Sunday, July 30, 2017

The MAF Test Must Die

I believe that these MAF test scores reflect with a fair degree of accuracy the ebb and flow of my fitness in the four to five years since I have started riding MAF Tests. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, I found the cold and rainy weather around December discouraging and let my fitness slide. In 2015, I finally overcame that weakness, and maintained fitness during the winter. The smaller drop in fitness in June was the result of a wonderful family trip to Israel. By December of that year, my wife's cancer was approaching its tragic climax, and so I had less and less time for bicycling.
For years, the MAF Test1 ride has been the workhorse of my training. However, starting this fall, I may never do another MAF Test ride again.

Am I abandoning MAF Test rides because I have changed my mind about the value of a MAF Test as a training ride? Not at all. I have always been optimistic but skeptical of the value of MAF Test rides, but I am no more (or less) skeptical now than I was 2 or 5 years ago. Is it because I want to try something different? That certainly could happen, but then I probably wouldn't assume I would never ride a MAF test again; depending on how this hypothetical new idea worked out, I might well go back to riding MAF Tests. So, I have not given up on MAF Tests, I am as enthusiastic about them as I have always been.

Is it because I have finally seen the light, and realized I had been misusing2 the MAF test all along? No, it's not that either. I have known from the beginning that my definition and use of the MAF Test had little if anything to do with the ideas of its inventor, Philip Maffetone. Basically, what I am calling a MAF Test is something I invented, inspired by Dr. Maffetone. If it has any value, he gets all the credit. If it is valueless or even actively harmful, then the fault is mine.

So what is changing as of this fall that is driving the MAF Test ride completely out of my training repertoire? I am moving from Houston, Texas to San Carlos, California, that's what. San Carlos is on the San Francisco Peninsula, a mountain range that defines the western boundary of the San Francisco Bay. Finding a hill in Houston is a challenge. Finding a flat stretch of road in or around San Carlos is an equal challenge, and a flat stretch of road is what a MAF Test requires3, so no more MAF Tests.

How am I going to replace this workhorse of my training schedule? What will I ride instead? My philosophy is when in Idaho, eat potatoes and when in Georgia, eat peaches. In Houston, MAF Test rides made sense, and I believe I derived a lot of benefit from them. I think they helped me maintain and even build fitness while not stressing my body too badly. I think, because they were highly controlled and monitored, they helped me develop a good intuition and body sense as to what constitutes a moderate-intensity ride. However, in San Carlos, the weather is nicer, the scenery is better, the countryside is more accessible, and thus rides are more fun and interesting, and I think I should take advantage of that. Given the intuition and body sense I have developed, I think I can do moderate rides, even when confronted with the inevitable hills, by just listening to my body and taking it easy. I have already been spending a lot of time on the peninsula in preparation for this move, and I have been able to manage easy rides, party because my California bike, a Bianchi Volpe, has very low gears. Its lowest gear is 24 inches, as compared to 28 inches on my Texas bike, my (modified) Surly Crosscheck. This basically means that, on the Bianchi, when I get to what would be the lowest gear on the Surly, I have one more, lower gear to use. As a consequence, I can take it very easy up most hills, and thus can keep intensity moderate when that is the plan for the day. So, my best guess is that in California, I will be much less compulsive, but will identify some rides where the hills never get too out of control, where, by aggressively using my gears, I can keep effort moderate. I expect to wear a heart rate monitor much less often, but might wear it occasionally, ignoring it during the ride4 but looking at its record afterwards to see how good a job I am doing at keeping the ride effort moderate. My older son, Michael, thinks the answer to fitness and good health is to aggressively pick routes with the most insane hills possible and then to ride to exhaustion. I respectfully disagree, at least for me on a daily basis. However, if I ride with him every week or two, his rides will perfectly fill the role of the intense rides on my schedule. There are lots of beautiful, low traffic roads on the peninsula, so putting together long rides will be easy. By doing the right mix of these three kinds of rides, I should be able to reach the maximal level of fitness my aging body can tolerate. Finally, every town in the San Francisco Bay Area has at least one bicycle club, so once I am settled in, I may look for a club to join. Who knows, I may even give randonneuring another go. Stay tuned.

1) For those of you fortunate enough to not have read all my MAF Test blog posts, MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Fitness. The test is how fast one can ride while not exceeding the maximum effort that can be done completely at a heart rate where the ratio of fat burned to carbohydrate burned is maximized. It is designed to be ridden as a test of one aspect of fitness to be taken about once a month. The "test" is how fast one can ride while not exceeding that heart rate. As I use it, a MAF Test ride is done as a training ride; the test is secondary, the ride and the training gained from that ride is primary. This ride consists of warming up in Heart Rate Zone 1 for about 20 minutes, riding on the Rice Track, carefully keeping my heart rate in Zone 2 for 45 minutes (the MAF Test itself,) and then cooling down by riding in Heart Rate Zone 1 for another 20 minutes. Heart rate zones are as defined by Joe Friel. I believe that Heart Rate Zone 2 corresponds to the heart rate that maximizes the percentage of fat burned, but have not confirmed that by direct measurement. (To do so is a bit expensive.) 

Here are some of my blog posts describing the MAF Test:

2) Here are the ways I have been misusing the MAF Test:
a. I use it as a training ride. As its name implies, the MAF Test is a test, not a training ride. 
b. Because I am using it as a training ride, I perform the "test" much more often than I should. "You should not do the test more often than every month as you risk becoming too obsessed with analysing the results in those cases." (
c. Philip Maffetone has a very specific way for determining the heart rate at which the test is to be performed. Instead of using his heart rate, I use a significantly faster heart rate corresponding to Joe Friel's heart rate Zone 2.
I have reasons that seem sufficient to me for all of these changes, but since I am dropping this ride from my training repertoire, and because I have discussed this all before, I see no reason to repeat my justifications here.

3) In fact, the requirement for a MAF test is more stringent than that; it must be ridden on a flat out and back course with no lights or stop signs and no traffic that would interfere with the ride. Even though Houston is flat, I know of no roads within 30 minutes of my house that would qualify for a MAF Test. Part of the reason the MAF Test became such an important part of my training repertoire is the proximity of the Rice Track, a flat, traffic free course with no stops, the perfect site for this ride.

4) One of the reasons I like the Rice Track for MAF Tests is that, in my opinion, staring at a heart rate monitor while riding in traffic is recipe for disaster.

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