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Maffetone Versus Crossfit Endurance: Which Is Better

Posted by on Dec 26, 2011 | 17 Comments

If you participate in any of the barefoot and minimalist forums (Runner’s World, Barefoot Runners Society, Ted’s Google Group) you’ve probably come across a thread about the Maffetone method.  This sudden upsurge of interest in Maffetone interests me, especially because it comes on the heels of a burst of interest in high-intensity interval training (Crossfit Endurance is a popular version.)

First, a quick primer on the Maffetone method and CFE.  Phil Maffetone is a dude that, among other things, is a running coach.  He developed a systematic method of training based on using heart rate as a measurement tool.  Long story short- if you train at a certain intensity, you “train” your body to utilize a greater percentage of fat.  When done over time, your body becomes more efficient, allowing you to run longer and faster without hitting that “wall” thing marathoners talk about (which is caused by a shortage of glycogen in the body.)  Fitness can be measured with a standard “test” to measure if the methods are working.  Maffetone also has an accompanying diet and what not.  It’s a little more complex; buy his book to find out more.

Anyway, the science behind his methods is fairly well supported, and a lot of anecdotal evidence supports the method.  The premise of long, slow runs is used by most of the ultrarunners I know, though they don’t use heart rate as a measuring tool.  The idea has been around for a long time.  I find it interesting that it’s experiencing a resurgence in popularity, especially with the barefoot/ minimalist crowd.  Why now?

Now Crossfit Endurance.  The plan is used in conjunction with Crossfit.  The idea is to develop speed and power, which is supposed to translate to successful endurance.  There’s a focus on balance, stability, and variety.

Maffetone and his proponents avoid anaerobic exercise (for the most part.)  The CF/CFE crowd and their proponents avoid aerobic exercise (for the most part.)  I’m beginning to see a few good arguments developing between the two camps.  Much like paleo and vegan arguments, there’s some science supporting both.  There’s also some anecdotal evidence supporting both.  Like any good ideology, there are also people selling products related to both.*

*Not that selling crap is a bad thing

Interestingly, both camps are supporters of a lower volume approach.  All exercise has a specific purpose in both theories.  There is no “running to get in the miles.”

Anyway, I’ve experimented with both.  In my experience, both have serious short-comings on their own.  Follow Maffetone’s methods to the tee and you’ll end up losing explosive speed and develop strength imbalances which may increase certain injuries.  And it’s nearly impossible to follow Maffetone if you’re training in mountains at altitude.  Follow CF/CFE and you’ll never learn the nuances of running very long distances, require a consistent source of carbs when running, and probably get hurt doing too many hack squats.

Like most things, there’s a good middle ground.  I’d recommend ignoring Maffetone’s suggestion to mostly avoid anaerobic training.  Add a few burpees, deadlifts, or sprints between your runs.  I’d also recommend ignoring CFE’s recommendation to limit runs to 13.1 miles.  Do a good long, slow run once in awhile to train your body to better utilize fat.

What are your thoughts?  If you’re supporting one or the other, please give us some evidence.  ;-)

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17 Comments

  1. mark lofquist
    December 28, 2011

    even DR Phil Maffetone says the MAF training is for the ‘off season’ and subsequent years will require less emphasis.

    I trained for a year mostly in Zone 2, then a year using only CFE (and hundreds in stead of thousands of miles for the year). I don’t know which method is ‘better’- as I am only an experiment of one. I have new PRs in short, middle, and log distance after a year of CF+CFE.

    And… CF + CFE did wonders for my physique – if that’s important to you.

    Here’s Mark Sisson’s opinion
    http://paleorunners.blogspot.com/2011/09/case-against-cardio-from-former-mileage.html

  2. Brian G
    December 27, 2011

    I absolutely agree with Andre C. I use a combination of both Maffetone (for aerobic strengthening) and Crossfit methodology (for anaerobic and overall strength conditioning). Not too much of either one, focusing on whichever one my body is telling me it needs that day. For me, it works great.

    Note that I don’t think you have to do HIIT or CFE to eliminate strength and conditioning imbalances. Good ol’ moderate-load strength training, focusing on unilateral movements, is what I’d recommend.

    As for Jason’s question of “why such a big interest now?”, my guess is that with the growing interest in long-distance running, runners, having now found an improved running style to maximize running efficiency (BFR/minimalist) and who are always looking for improvement, are further looking for methods to improve and maximize energy pathways.

    I suppose with the renewed interest somebody will dream up “Maffetone Energy Bars” that are, of course, based on the “latest scientific evidence”.

  3. Andre C
    December 26, 2011

    Has anyone here actually read Dr. Maffetone’s articles and papers? His method does not cause imbalances at all. If you’re running consistently, yet slowly, and you get injured, then you had a muscle imbalance before you started. Let us not forget this is the man who trained Mark Allen, you know, the guy who won 6 Ironman Championships? Maffetone’e method includes building a strong aerobic base over 6-8 months, or longer if you’re more out of shape aerobically, but also supplementing that with proper strength training. I say proper strength training, because many people fatigue their muscles way too much, causing muscle imbalalances and injury. You don’t need to do intervals to learn how to go fast. If you keep your heartrate where it needs to be, you will go faster and faster as your body uses oxygen more effeciently. Some people also seem to think that you must pick either method depending on which type of racing you like to do, but that’s not the case. Without a good aerobic base, many find themselves overtraining and regularly injured. I’ve been using the method now for almost a year, and have had no injury or overuse injuries. If you build your aerobic base and are properly strength training and eating properly for your physiology, you will be a successful runner, a healthy runner, and you’ll be able to run well into your later years.

  4. Dave H
    December 26, 2011

    I’m with Jeff and mark p. I use Maffetone for 6-8 weeks to build up a good base. I have been amazed at how much my speed for a given heart rate goes up after a few months of low heart rate training!

    Then I start incorporating speed work. Tempo runs and various sprint workouts. Plus, of course, some strength training to keep the muscles in shape.

    The two approaches complement each other quite well.

  5. Spencer
    December 26, 2011

    I feel as though a Maffetone style method works the best for me, basically keeping a low heart rate. I ran my fastest marathon and 5k time with this. But, I discovered that if I don’t do what I call “power sessions” every once and a while my body loses it’s ability to have a quick turnover and be really powerful. These power sessions usually involve sprints, and going as fast as possible up short sections of hill. These usually help with the turnover, and keep my body feeling powerful, and being able to pop when I run.

  6. Ken S.
    December 26, 2011

    I generally agree that for most people the middle of the road approach is a good one. However, I believe that there is no one size fits all approach to training. Everyone has different strengths and weakness based on physiology and previous athletic experience, and those strengths and weakness have to be addressed accordingly. On reason CFE has helped so many runners to improve is that it directly addresses weakness that are very common among distance runners. Those weakness being poor levels of general fitness, crappy diets, and crappy technique. However once those weakness have been addressed, then it may be time to look higher mileage programs, and then again maybe not.

  7. Erik
    December 26, 2011

    I’ve always just done what I felt like doing. I get bored easily, so integrating variety comes naturally. Then I start reading about these two, diametrically opposed trends. I got confused. Your post has helped convince me to keep doing what I feel like doing, on any particular day, or over any particular period of time. This method keeps me interested in exercising regularly.

  8. Alex
    December 26, 2011

    With due respect to those camps, and those who have had success with them, I’d rather target all energy systems, rather than indulge in a pattern of focus/neglect. For most people, who aren’t trying to target an Olympic race, two years out, this is basically what I think works best: Non-linear periodization, covering all your bases, all the time. Intervals, tempo, hills, long, and easy. Every week. This is what the fast people do, and as someone who aspires to be fast, what I do as well.

  9. Chris Van Dyke
    December 26, 2011

    Jason, Jason, Jason. You’re never going to get a movement named after you if you go for moderation.

    • Jason
      December 26, 2011

      Chris, I thought I was on to something with the “no training plan.” I was wrong, back to the drawing board. :-)

      • Erik
        December 26, 2011

        On the contrary, I think “post-method training” has strong branding potential. Describe a set of exercises, techniques, and schedule so complexly organized that adherents end up doing what they feel like doing without realizing it, yet have the satisfaction of following a licensed plan by a leading expert.

  10. Boris Terzic
    December 26, 2011

    All methods have benefits and drawbacks. If I had to lean towards one I’d go with Mattetone for endurance oriented training. CFE has shown little ability to develop accomplished runners or anyone in other disciplines.

  11. Kyle Kranz
    December 26, 2011

    Well, I like to run. So I follow the Maffetone Method :)

  12. Jeff
    December 26, 2011

    It’s a misconception that Maffetone believes that you should ONLY run long and slow – he does advocate interval and speed training, but only after developing a strong aerobic base.

  13. Michele
    December 26, 2011

    I have always been a “slower” runner BUT wasn’t unhappy about it. This July I started incorporating Crossfit mainly because I wanted to get physically fitter. after a few sessions my trainer started telling me that as long as I was doing CF, I was wasting my time running those miles in and that I also needed to change my diet. I am a vegeterian who runs 40-45 miles a week. Yes, the strict Crossfitters do not have high regards for runners with no good source of real “protein”. My trainer who has never ran a mile in his life, wasn’t able to influece me and I have kept the milage up. However by adding CF, I have become leaner, stronger and more confident which has directly affected my running, specially the LSD runs that range between 14-20 miles every Saturday.

  14. Scooter Schneider aka LavaRunner
    December 26, 2011

    Like all good things, and bad things, too much is never good. Balance is always a better way to live. It is mind numbing to read through the recent Maffetone threads on various forums. It crushes my mind to think how fast these threads grow. It almost takes a server farm just to support a Maffetone thread and in the end, they say the same thing over and over again in different ways.

    My personal experience is that every time I start to engage in High intensity interval training, I get hurt. I bugger a knee, cause some tendonitis or tear a muscle. However I feel big improvements in short bursts and like how I feel a day or two after a brutal HIIT session. But I cannot even imagine HIIT being a value for my 50 miler training; it does however keep muscles in balance and helps when powerwalking hills.

    Maffetone on the other hand, as you brought up, can create some imbalance in the body just as road running does by keeping muscles in a steady and repetitive state for long periods. However after a few months of using Maffetones MHR methods I found that my average pace did increase and I never hit a wall. I was dropping pounds, for me that is a good thing, and getting a lot of time on the trails. The downside? I became very tired of hearing the HRM beep at me when I was busting up a hill because it felt good and I found this strange physical anomaly in myself where at 5-10 miles, my HR becomes almost unpredictable for a few miles then it settles down and seems to lock in at a nice number slightly below my Maffetone HR and doesn’t budge. Maybe the erratic HR is my body switching from sugars to fat in a mini wall type scenario.

    My preference now is sort of a Maffetone with a Fatlek ending. I know, it sounds like a bad Massage session. I’ll do my long slow pace as long as the brain can take it then I’ll do fartleks the last few miles of a run, often pushing to near exhaustion and then easing off. I like it better and it seems to work.

    After all, I was able to push through the 26.2 barrier into the Ultra realm with a 33.2 mile DNF in my first 50 miler using this technique. It wasn’t the legs and lungs that failed but a bad knee in need of repair. I’ll stay with my Maffetone Fartlek happy ending for next year and see how it goes.

  15. mark p
    December 26, 2011

    I agree that both have their shortcomings, combining the two is probably the best solution. Maffetone for a long, base-building phase followed by HIIT for anaerboic training. Sort of a Daniels’/Lydiard approach.