Monday, December 27, 2010
Maffetone takes a holistic approach, that is to say, he never loses sight of the big picture. It does mean the book is a bit repetitive because, he cannot explain one bit in detail without showing how it fits into the overall context. In spite of this, the book is thankfully devoid of that self deprecating style that is all too common and wastes no words on trying too make the subject matter more interesting, instead assuming that, having bought the book, it is quite likely that you'll want to read it.
The first surprising thing about the book is that it has to be the only book on training that has no training schedules nor exercises which is just as well because I already have all that ten times over. The second surprising thing is that it a lot of the conclusions to which I had been coming are all in this book. Well, that is not so surprising as I wouldn't have bought the book otherwise but it is surprising in the sense that Maffetone has been touting these ideas since the eighties when he helped Mark Allen to his winning streak of six times Ironman World Champion.
I am normally suspicious of the word "holistic" as it is often offered as a justification when no scientific reason exists. That says nothing for my prejudices against Chiropractors of which Dr Maffetone is one. Nevertheless, as with most things, there are some sound principles behind Chiropractice and Maffetone's book gives scientific reasons for all of its claims, which is just as well, because some of them are pretty radical. Where the science falls down is that many justifications are anecdotal and not based on controlled studies. But he is only one man and has seen more than his fair share of professional athletes (which he refers to as patients rather than clients) in his thirty years of practice. I can relate to the holistic principle - whenever I have been injured I have consulted different experts but, in most cases, each one has only been able to advise me based on their narrow view leading to conflicting information and for me to ultimately decide what is best. The classic example is the doctor who, when told your knee hurts when running, recommends you not to run. Often complete rest is not the best way to recover.
The other thing about the book that would normally make me very suspicious is - I know this is going to sound silly - the photo of the author. He has a shock of white hair but a completely lineless face. He looks like he has made a pact with the Devil. Either he is taking a very unholistic and unwholesome approach, or what he preaches really works for him. I suppose it makes me suspicious because the photo says to me "you too can look as good as Phil just by following his simple plan". It is just a photo, he can't help it if he looks about thirty years younger than he really is. (POSTDATA: I was amused to see that one of the searches someone did to get to this article was "how trustable is Maffetone?". Seems like I'm not the only one!)
There are two things that I especially admire about Maffetone. The first is that he questions everything and researches the answers tirelessly. The second is that he doesn't just limit himself to digging deeper and deeper in the same hole; every so often he suddenly decide to start digging elsewhere. Now he is making music and has already released a couple of CDs. He is one of these very rare people with depth and breadth.
Something that he mentions in the book that makes a lot of sense and comes from the world of Chiropractice is the idea of muscle balance. All muscles have counterbalancing muscles (protagonists and antagonists) and are part of an overall kinetic chain. I have certainly experienced both of these imbalances. When I started to run again, I would find that the weakest link would be in pain - first I had problems with my knees, then my hips, then my calfs, the Achilles and finally my feet. Also, after an injury I would notice the imbalance between my atrophied muscle and its opposing muscle.
I think I will try a couple of the "experiments" in the book but not this side of the Ironman. I'd already been coming round to the persuasive idea behind the Paleo diet - namely that we should eat the foods that our organism has evolved to digest - but I don't feel ready just yet to cut out all refined carbohydrates from my diet. Maffetone claims that these interfere with the aerobic functioning of the body. He suggests abstaining from taking refined carbs for two weeks and comparing your aerobic performance before and after.
His more radical "experiment" is really the premise of his whole book: that you should do all of your training at the Maximum Aerobic heart rate given by his formula. I'm sure he has had a lot of experience with many athletes but without having seen the statistics I just can't buy into the formula. It puts my aerobic running threshold at 147bpm, almost 10 beats below that established in a lab test especially for me and, what is potentially more disturbing, is that it puts my aerobic cycling threshold (also at 147bpm) at more than 20 beats higher than the lab established value - this is likely to be the intensity at which I complete the bike leg of the Ironman (in fact, Maffetone would say that the bike leg should be 100% aerobic). The question I can't avoid asking is how much he actually supervised Mark Allen's day to day training and how religiously Mark Allen followed Maffetone's principles. No doubt about it, Maffetone definitely on to something but I wonder if he has to polarize his findings somewhat to give them more impact, as if he is already taking into account that you will inevitably cut some corners. Or, put another way, when he first had these ideas they were far ahead of their time - now Sports Science has caught up on many fronts and perhaps it is hard for him to acknowledge these advances without discrediting his own work. The testimonials in the book are pretty striking and more or less follow the same pattern: they describe starting off having to jog or even walk so as no as not to exceed the maximum heart rate but then how, over a period of months and years, they return to their original training pace or faster but at tens of beats per minute less. What I found particularly intriguing is that many of them go on to say that they even start to find it very difficult to maintain a pace that takes them over their Maximum Aerobic heart rate! Maffetone even suggests that you could consider doing aerobic series - that is to say, run for 5 minutes at a pulse rate of 145bpm, say, and then 5 minutes at 120bm. Phew!
Today I did at 2 hour run a la Maffetone. I ran the whole way at an average pulse rate of 137bpm - that's 10 beats below the prescribed rate. It felt ridiculously easy but what was great was that, even so, I managed to cover over 23km so my aerobic base can't be so bad. It shouldn't be too traumatic to try Maffetone's experiment - at least in cold weather and over relatively flat terrain - maybe I will try it out next year.
Whatever your conclusions you can't afford to ignore this book...