Ironman Training with the Maffetone Method

Over the past two years I have been training for and competing in triathlons. From Sprints to Olympics, and now Half Ironman triathlons, the goal has been to complete a full Ironman. What once seemed like an impossible goal now appears realistic and reachable. Since Ironman races have grown in popularity, more and more races have started to appear around the United States and in countries around the world. With that, there are lots of ways to train for an Ironman triathlon. In searching for a training method, it was important for me to find one that:

  1. Incorporates natural, whole foods, as much as possible.
  2. Is sustainable for the long term, which will in turn
  3. Keep a balance between training and family time.


After listening to a podcast that featured Marc Sisson, author of the Primal Blueprint and Primal Endurance, I decided I wanted to choose the Maffetone Method.


The Primal Endurance Podcast photo with Mark Sisson running up a hill using the Maffetone Method


What is the Maffetone Method?


In short, the Maffetone Method is an approach to training that seeks to

  1. Develop the aerobic system
  2. Optimize the body’s fat-burning capability
  3. Control Inflammation


Dr. Phil Maffetone developed this approach in the 1970’s, but it has only recently come back into the spotlight after the “no pain, no gain” and high-carbohydrate diet approach has been called into question.


Developing the Aerobic System

Using the Maffetone Method, athletes focus on developing the aerobic system by training below a certain heart rate to ensure they are training in their aerobic zone, where the body burns primarily fat. As opposed to more intense anaerobic training, where the body burns sugars, aerobic training does not require an athlete to constantly consume Gatorade or Powerbars every 20 minutes to maintain energy. The Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) formula of 180 minus your age provides an individual with a heart rate not to exceed in order to stay aerobic. For example, a 30 year old would have an MAF heart rate of 150 (180 – 30 = 150).  Training this way requires a heart rate monitor to ensure one is staying below their aerobic threshold.


Running to train for a triathlon.


In theory, when one trains aerobically, they will increase their efficiency (aka go faster) at these lower heart rates. Going slower to become faster seems counter-intuitive, but as Dr. Maffetone points out, the body is becoming more efficient, which in the long term translates into speed.

Optimizing the Body’s Fat Burning

Training primarily aerobically trains the body to increase it’s capability to burn fat. In addition, adopting a high-fat, low carbohydrate approach to eating helps convert the body to burn fat as it’s primary source of fuel. Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple describes it best in his post on why fat is the preferred fuel for the human metabolism. The gist is that fat is longer burning fuel for the body, which keeps blood sugar levels and energy stable. Some people take it to extremes and eat little or no carbohydrates, but instead of focusing on being dogmatic about it, one can simply aim to keep fat intake high and carbohydrate intake low (less than 200 grams) and mostly from low-glycemic sources like sweet potatoes, vegetables, and fruits. This eating template helps to decrease oxidative stress on the body. Besides losing body fat while training, the major advantage of turing on the body’s capability to burn fat is so I can consume less food during a race. This is not only easier logistically, but greatly decreases the chances of an upset gut during a race. If you’ve experienced gastro-intestinal distress during a race, you know how much it can slow you down and make racing miserable.


Fermented carrots in a jar


Reducing carbohydrate intake can be difficult, as the body needs some time to adjust how it processes  food for energy. When I have started a low-carb phase, I have noticed  an initial drop in energy and some irritability. That’s why I personally do not go too hard, too fast with this approach. The best way to do this is for me is over a week or two by gradually lowering carbohydrate intake and taking it easy with workouts. The biggest pitfall is trying to workout at high intensity or overdoing it. Almost every single time I have pushed myself above my MAF heart rate while eating low-carb high-fat (LCHF), I have succumbed to the power of the FroYo shop or drumstick ice cream cones. When my body is in this mode, the mind goes to great lengths to rationalize a junk food binge.


Controlling Inflammation

Many experts agree that inflammation is the cause of many chronic health problems. In athletes, inflammation can come from many sources, including overtraining, lack of recovery, poor sleep, mental stress from work or personal life, among other things. Mark Sisson’s article on the subject explains the ins and outs of inflammation, but suffice it to say that with a heavy training load, one must take extra measure to control inflammation.


Why use the Maffetone Method?


The biggest reason in my decision to train in this style was the emphasis on long-term health. As opposed to many training plans that have a short-term focus of completing the race despite the health consequences and injury potential, the Maffetone Method focuses on incremental improvement over the long term. I do not have competitive goals in the near future, so this approach is consistent with my values.


Before you jump to the conclusion that this is for people who don’t expect peak performance, a second reason to consider the Maffetone Method is the case of Mark Allen, arguably the greatest Ironman triathlete of all time (6 Ironman World Championships). After plateauing in the sport and having decreasing performance, Mark enlisted the help of Dr. Maffetone’s counter-intuitive approach of “going slower to go faster.” Endurance Planet has a great interview with both Mark Allen and Dr. Maffetone that describes Allen’s resurgence in the sport.


Perhaps the most intriguing reason to give the Maffetone Method a try is the story of Dr. Timothy Noakes, who was previously behind the scientific research that led to the  High-Carb paradigm for endurance athletes. Dr. Noakes pushed the science of having a steady intake of carbohydrates while  exercising in order to have continued energy. Unfortunately, this approach led Dr. Noakes to develop Type 2 Diabetes, despite being a marathon runner and avid fitness enthusiast! Dr. Noakes, whose famed book, The Lore of Running, was the training bible for most endurance athletes at the time, reexamined the science of carbohydrate intake and came to the conclusion that it was not a good way to eat. His interview on the Primal Endurance Podcast talked about his journey to that conclusion.

The Plan

Over the next 12 months I will be training for Ironman Vineman, which takes place in Windsor, California, on July 29th, 2017.  I hired coach Nick Carling to make sure I am training the right way and progressing in my fitness. Nick is an accomplished Ironman triathlete, who among other things, won his age group at Ironman 70.3 Vietnam earlier this year and will be competing at the ITU World Championships next month. One of the ways we will be tracking my progress is through the MAF Test. Every couple weeks I will run the same course and stay below my prescribed heart rate of 147 and see how long it takes me to complete it.


Nik Carling finishing Ironman 70.3 Vietnam

Coach Nick Carling winning his age group at Ironman 70.3 Vietnam.


My wife and I are expecting our second child in November, so fitness gains will probably be limited until December or January. Along the way I will race in a couple shorter distance triathlons, but the main focus will be Ironman Vineman.


I will attempt to eat a Low-Carb High-Fat diet, but this is secondary to my goal of training below my MAF heart rate of 147. Each month I will post updates on training as part of a 12-part series to see how it works. I am optimistic at my chances of success. Having a solid plan and a solid coach have put my mind at ease, so the only thing left to do is put in the work.

Pedaling on my bike trainer in the garage.


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Setting my intention, harnessing my energy, and readying my body for the cannon in Kona. @ironmantri Photo by @melissa_ergo
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Tri-hard, binge hard. Some day-after-Kona donut action at Holy Donuts 🍩. #imkona2017 #junkfood #holydonuts ...

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Author: mike

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8 thoughts on “Ironman Training with the Maffetone Method

  1. Wow! Loved every word and enjoyed every second of this great read. Thanks so much for recording your adventure and look forward to your updates.

  2. Do you think Maffetone method of training is sustainable while also being a “tactical athlete?” I’m active Army EOD and can’t understand how I would balance military workouts at anaerobic vs Tri training at 145BPM.

    I’m sure you remember pushing 180 plus on PFTs.

    Interested in your thoughts.

    • Great point, Thomas. I definitely remember reaching max HR and getting smoked on the regular when I was active duty. I have heard Tawnee Prazak (host of Endurance Planet Podcast) answer this by saying there is most likely benefit from doing your triathlon training aerobically. Obviously your work comes first and listening to your body will help you out deciding if you need to back off your triathlon training. My best guess is that you will still make fitness gains, but maybe not at the same level some doing strictly MAF training would.

      I definitely go above MAF when I play softball, run around the yard with my 2 year old, and go free diving, so I’m not purely aerobic either. The main point I have taken away is that placing more of a focus on aerobic training develops the mitochondria and lower level aerobic systems.

  3. Mike!
    As I read your diet plan, it made me think of the ketosis diet. It’s basically a similar concept of high-fat low-carb. Any thoughts of these? Similarities? Or pitfalls within your current diet versus ketosis?

    Any insight would be great! I’m thinking about switching up my diet for off-season training.

    • Ketosis would be on the far end of the High Fat spectrum, where people consume almost zero carbohydrates except for vegetables. I haven’t tried that yet, but have instead opted for a lower carb approach. The first week can be hard, as the body will crave carbs. But once you get over the hump it is nice because you won’t hungry as often. The only drawback can be reduced top-end speed. But that doesn’t really affect me. Check out the Primal Endurance book and podcast I link to in the resource page.

    • Hi Jonathan, I’ll be doing Ironman Santa Rosa in a couple weeks, so I will let you know. I plan to do a big write up of what worked and didn’t work.

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