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.)

It’s a bit harder to put this past year in a tidy descriptive box than it has been the past few years. Probably the simplest description would be: The same, but less so.

Last year I did a great job of leaning into exercise as a way to cope with the pandemic. This year started with me feeling like I could imagine that the pandemic would end, and I was focusing of all the new things I could do, once I could spend time with other people—rock climbing, parkour, fencing, historical European martial arts (i.e. sword fighting), etc.

Except then the pandemic didn’t end, and I was left to carry on as best I could with last year’s exercises. I did okay, but not as well as I had done.

In fact, I’m perfectly pleased with the way I maintained my capabilities. Late last year I checked and documented that I’d pretty much accomplished the baseline goals that I’d set for myself (see Five years of parkour strength training). I just checked again, and I’ve not backslid on those.

Last year I didn’t even think about setting new baseline goals, because my plan had been to move on from these solo training goals to training with other actual people. This year I’ve felt like I needed to at least think about it, but so far I’m not feeling it. I do want to recover the ability to do a few pull ups (again!), but that’s about the only physical benchmark of that sort where I feel like I want or need specific improvement.

It’s not that I’m a perfect physical specimen; it’s just that I don’t have much attachment to being able to squat this much weight or deadlift that much. I want to be strong enough to pick up something heavy and carry it a reasonable distance, but I don’t feel much need to put specific numbers on that weight or that distance.

I wrote a day or two ago about how I gradually shifted to more running and less lifting, which has been great. But in the middle of the year I spent some months doing less of everything—I had a minor medical issue in the spring, then we took a vacation, then I went to visit my dad, then Jackie had her hip replacement (meaning that I had to pretty much take over running the household for a few weeks). I did okay in terms of not backsliding too much, but I didn’t make much forward progress, and it has only been in the last six weeks or so that I’m really getting back to doing what I want to do.

So, where to go from here? I guess I want to:

  • Continue to emphasize running, moving from two runs a week to three.
  • Let the lifting sessions settle in at just two a week, but amp up the intensity.
  • Get back to including a HIIT session every week.
  • Take Jackie for a walk or hike every single time she wants to go, even if it means delaying or canceling a workout.

I’ll aim to do something just like that in January and February. Along about March or April I will want to do the Superhero workout that I couldn’t do last year—that’ll be a brief interruption in my shift back to more running and less lifting, but just for eight or nine weeks. In mid-summer we have a plan for a hiking vacation in North Carolina, so in May and June we’ll want to gradually boost the amount and speed of our walks, and be sure to include plenty of hikes on trails, and to get in as much elevation change as possible in Central Illinois. I’ve got a couple more trips planned for late summer (assuming the pandemic allows), including attending WorldCon, but it’s only the hiking trip that will have much influence on my movement strategy.

So, I guess I have a plan.

Some fitness guru that I follow on the internet—I think it was Andrew Huberman, although it might have been Andy Galpin—suggested that the optimal ratio of resistance and endurance training was 3-to-2—but also suggested that which one is emphasized should switch after some number of months.

So, you might combine three strength-training workouts per week with two endurance workouts per week for some number of months, and then reverse the ratio and go with three endurance workouts per week combined with two strength-training workouts per week.

This is interesting to me mainly because I seem to intuitively be doing exactly that. All through 2020 I was emphasizing resistance exercise (often 4 workouts per week), and limited myself to a single run most weeks. (Due in particular to a sore foot, but also just because it felt right.) I generally included an HIIT session most weeks—so also endurance training, even if not long steady-state training.

Early in 2021 I had made a plan to repeat Anthony Arvanitakis’s Superhero Bodyweight Workout, which I’d used the year before to good effect. I even bought the latest version, which seemed slightly better. But then a minor medical issue meant I had to defer the super-intense workouts that it called for. Once the medical issue was resolved I figured I’d get back to it, but as the year progressed I started feeling like running more and longer. My foot was no longer troubling me, and I always enjoy long runs.

I found myself doing less lifting and more running. Just lately it occurred to me that what I wanted to do was three runs per week, and maybe just two lifting sessions—which would be nicely in accordance with the suggested adjustment in workout ratios.

So that’s my plan for the rest of the winter—three runs per week, with just two lifting session. Then maybe in the spring I’ll switch back and reemphasize lifting.