I’m considering registering for the Rattlesnake Master Run for the Prairie 10k coming up in just over a month. Ahead of any race it makes sense to do a bit of speedwork. And I wanted to do a little test, to make sure I’m up for running hard for (close to) that long. So I did.

I always hesitate before I call a workout “speedwork,” simply because I run so slowly, but really, anytime you run faster than usual, it counts as speedwork.

I do two sorts of speedwork. Sometimes I do sprints (either on the flat or uphill). Other times I do what I did today, which is perhaps a tempo run or perhaps a lactate threshold run—I’m not sure which is a better description.

What I actually did was set out to run at the fastest pace I could maintain for an hour. The whole run came in at 5.19 mi in 01:08:43, so an average pace of 13:13 min/mi. That included some easy minutes to warmup at the beginning, and then some cooldown at the end. The core part of the workout (which was intended to be 1 hour) came in at 4.58mi in 00:58:50, so an average pace of 12:50 min/mi.

I’m actually pretty pleased with that. For around six years now I’ve been trying (for almost all my runs) to keep my heart rate low enough that the exercise is almost entirely aerobic. The target HR for that is given by what’s called the MAF 180 formula. (The formula is 180 minus your age, and then with a few modifiers, which for me would include another minus 5 because I’ve gone back on blood pressure meds.) So I should probably be trying to keep it under 112 bpm. Boy would that be slow.

Years ago I came up with 130 bpm, and had never updated it. I usually keep my HR down around 130 for the first two-thirds of a run, after which it tends to start creeping up.

To hit those low heart rates I had to run pretty darned slowly: I averaged maybe 16 min/mi, which put my running speed down into the range of a fast walk. (Actually, very slightly faster than that. When Jackie and I were training for our day-hike of the Kal-Haven Trail we worked on upping our walking pace, to be sure we’d be able to walk 34 miles during daylight, and we got up to where we could do a mile in less than 18 minutes, but I’m not sure we ever walked a mile in less than 17 minutes.)

Back in March I realized that I’d probably been pushing on that one lever (workouts at a low heart rate) for longer than made sense, and I started easing back into running faster for at least some of my workouts, and this is one where I tried to go a bit faster.

For this run my HR (excluding a few glitchy readings before I got sweaty enough for my HR monitor to work well) averaged 141 and maxed out at 151.

I looked back at this blog for reports of my running pace at various times, and found that I used to routinely break 12 min/mi, but all the specific reports I found were for runs under 3 miles. I did find that the previous time I ran Rattlesnake Master Run for the Prairie I ran it with an official time of 1:17:13.4 meaning a 12:26/mile pace.

At any rate, I’m pretty pleased with this run, both as a test, and as a bit of speedwork ahead of next month’s Rattlesnake Master Run for the Prairie, which I’m now considering a little more seriously.

Me and Jackie after the 2019 Rattlesnake Master Run for the Prairie.

Since 2015, when Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes introduced me to the work of Phil Maffetone, I have not tried to work on running faster. Instead, I have focused on building a really solid aerobic base. Specifically, I have tried to run at a speed that kept my heart rate near 130 bpm (which was the MAF heart rate I came up with back then).

The theory is that, by training at that heart rate, you will gradually increase the speed at which you can run at that heart rate: You get faster at that particular level of effort. Basically, you persist with that—doing your runs at that heart rate—for as long as your speed increases. Only then do you add speed work (intervals, tempo runs, etc.), and then only as a few percent of your training.

In my own rather casual way I took all that to heart. I never did much speed work anyway, but I was happy to just not do any while I waited for the magic of the MAF system to kick in. But it never did. For the past five years I’ve been running very slowly (call it a 15-minute pace) at a nice low heart rate, but I’ve seen none of the gradual improvement that was promised.

I can’t really call it a failed experiment. I’ve enjoyed these slower runs. I’ve largely avoided injuring myself. I’ve built a solid aerobic base. But I’d like to be able to run faster, and following the MAF system doesn’t seem to have done the trick.

So I’m going to gradually ease back into running faster. I’ve done a little sprinting right along (more as strength-training for my legs than in an effort to work on running faster), and I’ll boost that up just a bit. But the main thing I’ll do is just run faster whenever I feel like it.

For years now, I’ve made it a practice to try to notice when my HR goes above 130, and ease up whenever it does. I might still do some runs like that—it does help me refrain from going out too fast and ending up exhausted halfway through a planned long run. But I think I’ll go back to just intuitively running at whatever pace suits me in the moment.

I did that today, and ran 3.16 miles in 43:16, for an average pace of 13:38. Not fast. But I wasn’t trying to run fast—I just quit deliberately slowing down anytime I noticed my heart rate was over 130. For this run my heart rate averaged just 134, so I wasn’t really pushing the effort. Maybe I can still run 12-minute miles!

On this chart the line between “moderate” and “hard” is 134 beats per minute. That’s not related to that being my average heart rate; rather, it’s calculated by the app I’m using off my maximum heart rate.

(By the way, I wrote about Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes in a post on it and a few other human movement books.)

For some time now I’ve been aiming to do my endurance training at my MAF heart rate. MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function, and it’s the heart rate where you’re producing the maximum output without having to use anaerobic systems. Although the MAF formula just produces an estimate, there’s quite a bit of data to back it up.

If you do almost all your training at MAF, you’ll get better (run faster) at that heart rate. The idea is that you first do that, and only when your performance plateaus do you need to start doing any sort of speed work (and then not much of it).

As I say, for some time I’ve been aiming to train at my MAF heart rate, but it’s a low enough level of intensity that I’ve persistently had trouble not running too fast. I have a heart rate monitor, but it’s not very useful during a run, because my heart rate is displayed on my phone, and I don’t want to run around carrying my phone where I can see the screen. The upshot has been that I’ve inadvertently done a great deal of my training somewhat above my MAF heart rate, which rather defeats the purpose.

To get a better grip on my MAF training, I finally broke down and bought another heart rate monitor, which displays my heart rate on my wrist so I can check it while I’m running. It also has an alert function, so I can set it to vibrate if my heart rate goes above some value. After looking around a bit, I settled on the Mi Band 4 (which is available for cheap because the Mi Band 5 is now out). It does the thing I want well enough. (It also does a bunch of other stuff that I don’t care about, and some things that I do care about (sleep tracking), but that I do some other way, such as with my Oura ring.)

After a shakedown run a few days ago, where I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to use the device the way I wanted, today I went out for a run where I tried to use it for some proper MAF training, and I think I was very successful. I probably only spent two or three minutes (out of a 51-minute run) with my heart rate above my target.

This very easy run was nice and gentle. Sitting here at my computer maybe an hour after I got home, my heart rate is already back down to just 64 bpm, which amounts to a surprisingly complete recover. After a run only a little bit faster, I’d expect to see my heart rate stuck in the 70s for several hours.

Now to see if regular training this way produces the speed gains it is reputed to.

I’ve resisted low-carb eating for a long time, even as the evidence has increased that high-carb diets are terrible for us.

Via Christopher McDougal’s book Natural Born Heroes, I discovered Phil Maffetone and his two-week test, which caught my eye.

I’m generally very healthy and feel great, but I do have a few health issues—and there seems to be at least some evidence that a low-carb diet might help all of them. The point of the two-week test is to test exactly that: If you go very low-carb, does it make things better? If not, then you’re done—excess carbs are probably not your problem. If it does make things better, then you follow up the two-week test by gradually experimenting with adding carbs from various sources in various amounts, and figure out how much (and which kinds) of carbs you can consume without problem.

The things I’m hoping a low-carb diet might help are these:

  1. Allergies. Over the last twenty years I’ve gone from claiming that I don’t have allergies, to admitting that I get sniffles for a couple of weeks in the spring and the fall, to needing to take both Claritin and Nasacort daily. There’s some reason to believe that a low-carb diet might reduce inflammation. If true, that might ease my allergy symptoms (besides improving my general health), and might mean that I could eliminate those drugs, or perhaps just reduce them from constant to occasional.
  2. High blood pressure. My blood pressure is well-controlled with lisinopril, and I’ve been able to cut the dose since I’ve lost some weight these past 5 years, but it’s another drug that I take daily. It seems very likely that a low-carb diet will reduce my blood pressure, very possibly eliminating the need for this drug as well.
  3. High blood sugar. Back in 2003, I got a high blood glucose reading, and a stern talking-to about pre-diabetes. I responded by sharply reducing my consumption of soft drinks. That brought my blood glucose down to 91 in just six months. The past two years, though, my glucose has been ever-so-slightly high again. It’s not at a scary level, but I don’t like it even a little bit high. Undoubtedly, a low-carb diet will improve this.
  4. Weight loss. My weight is in the normal range, and has been since 2014. Further weight loss probably has no health benefit. Still, purely for aesthetic reasons, I’d be pleased to lose another few pounds. A low-carb diet will probably produce this result as well.

The main purpose of this post has simply been to get my thinking in order regarding what I’m hoping to accomplish. I have little doubt that a low-carb diet will produce the latter two improvements, but those issues could be dealt with easily enough through less drastic means. I have much less confidence about the former two, but improving those things would be a big deal for me—big enough to undertake the two-week test (at least), and maybe to change the way I eat going forward.