Eat fat and slow down!

Friday 3 June 2016

That's the new training regime Andrew is trying as an unconventional way to improve endurance for his ultra run in October.

Over the years of working with various experts on the website I've read an awful lot of advice about training, eating and generally living a healthy lifestyle but nothing has really caught my attention as much as The Maffetone Method which I was recently introduced to from reading 'Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance' by Christopher McDougall, author of best-selling Born to Run.

The method is based on nearly 40 years of clinical experience and research by Dr. Philip Maffetone, a coach to world champions and renowned health expert on fat loss and fitness. Dr. Maffetone has coached (amongst others) Mark Allen, six-time Ironman Hawaii champion who was also named 'the fittest man in the world' by the US magazine Outside.

In a nutshell, the method involves:

  • Eating real foods - staying away from sugar and junk food
  • Rebooting your metabolism to burn more body fat - involving a 2 week test to find your optimal carbohydrate intake
  • Finding your optimal training intensity - to develop your aerobic system to use fat rather than carbohydrate for fuel
The reason it appealed to me so much when I started delving into the detail is that it's just common sense and entirely consistent with the fundamental ethos of timeoutdoors - keeping things simple, natural and no-nonsense (not falling for the short-cut regimes often found on magazine covers to entice you to buy them).

Eating real foods
So I decided to get stuck in and put it to the test. The first step was the 2 week test - cut out all carbs and sugar. Wow, never mind running 50 miles, this is a proper challenge for someone who loves Yorkshire Fat Rascals (a big fruit scone from Betty's) and chocolate HobNobs! Removing carbs, processed foods and allergens from the diet brings down the body’s metabolic reliance on carbs in a short period of time. After the 2 weeks I then gradually re-introduce non-refined carbs to a level that my body is able to tolerate long-term - everyone is different and this is designed to work out what works for me.

Foods for the 2 week test should fulfill three basic requirements: low glycemic index, low to no processing, and free from starches, gluten, or allergens. So I stocked up on local chicken, steaks (grass-fed only), fresh fish, salads, eggs (superfood), heavy cream (no low-fat nonsense) and full-fat cheese (inc some lovely Isle of Mull cheddar). Thinking I was going to be constantly snacking I also filled the cupboard with (tree) nuts - inc almonds, walnuts, macadamia, brazil and hazelnuts. Of course cooked or raw vegetables are allowed including onions, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corgettes, squash, pumpkin, leaf lettuce, spinach, carrots, broccoli, okra and kale - but not potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, butternut squash or parsnips. Oh, tea and coffee is fine - but no milk, just full-fat, heavy cream (such as whipping or sour cream).

Now I'm only 6 days into the test but it's actually very easy - eating this sort of food isn't a hardship and preparation of salads, steaks, fish etc is quick and easy. I make enough each night to fill my lunch box for the next day so I'm saving a fortune on lunch as well!

The biggest surprise by far is how full I feel without any snacking or cravings at all (even when my kids tease me by shoving freshly-baked cakes under my nose). I have a decent breakfast of scrambled eggs, spinach, mushrooms and sometimes bacon etc at 7ish and then usually nothing until 12.30ish. After that I don't usually eat until 8pm but I'm not hungry in the meantime at all. And I've also lost a fair bit of weight - I haven't felt this trim for years. Just one downside up to now - my wife did say I was a bit of a grump for the first few days but I think that's settled down now!

Developing my aerobic system
So far so good. Now for the hard bit - developing my aerobic system to use fat rather than carbohydrate for fuel. This is where the endurance angle comes in - fat is the body's biggest natural source of energy so if I can retrain my body to use this, my need for carbs on longer distance runs should come right down.

The first step is to establish my optimal training intensity. The fundmental principle behind this is very simple but requires a basic understanding of aerobic v anaerobic respiration.

Aerobic respiration occurs during low-intensity exercise and relies mainly on fat for fuel. An aerobic system operating efficiently can keep us going for hours on end and is critical for our overall health.

Anaerobic respiration occurs during higher intensity activity and relies on carbohydrate for fuel and burns through energy quickly. It should be used for relatively short bursts of intense activity but puts too much stress on the body when used for longer periods (usually leading to overtraining issues and injuries).

Given that our aerobic system is the foundation of our anaerobic activity, an efficient aerobic system will benefit our anaerobic performance. But having said that, most of us probably spend the majority of our exercise time operating anaerobically and therefore our aerobic system is not getting the training it requires to operate efficiently.

So to deal with this Dr Maffetone has developed the '180 Formula': a formula which is used to calculate an individual's optimal heart rate for effective training of the aerobic system. Ideally each person would undertake lab-based tests to work this out but as this isn't practical for most of us, the formula has been developed and refined on the back of years of experience with athletes who have undertaken these lab-based tests.

To find your maximum aerobic training heart rate, there are two important steps.
  • Subtract your age from 180.
  • Modify this number by selecting one of 4 categories that best matches your fitness and health profile.
So for me, my maximum heart rate is 134 (180-46 with no adjustment), which means my optimal heart rate band for training is 124-134. Yes, that's not a typo - I cannot exceed a heart rate of 134!

So off I went for a 10K training run wearing 2 heart rate monitors - a Polar with chest strap and an Epson wrist monitor - I was a little sceptical that the wrist monitor would be accurate but it turns out to be fine (if not a bit complicated to use). As I'm taking this quite seriously I'd set the training zone on the Polar monitor to the 124-134 band, which means it beeps at me if my heart rate is out of the zone. Within no time at all it was beeping - slow down, no slow down even more! Then along comes a hill - beeping again - I had to slow to a fast walk - I couldn't actually run up the hill and keep my rate below 134! And so this goes on - it took me nearly 1 hour 15 mins to do a run that normally takes 45-50 mins. Over time, my aerobic fitness should improve which will allow me to increase speed without exceeding the maximum heart rate - and eventually get back to and better my original time.

In all the blogs and comments I've read about MAF, slowing the training down is by far the biggest challenge for people and I can see why. It is extremely counter-intuitive, a huge shift from conventional wisdom and for me just not the way I am used to training. But according the Dr Maffetone, the need to slow down to achieve the desired heart rate actually re-emphasises the need to improve the efficiency of my aerobic system - which actually makes perfect sense. And that's why I'm going to stick this out - at least 3 months of low-intensity training with a low carb diet.

So if you're looking to get genuinely fit and healthy long-term, I have yet to come across an approach that comes anywhere close to making as much sense as Dr Maffetone's natural approach. I have very much simplified things in this blog to keep it short so if you are interested, I would encourage you to read the MAF Methodology website in detail before embarking on any changes to your training or eating regime - he's also just about to launch an iPhone app which makes the whole thing a little easier.

I did find his website a little confusing at times and a lot of useful information about the foods you are allowed during the 2 week test is contained within blog comments - so I trawled through a lot of the comments to put together my own list of foods, which is set out below. Don't rely on the recipes on the website for the 2 week test either - they're mainly for the post 2-week test period.

If you do try this out or have any comments/feedback, I would love to hear from you - please email me at and let me know how you get on.

Foods should fulfill these three requirements: Low glycemic index, low to no processing, and free from starches, gluten, or allergens. Allowed foods include the following (this is not an exhaustive list):
  • Eggs (whites and yolk)
  • Unprocessed (real) cheeses - parmesan, manchego, asiago, brie, camembert, goat cheeses, aged cheddars, hard cheeses
  • Heavy (whipping) cream, sour cream (ie. low lactose because typically made from milk with the butterfat)
  • Yoghurt & creme fraiche - full fat, sugar free, natural
  • Almond milk or coconut milk (unsweetened, unflavored, without preservatives)
  • Unprocessed meats including beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, fish and shellfish - and good quality bacon
  • Tomato, V-8 or other vegetable juices, but not carrot juice
  • Water—drink it throughout the day between meals
  • Cooked or raw vegetables including onions, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corgettes, squash, pumpkin, leaf lettuce, spinach, carrots, broccoli, okra and kale - but not potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, parsnips
  • Olives
  • Tree nuts - almond, walnut, macadamia, brazil, hazelnut, pecans
  • Seeds, and their associated nut butters
  • Oils, vinegar, mayonnaise, salsa, mustard and spices - inc avocado oil and coconut oil
  • Zoodles - alternative to pasta
  • Pesto
  • Sea salt, unless you are sodium sensitive
  • All coffee and tea (if you normally drink it) - inc fruit tea
  • Lemons

Related material:
Run less and lose more body fat - by Callum Melly

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