Time to jump right in to the continuing series on the case for low-intensity exercise. As those who are familiar with me know, my stance on exercise has moved continually in the direction of higher intensity exercise after looking at everything from the vantage point of metabolic rate. And, more and more research continues to pour in that shows that vigorous exercise will give you a lot more in terms of fitness, strength, fat loss, sex drive, aerobic capacity, growth hormone, and other factors associated with youth and athletic performance. With a narrow and limited hormonal research perspective, there seems to be no compelling reason to do light activity at all. In fact, it looks like something that should be avoided at all costs to get the best results. Indeed the best explosive athletes are probably those with the poorest endurance as Mike Boyle suggests in a video that pretty much summarizes what my investigation has led to believe over the last several years…
But there are other ways of looking at this. Phil Maffetone is one of the kings of old-school endurance training. He was one of the early pioneers of using heart rate training and heart rate monitors to excel in endurance sports. He originally got into it because of his interest in keeping people free from injuries and also free from having a run down immune system and worn out body. In the interest of those pursuits, he was led towards training at much lower heart rates and building what’s generally known as an “aerobic base.” His conclusions are more of the antithesis of the current trend towards higher intensities, and goes so far as to recommend exercise that is easy enough that when you’re done you should feel like you could turn right around and do the same workout again – if you wanted to.
His method, described by Maffetone in Want Speed? Slow Down!, is to basically subtract your age from the glorious number 180, and maybe cut that back by another 5-10 if you are really out of shape or recovering from some illness. And then, you try to train at that heart rate steadily. Over time, the speed at which you travel at that heart rate should increase dramatically. When training at this level you produce very little lactic acid, you are breathing moderately and not even having to open your mouth and suck in air, and you are not exerting at a level requiring any self-motivational tactics to push yourself any harder than that which is comfortable… more or less.
In Diet Recovery 2 I talked about how building some base fitness by trying to increase speed and therefore overall work capacity in a set amount of time was probably a good way to make and track progress. And it very well may be. But it’s a little bit more of a crude measure of continual progress, as increases in effort can falsely show improvements in time when no real increase in fitness has occurred. Maffetone’s method is much more precise, as you work at exactly the same intensity level every time, and then track speed. If you increase your speed by 25% while working at the same heart rate level, that’s quite an improvement. The idea is to get really fit without ever having to strain, and I have no doubt it works.
Maffetone recommends spending 3-6 months working on attaining a strong base in this fashion, and then, after such a healthy base has been constructed, it is possible to segue into more intense anaerobic training – circuit training, interval training… that kind of thing. He recommends this primarily for health, as those who aren’t prepared for anaerobic training but jump right in are the ones most likely to get ill and injured. He’s probably on to something there.
Plus, as I have discovered, I FEEL my best in a variety of ways from just generally being physically active on a daily basis doing a blend of light activities. Of course, it is pretty natural for humans, and most animals, to spend a lot of time doing moderate activity, and this is one of the lifestyle traits of those with exceptional longevity (for whatever that’s worth, probably nothing as that’s really not a very good way to determine individual needs at all).
Unfortunately Maffetone has gone on to overstate the benefits of his training methods by saying that people with a low respiratory quotient are healthier with lower rates of obesity and diabetes – not true, that refined carbohydrates impair performance when the most refined, rapidly-absorbed carbohydrates on earth are thought to be amongst the most powerful performance enhancers, and so on.
But aside from any academic arguments, what matters, as an individual, is finding and doing what makes you feel good, is enjoyable, safe, empowering, uplifting, and effective. And that is widely variable depending on an a person’s metabolism, exercise history, health, age, and more, which is why I’m taking the time in this series to help us remember the exercise options that have been left behind. The Maffetone Method, for some, seems like the path of least resistance to substantial improvements in one’s fitness. But I don’t know how much you can trust a guy who looks like Malfoy’s dad.