ATC 309: Endurance Into Your 50s–From Sub 3:30 Marathons To The 80/20 MAF Approach, Plus: Try This Intuitive Week of Training To ‘Customize’ Your Aerobic Zone

April 10, 2020


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  • Tawnee shares her wisdom about working from home (she’s done it for 10 years!) on her blog: (WFH)

Isabelle asks:

50 and Breaking 3:30 in the Marathon?

Hi Tawny and Lucho,

I’ve been a fan since 2011 and I listen to all (well almost all) of your podcasts. These days I’m training for Boston. As I am self coached I often come up with questions but no one around can answer them, so I thought: I should just ask Tawny and Lucho!

Here is a bit (or a lot) about me. I’m 49, turning 50 in 2020. I could tell you my height and weight but maybe it’s not relevant so let’s just say, I’m not too big or too thin I don’t think. My body type is on the more muscular side and when I got my genes tested, it said I’m a power athlete (alas not an endurance one) mainly because I’m double deleted in the ACE gene…I don’t think you ever spoke about that in your podcasts so it would be interesting to know what you think about this. I started doing triathlon when I was 35 and competed in mostly Olympics and some half and two IM when I had more time to train as a stay at home mom to two boys (13 and 15). Now I’m back to work but my husband is at home! I quit triathlon and does mostly running (and a little swimming and x-country skiing with the family).

My first marathon I did CIM in 4:02 with maybe 35 miles per week training. For my second marathon in 2016, I decided to train more and I followed the Hanson’s method, which at the time found really hard especially going up to 50 miles per week. I did 3:44 and qualified for Boston (yeah!). For my first Boston in 2018 I trained again with the Hanson’s doing only up to 16 miles for my long runs. This was the year where they had a storm but I still did pretty well in 3:40. Came back the next year (2019) and decided to increase the mileage a bit with the same program. I wanted to break 3:30. I did 3:36. OK. Now of course I have to hire a coach, I’m doing NY the same year. She trained me like I never trained before. In August I did 18, 19, 20 and 20 on the week-ends. I was just exhausted. Then she had me take a break early September doing nothing (weird but I’m paying her, so I’m gonna do what she says). Coming back into it mid-September, I felt like superwomen. Then in September and October I ramped back up to 20 mi. The problem is I felt like I had lost the fitness because the ramp up was pretty slow.  Anyway, did the race: 3:36 again! I was devastated, after all that training. What went wrong? On the positive side I must say that my pace was pretty steady the whole time and did not deteriorate so much like in my previous Bostons…

Now I’m back into training for Boston. Still doing the Hanson’s with added mileage. I’m planning on going up to 20 miles long run again (but not as many, maybe going 18, 20 and 19). Also will try to go up to 70 mi/wk. Honestly I can’t do more than that or else I have to do 2 runs per day and I would never see my kids. I already get up at 4:45 and come back from work at 6 and goes to bed at 8pm (pretty boring).

Some other notes: I do strength training early in the season (DL, back squat and other things) I’m not injury prone thanks to Jay and the Balanced Runner whom I discovered on your podcast!

Here are my questions:

  1. What should I do differently to break 3:30? Train for a 5k? Try to run 2x on the weekends? Do a different program? Jack Daniels maybe?
  2. Is breaking 3:30 in the realms of possibility since I’m not getting younger?

Thanks so much, love you guys and the podcast.

Forgot to mention a very important info. Here are different times at other distances. Which tells me I should be able to go 3:30?

Mile: 6:14

5k: 21:30

Half-Marathon: 1:39:50

What the Coaches say:

  • At a certain time in your season, the long run should be your key run and the thing you want to focus on adapting to. It would be worth cutting down your overall volume so you can adapt to a 20-mile long run. Once you feel comfortable running 20 miles, then you can add and adapt to other stressors.
    • You highest volume should be 20 weeks out from the race. Then you can work on intensity. 8 weeks out, you can start focusing on volume at race pace.
  • Four individual long runs doesn’t make or break a year. With coronavirus stopping racing for now, now might be a good time to try Luchos’ 20×20.
  • Remember, your genes are not your destiny! You can absolutely succeed at marathons, even if your disposition is for power efforts.
  • Your previous training logs will be a great guide for your future training.
  • Your age (50) doesn’t matter! You have a lot more potential here.
  • A foundation of speed will definitely work in your favor for marathon training.

Janice asks:

MAF & Marathoning in Your 50s

Hi Tawnee and Lucho

I love you guys! I hope you can help me figure this out. I have a question regarding MAF and marathon training. (Sorry for yet another MAF question)

My history:

– I’m a 56-year-old female runner.

– have run 15 marathons – last one 2006.

– run many 10K, half marathons.

– a few oddball races such as a 64 km ultra.

– stopped running marathons as it was just too hard and I wasn’t improving so I decided to focus on half marathons and 10Ks. I struggled over the last 14 years gaining momentum as I would see progress then get injured – mostly lower leg injuries.

I feel like I have one more marathon in me and I was lucky enough to get a spot in the 2020 Berlin marathon. I ran it 30 years ago! I am not a fast runner (marathon PR was 4:01 way back in 1999). My goal is Plan A is to be about 5 hours and Plan B is to finish. (As of today, Berlin has not been canceled, but even if it is canceled my question applies to the next race).

I seem to recall this coming up in another podcast where Lucho had said for someone my age and skill – that MAF was best – to keep healthy and to just finish. So back in September 2019, I did my first MAF test and my schedule is 4 days/week run at MAF(124 bpm) and one day at a faster pace – almost a tempo pace(depends on how I feel). So 80% MAF and 20%, not MAF. So this was fine for a while, MAF pace dropping slightly, it’s slow going but that seems to be how my body reacts. However, now as I start to increase mileage for the marathon I find that I am walking almost 95% of the time to keep my heart rate at MAF. To be honest, I’m usually on average about 128 bpm especially if there is a hill. At 124 bpm I am barely walking.

For example, today I did 20 km at an 11:11/km which meant I was out for 3:43, which was mostly brisk walking.

So my question is:  my training is mostly walking so how will I be able to actually run a race? Is the MAF training just teaching me to walk long distances? Is being out for almost 4 hours and only covering 20 km harming my progress to actually run? I was planning on doing two half marathons one in May and one in July leading up to Berlin in September – again not racing them but just getting the race prep and fueling in order. These two races are canceled this year but if I was to do them on my own or virtually, I don’t know if I could run 21.1 km as my training has been 95% walking at MAF-ish. As I increase mileage for the marathon – how does MAF fit in? Will I be out there for 6 hours or longer? Don’t I need to actually run at some point on my long run? On the plus side, I feel good after my long “run”. I guess what I am trying to say is that I’m worried I might not be training to run, or my long time out there by walking will cause harm. I’m confused. Am I on the right path?

What the Coaches say:

  • Article mention: science of MAF in a new paper by Dr. Phil Maffetone and Paul Laursen
  • There’s nothing that indicates you should be going backwards, so that suggests something’s not working right… fatigue maybe? HR too low– probably.
  • Tawnee would suggest doing an LT test to determine your zone 2 (as long as that intensity wouldn’t risk exacerbating your former injury!) and training there, even if it’s higher than MAF. See if that allows you to improve.
  • Try going out and running for one week by feel at a MAF intensity (you should be able to breath easily through your nose). Track your HR over that time, and use that number in the future if it’s different from your true MAF.
  • You do need to run to be able to run a marathon. Walking can be a valuable part of training, but, at the end of the day, you do need to run.
  • Consider getting lab testing to see where your actually crossover point is, and then go by that HR.
  • Intensity shouldn’t be coming into the equation here.
  • Be diligent about PT exercises and maintenance work to prevent re-injury.

Lee Smith asks: 

MAF and Triathlon Training – 80/20 or more intensity?

Hi Tawnee and Lucho, greetings from a wet and stormy UK! Great podcast, found you guys recently through following Tawnees video interviews with Primal Mastery online. Thank you for the great insights and entertaining content.

My main goal for this question is to not have Lucho saying ‘we don’t need to read this whole thing through’ while mock-snoring!

My background: 51 years old, decent school runner many years ago, track, cross country and played lots of football (the real football, not USA!), abandoned sports all through my misspent 20s, started running again early 30s, started triathlons 12 years ago. My results are weighted towards running, PBs 19 min 5k, 39 min 10k, 3:20 marathon. My biking is mid-pack at best (6 hour 112 mile). Swimming ok, 68 mins PB for 2.4. I would love to qualify for Kona, which is my middle-aged version of my school boy dream of playing for Liverpool FC!

Basically I’d like some advice on MAF as applied to triathlon training as most of what I understand of MAF stems from running literature. I’ve been pretty devoted to an 80/20 MAF approach at my 130 bpm rate for about a year, with decent results (now at 7:40-50 / mile for a 5 mile track test from a start point last year of just under 10 mins). I am currently training for my first triathlons since I started MAF (I have a 70.3 in June 2020, full IM September 2020 in Portugal). Having started a Training Peaks program and done a build phase for the 70.3, I am now torn between continuing 80/20 MAF, or more closely following the written plan introducing much more tempo / intensity. I had always followed the Brad Kearns / Phil Maffetone view, that you just stick to training aerobically and, come race day, your body will be able to race just like our ancestors did away from a sabre tooth tiger. However that was while I was just training, not racing. With a couple of actual races scheduled (that I have paid for!) I am now much more skeptical about this! I’m sure some of our ancestors got caught by those tigers, didn’t they? So I’m not sure whether to:

  • a) maintain the MAF fitness I’ve built so far and continue 80/20 MAF right up to the June 70.3, and treat that race like a high quality training event, as a build to the September full, or
  • b) go more hell for leather for the 70.3, then recalibrate with MAF through June – July, and build again for the full through August?

Last question guys, do you have any guidelines / suggestions about a MAF focus for running off the bike? My brick runs so far (all on treadmills after a Wattbike session) have started with a 1-2 mile high HR (160 + bpm), but then reassuringly stabilise to closer to my 130 MAF for a couple of miles, before drifting upwards again to mid 140s. My pace for these runs are about 8:30 min miles and increasing through the run to nearer to 8 mins. What do you think of a much more focussed approach of slower running with the aim of being much more aligned with MAF throughout the run, perhaps even walking the first mile or so to bring down that spike effect off the bike, with the goal of my specific off the bike run pace getting quicker over a longer time period?

By the way, I have a woodway curve TM in my gym (I don’t use that for these bricks). You were wondering about the effect on MAF of curve sessions during your recent show. My own results are 8:50 mins / mile for a 1 hour test, around 1 min – 50 secs slower than my standard tests. RPE is higher due to the continuous uphill effect.

What the Coaches say:

  • Stick to 80/20, don’t add more intensity beyond that.
  • Adding tempo should be good for you. It’s 70.3 pace, something you can hold for 4 hours. This isn’t really “intensity.”
  • You should always take intensity with a grain of salt when you’re talking about the bike or swim. Since these two are non-load bearing, the risk of injury is negligible.
  • You’ve achieved a lot with MAF, so it seems like you’re in a good place to experiment with adding intensity.
  • Get a feel for your HR when you run off the bike. Some people have a high or low HR. Figure out your normal and use that to make sure you don’t start too hard. If you lose 30 seconds in the first mile, so what?! If you come off the bike and start at one-minute-too-fast, you might blow your race. But if you start one-minute-slow, you can easily catch that up! Your MAF HR should be a cap, not a goal off the bike.
  • Be aware of how the environment is impacting your MAF.

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