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“The counter argument to Dr. McGuff’s argument is presented by Dr. Maffetone on the slow aerobic side of the equation. Ironically these two theories are not that not that far apart…They may actually dovetail together quite well.” R. Ben Johnston, MD, Emergency Medicine physician
McGuff’s Brief Muscular Effort and Maffetone’s Slow Aerobics, Never the Twain Shall Meet?
(Selected Reader Response Below)
For two months, we’ve been discussing the 12-minutes-a-week workout for complete fitness prescribed by Doug McGuff and John Little in their thought provoking new book, Body by Science (McGraw Hill, 2009). They claim their “Big-Five” strength workout makes aerobic exercise unnecessary. For details, see “Aerobics, Do You Need It http://www.cbass.com/AerobicsNeedIt.htm .
Ben Johnston, MD, introduced me to Dr. Philip Maffetone, who recommends slow aerobics, and discourages any kind of anaerobic exercise, including weight training. McGuff and Maffetone are on opposite ends on the training continuum, polar opposites.
Johnston, a rare bird who talks to patients he sees in the ER about exercise and healthy eating, is intrigued by both McGuff and Maffetone. He's a big Maffetone fan. Maffetone is a doctor of chiropractic and coach, who has worked with such notables as running guru George Sheehan, MD, Olympians Priscilla Welch and Lorraine Moller, triathletes Mark Allen and Mike Pigg, and race-car drivers Mario and Michael Andretti. He was honored by Inside Triathlon magazine as one of the top 20 most influential people in endurance sports worldwide. He has written more than a dozen books; the 5th Edition of his In Fitness and In Health was published in May of this year (2009). He’s also an accomplished song writer. You can read about him and listen to his music on his website: http://www.philmaffetone.com
His book, The Maffetone Method (McGraw Hill, 2000) explains his “train slower to go faster” philosophy.
The cornerstone of the Maffetone approach is an aerobic base. What is it? How's it developed?
A Good Aerobic Base
A good aerobic base means a strong aerobic energy system. Simply put, your muscles are processing oxygen and burning fat efficiently; it means your body is using sugar/carbohydrate sparingly. A good aerobic base translates to good endurance. There’s more to it, of course, but that’s basically it. For Maffetone, the main component is an efficient fat-burning mechanism. (Maffetone lists 10 important benefits of building an aerobic base in The Maffetone Method.)
He says it usually takes three to five months to build a good aerobic base. “During this period of time you’ll perform only aerobic exercise…no anaerobic training.” Heart rate is the best way to insure that you’re functioning aerobically. The maximum aerobic heart rate—based on Maffetone’s own formula—is 180 minus your age, give or take a few beats to account for health and fitness status. No intense training is allowed, no intervals—and absolutely no weight training.
Maffetone says he is not opposed to anaerobic exercise (high intensity, sugar burning) once the aerobic base is in place, provided that a proper balance is maintained. Nonetheless, he downplays anaerobic exercise. He says athletes generally don’t need it. “The fact is that the majority of people I have trained, even many world-class and professional athletes, did not require anaerobic additions to their training schedule,” he writes in The Maffetone Method. “Moreover, most injuries and overtraining occur in those performing anaerobic training.”
As Maffetone sees it, the main negative aspect of anaerobic exercise is diminished fat-burning capacity. Another bugaboo is the production of lactic acid. He believes the lion’s share of training time and energy should be devoted to building and maintaining good aerobic function.
For those damn fools (my characterization, not his) who insist on including anaerobic exercise—which means going over the maximum aerobic heart rate or strength training—he provides rules, including a time limit and restrictions on interval training. As long as you feel good and don’t injure yourself, “continue your anaerobic training for up to one month.” Most benefits, says Maffetone, are achieved “after a month’s worth of these workouts.” Longer periods of such training increase the “risk of creating an aerobic-anaerobic imbalance” and “aerobic system suppression.” For intervals, he recommends keeping them short—“the shorter the time, the less stress.” He provides examples calling for “10 seconds at a pace faster than normal” and 30 seconds at “an easy pace” for a total of 20-30 minutes. “Do not allow the fast pace to become exhausting,” he cautions.
Emphasizing again that hard training is unnecessary and possibly injurious, Maffetone states that “increased aerobic function can provide you with almost all the health and fitness benefits you’ll need.” (We’ll have more to say about that below.)
To better understand the Maffetone method, let’s examine training for beginners and competitive athletes.
Beginners and Athletes
Maffetone’s advice for beginners sets the general tone for everyone. “After your workout you should feel as if you could do the same workout again. But don't. When in doubt, go slower. It never hurts to work out easier, but working too hard can have adverse consequences.”
Walking is a good way to start. (Biking is fine too.) Focus on time rather than distance. Aim for a length of time that makes you feel good, not tired or hurting. Try 20 or 30 minutes. If that makes you tired, try 10-15 minutes the next time. “Even a 5-minute walk may be a good starting point,” Maffetone says reassuringly.
“It’s normal to feel a very slight soreness or tenderness in your muscles,” he adds. “But it should not be uncomfortable or painful.”
If all goes well, do the same workout again the next day. Keep that up until you start to feel tired, and then take a day or two off. Walking five days and taking two off would be a good way to start. If you start with 20 minutes, after about a month you can increase to 30 minutes.
As your condition improves you’ll be able to walk faster with the same effort as before. Faster is not necessarily better, however. “Rather than increase your pace, gradually increase your total workout time,” Maffetone advises.
You can see where this is going. Maffetone emphasizes volume (over pace or intensity). Taking a couple of months “or even a year” to work up to 45 minutes is okay. “There’s no rush.” Staying with 30 minutes would be okay, but “45 minutes will provide more benefits and enable you to build your aerobic system more quickly.”
Okay, then, what about the other end of the training spectrum: competitive athletes? Will the same laid back, volume approach work for them? Yes, the basics are essentially the same, but the workouts are longer and the pace faster. Balancing workouts and energy level also becomes more complicated.
Maffetone says he often advises competitive athletes to do less, rather than more. The average person who wishes to compete has many other responsibilities (work, family, and so on), says Maffetone, and “less training usually produces better athletic performance.” Professional athletes who train full time, of course, have more energy to devote to workouts and can benefit from doing more. For both, however, Maffetone’s mantra remains Less Is More.
As an example he profiles Carla, “a back-of-the-pack triathlete with hopes of improving her performance.” She was doing all the right things—“not exceeding her maximum aerobic heart rate”—but trying to squeeze 18 hours of training into an already busy week. He advised her to cut her training back to 12 hours. “It was the only change necessary,” he writes. In the next racing season “she achieved personal bests in eight out of nine races.”
There’s more to it, of course. But the basic ideas, for beginners and competitive athletes, are the same. Balance stress and rest, avoid anaerobic exercise, and build a more efficient aerobic system.
Mark Allen, six time winner of the famed Ironman Triathlon and one of Dr. Maffetone’s star clients, agrees: “The only difference between training to win the Ironman and training for life is the distance. The principles are the same”
(For details on cross training, single- and multi-sport training, diet and nutrition, and much more, read The Maffetone Method and In Fitness and In Health.)
Both McGuff and Maffetone assert that their training system is all that’s necessary for fitness and health. Let’s briefly assess their claims and then see if Dr. Ben Johnston’s idea of combining the two approaches might work.
Two Flawed Systems
We don’t need to get very far into the weeds to conclude that both systems are flawed. Let’s look at a few of the problems.
Two months ago http://www.cbass.com/AerobicsNeedIt.htm , we weighed the adequacy of Dr. McGuff’s 12-minute-a-week training plan as a stand-alone regimen. I concluded that both steady-state aerobic exercise and interval training have proven value that has not been shown for resistance training, especially very short, hard routines. Last month http://www.cbass.com/Sitting.htm , we presented new evidence on the dangers of being inactive between workouts—another strike against Dr. McGuff’s brief and infrequent training regimen.
While the fitness and health benefits of steady-state aerobic exercise are well established, the drawbacks and deficiencies of a system that purposefully excludes strength training are also evident. We need look no further than the research presented by William Evans, PhD, and Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD, in their landmark book Biomarkers (Simon & Schuster, 1991). With the publication of Biomarkers, strength training took its rightful place as an equal partner with aerobics. Moreover, strength training became the senior partner for taking the worry out of aging.
To paraphrase Satchel Paige, the ageless baseball pitcher, biomarkers are those things that tell how old you would be “if you didn’t know how old you was.” In Biomarkers, Evans and Rosenberg isolated 10 signposts of vitality that can be altered for the better by changes in lifestyle. Listed in the order of importance, muscle mass and strength were first and second, with aerobic capacity ranked fifth.
Evans and Rosenberg reported that the first biomarker, muscle mass, is responsible for the vitality of your whole physiological apparatus. Muscle mass and strength, the second signpost, are our primary biomarkers. They’re the lead dominoes, so to speak. When they start to topple, the other biomarkers soon follow. On the other hand, when muscle mass and strength are maintained, the other indicia are likewise maintained. That is where strength training comes to our aid. Aerobic exercise and diet are important, but strength training, according to Evans and Rosenberg, is pivotal if you want to stay young longer.
For more details, see my article revisiting Biomarkers on the 15th anniversary of its publication: http://www.cbass.com/Biomarkers.htm
There’s more: New thinking on lactic acid may recast Dr. Maffetone’s avoidance of anaerobic exercise as a phobia.
Lactic Acid as Fuel
For years, we’ve been told that lactic acid is a waste product that burns and shuts down muscles. It’s something athletes and fitness exercisers are urged to avoid. You’re told to work out just below your lactate threshold, where lactic acid begins to accumulate. That, it seems, is mostly wrong.
The aerobic and anaerobic energy systems have been thought to operate as separate and distinct systems. Lactic acid was considered the enemy of aerobic metabolism, with the power in sufficient accumulations to bring it to a halt.
Enter UC Berkley integrative biology professor George A. Brooks, who has been studying lactic acid since doing his doctoral dissertation on the subject in the ‘70s. Brooks says the idea that lactic acid is bad and to be avoided “was one of the classic mistakes in the history of science.”
“The understanding now is that muscle cells convert glucose to lactic acid,” Brooks explains. “The lactic acid is taken up and used as a fuel by mitochondria, the energy factories in muscle cells. Mitochondria even have a special transporter protein to move the substance into them.”
Aerobic metabolism and anaerobic metabolism, in fact, operate side by side in the mitochondria. The heart, slow-twitch muscle fibers, and breathing muscles actually prefer lactate as a fuel during exercise. In short, lactic acid is a significant energy source, actually a good thing.
Hinting, or perhaps suggesting, how athletes can and are using this revelation, Professor Brooks said in a recent press release: “The world’s best athletes stay competitive by interval training. The intense exercise generates big lactate loads, and the body adapts by building up mitochondria to clear lactic acid quickly. If you use it up [as an energy source], it doesn’t accumulate.”
Too much lactic acid is still bad, however. It causes distress and fatigue during exercise. In extreme circumstances it can damage muscle cells.
Some combination of high intensity and endurance is probably best for most trainers. As Professor Brooks indicated, both forms of training improve mitochondrial function.
High intensity training also develops cardiovascular capacity (blood flow and oxygen delivery), and endurance training increases the use of fat as fuel. Both forms of training reduce the need to breakdown carbohydrate for fuel, decreasing lactate formation and speeding its removal.
Aerobic training and anaerobic training actually work well together. Intervals are a super combination of the two forms of training; they are not to be feared
Marathoners and other endurance athletes will probably still want to rely more on endurance training, while bodybuilders and strength athletes will likely favor intervals and resistance training. Most of us are probably somewhere in between the two extremes.
(For details on the research that led to these new insights, see http://www.cbass.com/Lacticacid.htm )
Well, well. The prospect of combining the McGuff and Maffetone training philosophies is beginning to sound better and better. Ben Johnston’s idea of marrying these so called polar opposites may take wing and fly like a bird.
Let’s look at some of the options you might want to consider.
“If you took McGuff’s ideas and combine them with Maffetone’s ideas, you would perform one extremely hard anaerobic workout every seven to ten days, and the rest of the time would be very low intensity aerobic workouts,” Dr. Johnston suggested in an email message. Far fetched as it sounded at the time, I believe he’s on to something. Maffetone is off base on high-intensity training, and McGuff is out of the strike zone on aerobic exercise. The combination of the two, however, may very well be a home run.
One commonality that comes to mind is that McGuff and Maffetone are both risk averse. Both claim that their system prevents injury. Low intensity aerobic exercise and slow lifting are both about preventing wear and tear on muscles and joints. That’s one for a combined system.
My earlier suggestion (two months back) that McGuff’s Big-5 workout might work well with a walking program now makes even more sense. Consider doing the Big-5 workout on day 1, walk on days 3, 4, and 5, rest on days 2 and 6, and then repeat. That would be an upgrade on either system alone. Recovery from the 12-minutes of strength training would be enhanced by walking, and walking during the week would build aerobic fitness and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and early mortality. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Endurance athletes, freed of anaerobic-phobia, might want to consider doing the Big-5 workout and intervals on alternate weeks. That would help to preserve/build the primary biomarkers, muscle mass and strength, and take advantage of the proven benefits of interval training, without the risk of overtraining.
The problem that often arises when programs are combined is that we add and forget to subtract. We start with an already full plate—and add more. This leads to overtraining or worse. Dr. Maffetone understands this very well. That’s why he told Carla to cut her training by one third, from 18 hours to 12 hours. “Carla really didn’t have the time for that amount of training….She worked part-time and had a family that included two young children,” he explained.
That’s what he means by “Less Is More.” Less training, smarter training produces more and better results.
If you decide to combine the two systems, keep the story of Carla’s success in mind. Dr. Maffetone’s advice to age-group athletes and pros—everyone—is right on the money: “Fit your workouts into your week so that you won’t add stress.”
* * *
Selected Reader Response
From Dr. Phil Maffetone
My approach has never been to avoid anaerobic
training. In fact, I recommend it often and do it myself. My recommendation is
to first develop a very good aerobic system, then add anaerobic/power
workouts as time, energy and stress levels permit.
Anaerobic training can impair aerobic function, so building the aerobic system without anaerobic training is an important part of developing the whole body.
More From Maffetone
[Editor: We asked Dr. Maffetone if he had softened his attitude on anaerobic training since writing The Maffetone Method. We also asked if he had an opinion on the new findings on lactic acid, as set forth above and in our earlier article "New Thinking on Lactic Acid" (link above). His reply to both queries appears below.]
Thanks for your email. My statement on anaerobic training is
accurate. I've learned that developing aerobic function is such a primary
need for virtually all athletes. Anything that slows or otherwise impairs
aerobic development should be postponed or avoided. If it's an otherwise
healthy routine, such as anaerobic training, it's postponed until the
aerobic system develops sufficiently. I've learned that the high cortisol
associated with anaerobic training, like any stress, can interfere with
aerobic development. Some athletes (mainly those in endurance sports), can
perform their best without any anaerobic training, and instead, rely on
competition for sufficient anaerobic work. Each athlete must assess his or
her needs and determine how best to balance aerobic and anaerobic training.
I have not changed by approach since the Maffetone Method was published.
I enjoyed your article on lactic acid. I wrote something similar recently called Lactate Update, and it's posted on the Sports page on my Website: www.philmaffetone.com
Having evolved from pretty high volume to much less training over the past 8 years, mostly because of you and Winett, I was anxious to get to your take on the debate. I appreciate that you base your conclusion not just on your experience, but on studies. I don’t think I will change my training, but it was a very interesting article.
If You Were English
If you were English, you would surely be knighted for your services to fitness and health. Your writings on " Body by Science", Phil Maffetone, and Biomarkers, are truly fascinating.
I have as a permanent book next to my bed, "Slow Burn " by Stu Mittleman. He is a great fan of Maffetone, and was one of America's unsung ultra distance champions in the '80's. He is a highly educated man, who clearly states, and shows, that the human body is designed to MOVE forward and be active, every day, and for every day that you do nothing, waste sets in. He is a big advocate of slow and steady, but he also clearly slots in fast pace and heavy weights.....as do you.
I have done the McGuff style workouts on and off over the past 4 years with good results. Between workouts I golf, mountain bike, work in the garden and do other activities that I consider fun, not formal aerobic sessions. I am now in year 4 of controlling my type 2 diabetes with diet and exercise, no meds. As far as I am concerned, the combination of high intensity weight training and other activities works.
Johnston's Marriage Sounds Familiar
You accurately stated what I had been thinking, but wasn't able to put into words. Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that Johnston's marriage of the two schools of exercise sounds surprisingly similar to what you have advocated all along: A bout of high intensity, low frequency weight training balanced with a bout of aerobics. The only difference I see is that you recommend high intensity intervals, and his would be steady-state, which works, just much less effectively.
It was good to read your latest post on Body by Science.
I started BbS, but felt very soon it was too narrowly focused. So I
experimenting now with:
• 7 days off (cycling to and from work, splitting firewood daily and
other yard work)
• a week of my usual routine
• two days rest then BbS again
Even now, by the fourth or fifth day after my "Big Five", my body is itching to exercise with heavy work.
(Editor: For many more details, go to http://www.evfit.com/200905.htm )
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