Monday, July 15, 2013

Overtraining and MAF Tests

As this picture foreshadows, three out of the four pictures in this post have nothing to do with overtraining or MAF tests; they are in here to break up the tedium all this text. This is a photograph I took of a particularly interesting sky when I was out bicycling with my wife.

I don't get very many comments on my blog, but I love it when I do. Back in March, Michael (a fellow RUSA member) commented on one of my posts on training. He mentioned that his training regimen involves a lot of riding; his training rides are sometimes 200 miles long! His comment raised an obvious question in my mind: "Could I be training harder? How do I decide?" In my youth, these would not have even been questions, it went without saying that I should train as hard as my schedule and enthusiasm allowed. Since age 55, however, I have found that sometimes, the harder I train, the worse I do, a phenomenon known as "overtraining".

Overtraining (which I post about a lot) is a widely recognized if somewhat controversial topic in both the fitness community in general and the cycling community in particular. The controversies include how it is defined, how frequently it occurs (e.g. is it a rare or a common disorder among athletes), how serious it is, and what the symptoms are. As regular readers of this blog know, the last has been particularly vexing for me. Of course, the core symptom of overtraining is fairly obvious; training more and performing less well. However, that is a fairly late symptom, one that could have causes other than overtraining (e.g. illness, loss of motivation), and one that can be difficult to measure and interpret (e.g. if the ride with the lower performance is on a more difficult course or with stronger companions, it may not be meaningful.) For all these reasons, I am always looking for additional symptoms that are more objective and which provide early warning signs of overtraining. As I have mentioned in previous posts, however, most if not all of the early warning signs for overtraining commonly suggested (e.g. increased resting heart rate) are not, for various reasons, useful to me. The symptoms I am left with, for now at least, are how I feel while riding (including tiredness or aching in my legs), how I feel generally (e.g. depression, lack of motivation, increase in the number or severity of illnesses), and MAF test results, described below.

Another picture whose only purpose is to break up text. This is an old three speed I inherited about 35 years ago when I friend of mine moved to California from Boston and didn't think the bike was worth moving. He was probably right, but being the pack-rat I am, I have tried to keep it working. It's primary virtue is that it looks as bad as it is, making it fairly unlikely to be stolen. I use it for utility trips, shown here at a grocery store. Groceries, including the flowers peeking out the top, are in the backpack.

MAF Test Definition

Very briefly, a MAF (Maximum Aerobic Fitness) test involves riding 45 minutes on a fixed course (the Rice Track) at a fixed heart rate (130 to 140 beats per minute) and recording my speed. According to dogma (see below), this speed should increase month to month during optimal training but should fall during overtraining. As compared to generally observing "performance getting worse", results in a MAF test should be less susceptible to variations such as those resulting from course variations (due to the fixed course) and motivation (due to the fixed heart rate). Unfortunately, there are still many factors other than training and overtraining that that can affect a MAF test score, such as wind, temperature, mild (subclinical) illness, short term tiredness, etc. To a significant extent, these factors can be dealt with by averaging the results of multiple MAF tests. The more serious question, however, concerns the basis for my belief in the validity of the MAF tests; what is the evidence that they are a good indicator of training and overtraining?

Final irrelevant picture. Houston does not have nearly the bike culture of cities like Boston or San Francisco, but we do have the odd fixie. There is a "foodie" market in Houston, Central Market, which attracts the same demographic who rides fixies, and when I shop there, I typically see a couple like this one.

Validity of the MAF Test

I encountered the MAF test in Dr. Phillip Maffetone's book "Endurance Training and Racing". I recently re-read this book to refresh my understanding of the program and re-reading definitely changed my understanding.
  1. Dr. Maffetone is explicit and adamant that what he calls his "maximum aerobic heart rate" can only be determined by his formula of 180 beats per minute minus your age plus up to 5 beats per minute or minus up to 10 beats per minute depending on training history and health status; he specifically rejects the kind of personalization of heart rate that I have done.
  2. Dr. Maffetone does not believe in periodization. His ideal training program consists of training at maximum aerobic heart rate for three to four months and then adding racing to the mix through the racing season or until MAF test results start to decline.
  3. Except for recommending that all training be done at his "maximum aerobic heart rate", Dr. Maffetone does not provide any detailed training plans. For example, he does not recommend any specific length for training rides; I suppose that he would argue that the length of training rides should depend on the event for which you are training. In particular, Dr. Maffetone does not recommend that training rides be the same 45 minute length as MAF tests, and contrawise, he recommends only performing one MAF test a month.
Thus, it is now time for me to unreservedly confess that my current training does not follow that given in Dr. Maffetone's "Endurance Training and Racing" and that I do not, at present, plan to change my training to match the book. Thus, there are two reasons the MAF test might not be a good measure for overtraining:

  1. The claims made in "Endurance Training and Racing" for the MAF test are not accurate.
  2. I have modified how I use the MAF test to an extent that it no longer works.
The response to both concerns is the same, however: to test the MAF test. This is what attracted me to it in the first place, that Dr. Maffetone made explicit, testable predictions for the MAF test, and if those predictions are not met, then the MAF test is invalid either intrinsically or because I have modified it. The problem is that there are too many different ways that the results of the MAF test can be interpreted. I think it will be a long time before the weight of the evidence is sufficient to convince me if it is working or not, but thinking about it is fun. Here are my latest MAF test results:

The vertical axis shows the average speed as measured by my Garmin 500 during a 45 minute MAF test, done at a heart rate of 130 to 140 beats per minute. The tics on the horizontal axis are one day per tic. The graph starts at the beginning of December, 2012 with the Base phase of my training. At the beginning of February, marked by a red arrow, I switched to the Build phase of my training. The second arrow marks May 18, 2013, the day I rode my 130 mile brevet. Since then, I have returned to Base training. The different phases of training are described in the text of this post.

If I assume that riding the brevet in March pushed me into overtraining (see below), the MAF test results would appear to support that; my MAF test speeds increased all through training and then fell after the brevet, perhaps leveling off the last week or so. I am very curious what the results will do moving forward. Right now, I am training at a fairly low level, doing daily 45 minute MAF tests and the occasional 30 to 40 mile longer ride. If my MAF test results continue to remain level and only increase when I resume longer rides (up to 90 or 100 miles), then I will assume that MAF test results are a measure of fitness and are not useful to measure overtraining. If the MAF test results start to increase again before I resume harder training, then I will conclude that the reason they fell after my last brevet was overtraining, not reduced fitness, giving me confidence that MAF test results are another useful indictator of overtraining. Stay tuned.

Other Symptoms of Overtraining

The day after my second (and most recent) brevet, I was tired but felt pretty good; I went on a 17 mile social ride with my wife. Over the next few days, I had trouble sleeping at night. Five days later, my MAF test results were almost as high as they had been before the ride but I was feeling tired so cut back on training. As the days went on, I felt more and more tired rather than recovering as evidenced both by general lethargy and a soreness in my legs that would not go away. Two and a half weeks after the brevet, I developed an acute illness that kept me in bed for two days and then settled into a chronic cold from which I am only now recovering, 8 weeks later. For some months, I have suffered from sciatica which is usually fairly well controlled. At about the same time I developed my cold, my sciatica became dramatically worse.

Are these symptoms diagnostic for overtraining? Are my illnesses a coincidence, bad luck, or the result of the stress of the brevet? Although I don't know for sure, most of the training books include advice to the effect that you should "listen to your body", and I feel like the message from my body is quite clear. Any one of the symptoms (illness, tiredness, sleep disorder) might be do to something other than overtraining, but when considered together, the aggregate of these symptoms convinces me that I am overtrained. When you put that together from the results of the MAF test which started declining at the same time, the picture is consistent, evidence that the MAF test is one more indicator of overtraining. Because the effects of overtraining appear to be delayed by at least a week or two from the event the caused them (e.g. the brevet), it is hard to be sure when they started, but the combination of all the data suggests to me that I did not develop overtraining from my training but only when I rode the brevet itself.

Plans for the Future

Last October I outlined a training plan for the years 2013 and 2014 (here and here). These plans involved training for a brevet in May, resting for the month of June, doing base training for the months of July, August, and September, build training in October, November and December, and then a 200K, 300K, 400K and 600K brevet series in January, February, March and April. Although I am on schedule to complete training plan, because my second brevet appears to have taken much more out of me than I had hoped, I no longer think it will work; I think any brevet longer 200K or 300K may be impossible. The unfortunate implication is that Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP, 1200K) would lie forever out of reach. On the one hand, I worry that, by being overcautious, I might miss the one opportunity I have left to participate in the event of a lifetime. On the other, I worry If a single 200K brevet leaves me this exhausted, how can I hope to go on from there to 300K, 400K and 600K brevets, much less the 1200K of PBP?

To both maximize the chance of being able to ride PBP (as small as that might be) and to minimize the chance of overtraining, I am revising my training plan based on what I learned from this latest brevet. I am hypothesizing that the training in preparation for my last brevet did not result in overtraining. Thus, the experiment I am considering is to increase training before my next brevet so that the brevet is less of a "shock". Looking at a calendar and at how I am feeling today, I am considering attempting another 200K brevet on November 9. Previously, I have worked up to a long training ride of 90 miles to prepare for a 200k (124 mile) brevet, training to 73% of the distance of the brevet. This time, I am planning to work up to a long training ride of 110 miles, almost 90% of a 200K brevet, making the brevet more like one more long training ride than a challenge. My hope is that as a result, I will not be so exhausted after the brevet. Assuming I feel OK after the November brevet, I would ride a 200K permanent in December to maintain my conditioning for the brevet series starting in January. My further hope is that by doing more training for the November 200K and a second 200K in December, the first ride of the brevet series, a 200K in January, will not be exhausting and that, on the other hand, by doing three 200K brevets, I will be maximally prepared to attempt a 300K brevet in February. I think it would be premature to make any predictions about what comes after that.

The other possibility, of course, is that all this training will leave me totally exhausted, unable to even attempt a brevet series in 2014. The reason I am willing to make this gamble is that I am pretty sure what I am doing now will not work and so there is little to loose. In any case, I am likely to learn something about my capabilities from this experiment that might allow me to either complete longer rides or at least come to peace with my limitations.

What Others are Posting

The RadioShack professional cycling team posted an interesting article on the Science of Recovery.

Joe Friel has an excellent post on the increased difficulty older riders have recovering from hard training.


  1. How often are doing your MAF tests and training rides? The key to training is the recovery from training. Adequate recovery between training efforts leads to the adaptation we call fitness.

  2. Iron Rider,

    Thanks for the suggestion! I worry about recovery a lot, I think (as does Joe Friel) that this is something that becomes more problematic as one gets older so this is particularly relevant to me as I approach age 65. As per Joe Friel, I try to ride 4 to 6 days per week. To finally answer your question, I am currently in the base phase of my training cycle and am riding 4 to 5 MAF tests a week and 1 to 2 longer, social rides with my wife (which are quite slow). Relevant, in my opinion, is that the MAF test is a very low-stress ride; it is done in Zone 2 and is only 45 minutes long (with another 30 to 45 minutes of warm up and cool down.) As I enter build phase, I will add one long ride per week done "at pace" (not wearing a heart rate monitor but keeping my speed comfortable) and will reduce MAF test rides to two or three per week to leave a rest day after the long ride, and as the long rides get longer, adding a rest day before as well. My feeling is that my schedule during base phase is if anything too easy, but I am taking your suggestion very seriously.

    1. What prompted me to ask the question was your description of riding the MAF tests at a heart rate of 130-140 bpm for 45 min (not including the 30 45 min of warm up and cool down!) That seems to be a fairly strenuous aerobic workout.

      While I don't know your max heart or heart rate at lactate threshold, 130-140 bpm would almost always fall into the high aerobic zone for a man over the age of 45 (using various calculations) and that zone tends to lowers as we age. I would bet that at an age approaching 65, the same applies to you.

      If that is the case, then doing 4-5 high aerobic zone workouts week is definitely working hard with very little recovery time. Especially, if your recovery day is another long ride.

      One possible reason why your 130-145 bpm sessions may seem "easy" (Zone 2) is that if you do not recover adequately then you start each day with an elevated resting heart rate. As a result, an easy workout gets the rate up to an extent that it would would not if you were fully rested.

      If this makes sense to you and you are concerned about recovery and overtraining, I suggest monitoring your resting heart rate (first thing in the morning.If it increases, you are not recovering. If it decreases you are getting the result you want. While I am not a doctor and do not want to play one on the intenet, I have considered the issue and, in an experiment of one, gotten good results. If you are interested, I explain a bit more here:

      Best of luck with your training!

  3. Excellent advice, thanks! I especially appreciate the detail.

  4. Hi,
    just wondering why you are a) doing Maf test so much (I tend to do them 1 every 2 or 3 weeks)
    b) using a figure 15 bpm higher than the Maf for your age.

    Not saying what you are doing isn't good training, but I doubt Mafetone would call it Maffing.
    Have you given "true" Maf training a go?
    I had one good year using almost all Maf, but to be honest find it a bit repetitive and obsessive constantly checking HR -
    so I now included Maf to a degree - all warm ups/cool downs and recovery days.
    and parts of most long rides - but mix it up a little also.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sean!

      Short answers to your questions: I ride as many MAF tests as I do because I find them to be low stress rides that are just enough exercise to keep me healthy and contribute a little to my fitness with almost no risk of overtraining. In other words, I do them more as a ride than a test. I ride them at a higher heart rate than Dr. Maffetone recommends because over the last 5 or 6 years one thing I have learned about myself is that my heart rate at any level of exertion is much higher than the general population; I am a genetic abnormality :-). I'm actually not sure what "true" Maf training is. I know that a "true" MAF test is done at a much lower heart rate than I do, and I did try that, but it was almost physically impossible. I cannot walk around the block at that heart rate much less ride a bike. My question about "true" Maf training is what rides does one do when one is not riding a Maf test? By the way, my thinking has evolved a lot since this post from almost a year ago.

  5. Have you looked at HRV as a way to monitor recovery? I'm 51 and find it a critical training tool.

    1. (For those, like me, who are unaware of this, HRV stands for Heart Rate Variation. As I understand it from a few minutes of reading, it is a measure of how much the time between heartbeats varies from beat to beat.)

      Anonymous, no I have not. Thanks for the suggestion, I will look into how I might try this.