Running, Triathlon
October 9, 2018

Why MAF Testing Is Useful (And How To Do It)

Female runner looking at her heart rate monitor

I moved to Singapore 10-years ago and have been a professional coach since that time.

When I first arrived here, I wanted an athlete I was coaching to do a lactate test but I couldn’t find a good place to get one.

Rather than sit around and twiddle my thumbs, I figured I’d buy some equipment and open a lab.

I partnered up with a sports scientist and for a few years, we worked together, putting people through our tests. Lactate tests to measure fitness, establish heart rate training zones and track progress. Fuel efficiency (fat burning) tests to establish how they were using their energy.

I eventually stumbled onto a pretty good recipe that seemed to work for most people, most of the time.

Just as I thought I was doing pretty well and had developed somewhat of a unique philosophy, I read a book by an American named Phil Maffetone.

Phil is a chiropractor by training but has spent the majority of his career working with athletes in a similar manner to what I was doing.

It turns out, Phil had figured out everything I had worked hard to learn (and more) 30-years earlier. If only I had read his book on day-1. It would have brought me a few years up the learning curve and saved me a lot of work in the lab.

While my approach to health and performance continues to evolve and I don’t completely subscribe to the MAF method of training, I do strongly believe in the overriding principles.

Namely, build a strong aerobic system and become a fat burner.

One of the many useful tools Phil developed to help athletes is his MAF test. MAF stands for maximum aerobic function and the MAF test is essentially a way to measure your aerobic fitness.

Most of the athletes I speak with tend to measure their fitness is two ways.

  1. Time trials
  2. Races

While both are great measurements, they are also extremely hard and cannot be done too frequently.

The MAF test, on the other hand, is an easy test, done at low intensity, that can be done on a regular basis to track your aerobic development and to identify whether anything is interfering with its progress.

It helps to identify whether you’re headed in the wrong direction. Either from too much anaerobic exercise, too little aerobic exercise or through any imbalance (such as stress or diet) that is having an adverse effect on your aerobic system.

Sign up for Coached running or triathlon programmes.

Establish Your MAF Heart Rate

Before you can do a MAF test, you’ll need to know your MAF heart rate. I like to establish this number during a lactate test but for those who haven’t done one or don’t have access to this form of testing, you can use Phil’s 180 formula.

For those of you in Singapore, you have no excuse, come and do some testing with us in our lab.

How To Do A MAF Test

With MAF heart rate established, it’s time to test.

It’s important to note that this test can be done with any exercise except weight lifting. For the purpose of this post, however, I will focus on running since the majority of our readers are runners and triathletes.

Here’s how I have Coached athletes do the test.

Perform The Test

Head to the nearest track.

You’ll need a monitor that can capture your splits and allows you to view your heart rate. I suggest you use a monitor with a heart rate strap over a wrist-based monitor if possible because they’re usually more reliable and accurate.

Warm up for 10 minutes at MAF heart rate. If you have done a MAF test before and your second km was faster than your first, increase the warm up by 10 minutes.

Next, run up to 8km at MAF heart rate (this is the actual test). For our fitter athletes, I have them run 8km. For the less fit, I usually have them start with 4 – 5km.

As you run, your watch should capture your splits every kilometre. Your first kilometre will be the fastest and you should find that each subsequent kilometre gets slower. This is completely normal and demonstrates a normal fatigue factor.

Do some light stretching to cool down.

Control The Variables

To ensure an accurate and consistent test result, you’ll need to do your best to control the variables that can affect your test results.

Time Of Day. Do the test at the same time of day. If you do your first test in the morning, do your follow-ups in the morning too. If you do a test at a different time of day, make a note in your log for reference and understand that it could contribute to any changes (good or not-so-good) that you see in follow up tests.

Climate. Do the test in the same climate each time. Heat, humidity, rain, wind and snow, for example, all provide different challenges that can affect your physiology. If you do a test outside the normal conditions make a note in your log for reference.

Altitude. If you’ve not adapted to altitude, it will have a significant effect on your body and your MAF test. If you have to test at altitude when you are not acclimated, make a note of this in your log for reference.

Hydration. You need to be well hydrated before completing the test. Even mild dehydration can slow you down and lead to inconsistent test results.

Equipment. Use the same equipment each time you do the test. If you make changes to your equipment, make a note of the changes in your log for reference.

Health. When you are sick or getting sick your body’s immune system is working very hard to recover. In this situation do not perform the test and wait until you are feeling better.

Your Results

Your MAF Test should indicate faster times as the months go by. When you see this, you can feel confident that your aerobic system is getting stronger and your fat burning is improving, enabling you to do more work at the same effort.

Ming has been following the Coached programme for just over a year and a half.

While everyone develops at their own rate, here are the results from some of his tests to illustrate the progression you can anticipate.

MAF test progression for Coached athlete, Ming

As you can see, he’s able to run at a much faster pace at the same heart rate. You’ll also notice that he has a smaller drop off between the first kilometre and the last as the months go by.

This is the goal and is evidence that training is working.

Try using MAF testing in your preparation and see how it works for you.

AuthorBen PulhamBen Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart rate training programme that helps you optimise, track and enjoy your training.