundation. Our ability to perform aerobically for long periods is remarkable. Training and racing utilising a strong aerobic base help athletes perform throughout the season while avoiding injury and fatigue. Many athletes have found exceptional improvements in performance following the Maffetone method.
Maffetone Method initial reaction
For anyone who has trained with a heart rate monitor before, you likely have some concern at the low maximum heart rate the formula comes up suggests. That’s a pretty typical response, Mark Allan, went through similar doubts and frustration. Mark quit training with Maffetone, only to return and later claim many high and international level race wins.
It is pretty likely when you first start to train with this new maximum heart rate that you will have some frustration. As a runner or cyclist, you may find yourself having to walk up hills to avoid the heart rate rocketing above your new redline. This can lead to significant frustration or disbelief in the training method initially.
Philosophy of the Maffetone Method
Phil often found himself presented with injured athletes or athletes on the brink of injury. Many athletes who were referred to him or sought help were seeing diminishing returns for their hard training. Their training wasn’t returning competitive results.
Maffetone also wondered if athletes could sustain performance over a season. Often athletes would plan their critical events in the season and attempt to be at their peak for those specific races. Sadly, athletes would present themselves at those key races overtrained, tired and/or injured.
In short, athletes were training too hard, too frequently and over-stressing their body and minds. Maffetone and famous New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard both had a firm resolve that athletes should build a solid aerobic foundation and that this foundation was missing in most athletes. Athletes and coaches unknowingly place fitness over health.
The importance of health over fitness
In the pursuit of better performance, athletes focus on faster times, greater strength and improving technique. The higher intensity training methods focus on fitness, that is better performance. The focus on fitness performance does lead to better performance in the short term, however, the body is slowly breaking down from the continual release of cortisol and precious energy and nutrients are used to fuel the performance rather than repair bones.
Health is much more holistic. Maintaining health requires an understanding that fitness springs from a solid, healthy foundation and that we must maintain and build health to maintain performance.
Stress, it’s all stress
Maffetone gives a clear statement that our health and fitness depends on our overall lifestyle. Train hard, but neglect proper nutrition or sleep and our health will decline. Simply put, stress is stress no matter what the cause.
Stress and health
Anaerobic or high-intensity exercise increases cortisol release into the body. Stress from training or that close encounter with a fictional tiger in the typical flight, fright, freeze scenario release the same stress hormones into the body.
Cortisol is slightly misaligned; cortisol is needed to function, continued raised levels of cortisol however break the body down and suppress immune and repair functions of the body. Livestrong has a great detailed article on exercise-induced stress and cortisol.
An overlooked aspect concerning overtraining is that exercise releases a number of feel-good hormones such as dopamine and endorphins into the system. Dopamine, in particular, can lead to craving as it depletes. Endorphins are known to reduce pain-signalling. The combination of dopamine and endorphins can lead to an addictive overtraining cycle that masks the underlying damage to health. The training itself feels good, as does the time immediately afterwards.
Sleep is an essential element in managing cortisol levels. However, in our busy schedules, sleep and rest are often sacrificed to squeeze more into our day. Sleep is an important topic in its own right, but its worth knowing quality sleep needs some prioritisation of a solid bedtime routine – looking at you screen-time!
In summary, stress is stress whether is comes from work, intense exercise, poor sleep or simply life being life in throwing it’s curveballs. Wim Hof’s breathing techniques can be an additional tool to manage cortisol and stress.
Back to Maffetone
Ok, enough stress talk. Let’s get back to Maffetones Method. Succinctly put after calculating your MAF maximum heart rate you should not exceed this heart rate in training. In addition, you should prioritise good sleep/rest and nutrition.
After calculating your MAF maximum heart rate, we need a benchmark or baseline. The MAF test is simply a way of recording a baseline and over time, a measure of your aerobic performance. The MAF test can be performed with most types of exercise. Running and cycling are the easiest due to the need to continually measure heart rate during the test.
A key part of the MAF test is to keep as much consistency across tests. If running, choose the same route each time, preferably a track or park. Pick a distance, preferably over 2 or 3km if running. Warm-up ahead of the test, to bring yourself close to your MAF heart rate. You must keep as close to your MAF heart rate without exceeding it.
With a heart rate monitor run (or walk) your first circuit (kilometre or mile). On completing the first kilometre, record the time taken. Run the second kilometre and again record the time, and so on. You should notice the time taken to complete each kilometre increases. Note I use metric measurements, you can use miles instead of kilometres.
Kilometre 1: 6m:40seconds
Kilometre 2: 7m:08seconds
Kilometre 3: 7m:38seconds
If that is the first MAF test you have performed, sets your baseline. If you train aerobically without exceeding your MAF maximum heart rate and maintain good rest and nutrition, you will see your pace improve each time you perform a MAF test.
How often should you do a MAF test?
The MAF test should be repeated regularly. Monthly is good, don’t perform the MAF test more than monthly as you won’t see progress. Every two months is fine.