Get fast without speedwork

7 smart ways to quicker times

It would be great if the scientific basis for improving athletic performance — particularly speed — were clear, but it’s not. That’s why there are so many different approaches and coaching styles.

Pulling together what we know scientifically about physiology into a program that works well for an individual is what makes this practice a true art form. When these two concepts are properly combined it often results in an athlete reaching their athletic potential without sacrificing health — the true definition of success. And it works for those in virtually any sport.

While most people think the only way to get faster is to train harder, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact this no-pain, no-gain plan often produces initial improvements that fall short of reaching full potential before giving way to illness, injury and burnout.

There’s a better way — and none of it involves any hard training, intervals or speedwork.

Here are seven of my favorite methods to successfully get faster. The reason these techniques work is that each can improve the body’s economy. Regardless of your chosen sport, the more efficient or economical your body moves, the faster you can train and race at the same heart rate. Running economy is a well-known example, and often measured by oxygen uptake. But as an assessment tool, heart rate is more practical for regular, daily use.

So try just one or try them all. You have nothing to gain but speed. The best place to start is with No. 1:

1. The Brain. The brain is responsible for controlling the body’s economy of motion, as well as other factors related to athletic performance. While the brain is often the most misunderstood and most neglected part of an athlete, it regulates, directly or indirectly, all the factors noted below. Improving brain function can allow all these other tips to fall into place, and conversely, many of these tips, especially nutrition, can improve brain function. Check out my article on “11 ways to improve brain function.” Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike and legendary coach, put it simply: “The idea that the harder you work, the better you’re going to be is just garbage. The greatest improvement is made by the man or woman who works most intelligently.”

2. The Twitch. Most athletes are familiar with slow and fast twitch muscles, referring to aerobic and anaerobic, respectively. For endurance events like long-course triathlons or marathons, most race energy comes from the aerobic system, which burns fat for energy. In fact, an Ironman triathlon victory is typically accomplished at around 70 percent of one’s VO2max. For a marathon this figure may be about 80 percent. By comparison, for those running 5K or 10K events it’s over 90 percent.

Given the predominant aerobic nature of these events, one of the most effective ways to get fast is obviously to train the body’s aerobic muscle fibers. In the textbook, Essentials of Exercise Physiology (2006, third edition), the co-authors, Drs. William McArdle, Frank Katch, and Victor Katch, state a well-accepted but often forgotten fact about training: “Activation of slow-twitch fibers produces greater efficiency than the same work accomplished by fast-twitch fibers.” Aerobic muscles are essentially more economical, fatigue-resistant, and burn fat for long-term fuel. Developing the aerobic system is best done using my 180 Formula and the MAF Test.

3. Overreaching. The sweet spot of training means getting in enough volume (time and or miles) but not too much, and going fast but not too fast. This point is called overreaching, the point at which one maintains and increases fitness, but before the onset of overtraining, which results in injury, fatigue and poor performance.

Here’s my high-performance formula: Training = Workout + Rest

The most common reason for exceeding overreaching is too much hard training. These anaerobic, hard efforts can no doubt increase VO2max and lactate threshold, even while the athlete is drifting into overtraining. Unfortunately, what often happens is VO2max and lactate thresholds are pushed higher at the expense of economy, and performance suffers.

4. Muscle Balance. Working in harmony, muscles allow the athlete to move more effectively during any activity. But even a slight irregularity in the gait caused by an imbalance in muscles can slow you down. The neuromuscular system — the brain and muscles — regulates movement. And if muscle imbalance develops, gait problems follow. This may be due to running and cycling shoes that don’t fit perfectly, an unhealthy diet, or overtraining.

A separate muscle issue is strength. Traditional weight-lifting routines can often diminish aerobic function, impair gait, and reduce endurance, leading to sub-par economy and slower times. Instead, rely on workouts like my slow weights plan that don’t produce significant fatigue. Such a weight-lifting routine can strengthen without impairing the aerobic system or adding extra bulk (that extra weight can slow you down, too!).

5. The Feet. Our feet and lower legs allow us to harness the natural gravitational impact forces from hitting the ground while running or walking, turning that contact into additional energy. This unique energy-return system can be significant. But it won’t work well in feet that are dysfunctional, leading to slower paces. Muscle imbalance, overstretched tendons, inflexibility and other problems render many feet unable to obtain this extra energy. The main causes of poor foot function include shoes that are over-supported, thick-soled, and have outsized heels. These shoes also weigh more.

The results of tests performed by track coach Dr. Jack Daniels many years ago sheds light on how dramatic shoe weight could be. He tested runners on a treadmill using various weights added to shoes. Now associate professor of physical education at A.T. Stills College in Mesa, Arizona, Daniels demonstrated a significant reduction in running economy with added weight. For example, every 3.5 ounces of additional shoe weight translated to about an extra minute or more in the marathon. Yet almost all running shoes weigh between 5 and 10 ounces dry.

The best answer is for athletes to spend some time daily barefoot, and for those who are runners to include some barefoot running in their programs. In addition, finding the lightest-weight, least movement-impairing shoes is very important for both training and racing.

6. Healthy Foods. The foods we eat can directly affect training and race pace by improving fat-burning, balancing muscles, increasing circulation, and helping to build a better aerobic body. The most serious barrier to this endurance potential is refined carbohydrates (sugar and processed flour). Avoid them if you want to get faster.

This does not mean avoiding natural carbohydrates during a race, when consuming them can actually aid fat-burning. However, the less food added to your stomach during a race, the less likely your body will be slowed by indigestion, diarrhea or other GI upset. Conversely, the more aerobic function and fat-burning capability you develop, the less nutrient you’ll require during a race because you’ll access more of your stored body fat.

7. Altitude. For decades the saying, “sleep high, train low” was a mantra of endurance athletes using altitude training as a way to get faster. Living at higher elevations, such as 7-8,000 feet, can help improve one’s economy, while training at lower elevations, 4,000 feet or below, is best. For most recreational athletes, moving or traveling to high altitude to improve race performance is not practical.  For those who want this altitude boost but live at lower elevations, a true altitude chamber (hypobaric chamber) may be effective and surprisingly more affordable. However, this does not guarantee results. That’s because the process requires a healthy body. A poor diet, for example, may not supply all the nutritional needs, such as iron, folic acid or protein, necessary for altitude living or exposure to increase quality red blood cells and better aerobic function.

Getting faster while staying healthy is the true art of fitness. These factors combined can improve endurance speed in many individuals very quickly depending on their discipline — and without speedwork.

30 Comments

  • Sarah says:

    Hi Ivan

    I am still in the early days of MAF running, all going well. I’m running x3 per week and gradually increasing time. If I am training for IM and half IM – is the anything nutrition wise that I should change? I used to fuel myself on carbs and sugar and completed two full IM pretty well. what would you recommend I switch to to fuel for long rides and runs? Some of Phil recipes ? I don’t want to undo any good work I have done so far by using the wrong fuel. if there is an article on this apologies but I couldn’t find !
    Also, when I start to see results would you suggest doing any speed work for running?
    Thanks in advance
    Sarah

  • Ironkoukou says:

    Hello… if I do the MAF 5 mile once per week…. what would be my week training ?? Tempo?? Intervals?? distance ??
    My Current MAF is 135bpm as am 50 years old… I compete on a 10km 45mn with HR of 170 BPM of max 187 & H Marathon of 1:35 with 164BPM & Marathon of 3:30 with 162 BPM…

    I Hope MAF will help me run Better .. but dont know howm many Slow runs & how many anaerobic runs to do per week !!??

    Can you Please help ??

    Thank you

    BV

  • Matthew says:

    I am still missing something. I want to say that I understand the importance of MAF pace and I have been training at this rate for almost a year now, It promotes fat burning, prevents injuries, and most marathons are run at only 10-30 seconds faster than MAF pace. However, I know it was mentioned earlier that anaerobic training would still be needed or beneficial for 5k-10k races. Now that I am healthy, uninjured, eat extremely low carb, healthy fat & protein diet, (lots of ketones) and have a decent aerobic base, what training can I do to improve my 5k and 10k times. I am 33 years old, so most of my training is at 147 HR, now in preparation for a 10k I wanted to run a mile at my desired race pace 6:00 per mile, At the end of this mile which I ran faster than I probably should have but not all out, my heart rate was 191. I felt ok and finished 5 more miles at a slower pace to complete my work out but I have this magic number my MAF 147 to follow most of the time. What do I do for interval runs, how high should my heart rate go, do I not look at HR for interval runs? While this builds aerobic speed how should I build anaerobic speed?

    • Matthew:

      Generally, for interval runs you’re not looking at heart rate, and instead you’re trying to train a particular system. For example, your typical intervals for 5k should be 400m sprints (fast) with 400m intervals (jog) between them, at an intensity just above your anaerobic threshold. This is because you want to train your muscles’ ability to clear lactate, which is useful in particular for the longer races with an anaerobic component. Other intervals, such as 30m sprint & 70m jog, and everything in between, are also useful.

  • Gary says:

    I have a question, but it is not exactly related to the article, (which was good by the way). My question is regarding ketosis and exercise. In what forum would I ask that question? May I ask it here? If not, where? Thanks. If it is here, the question is… Most exercise articles advocate a high intensity (HIIT) workout to “deplete glycogen stores” and therefore shift the body’s fuel consumption to fats (since all the stored glucose/glycogen has been depleted) and produce ketones. But if you are exercising at high intensity, you are spending that time in an anaerobic state. Cellular anaerobic respiration means glycolosis. If that’s true, it needs a glucose molecule. If that’s true, then the only source the body is going to use (if no sugar is present) is protein (muscle). Therefore, I would advocate a lower exercise intensity, so the body can use aerobic respiration on the cellular level in order for the body to take fats, break those chains thru beta oxidation, and use the ETC and Kreb’s cycle to produce ATP. What am I missing? Why are they saying high intensity? The last thing I want to do is force the body to break down muscle tissue when working out, because I’m anaerobic. I want to be protein sparing! That was long. Apologies. It’s just driving me nuts. Thanks again.

    • Gary:

      What you’re saying is the reason that anaerobic exercise, when done to exhaustion, is so stressful. Essentially, if you force glycogen depletion, the body will attempt to turn to fats, but it will be too exhausted (and too wired) to burn them at a high rate. So, even though you’ll burn a greater percentage of fats while at rest (once you’ve stopped working out), you aren’t training the fat-burning system within the athletic context.

      So the big difference here is that even though you burn lots and lots of fats while at rest (because you’re resting for a long time) burning lots and lots of fats is not the same as burning them at a very high rate. What aerobic (low-intensity) training does for you is it trains the fat-burning system to burn fats at a very high rate (which means that you end up with a very powerful fat-burning system) while also not exposing the body to the stresses that you discuss, which occur for the reasons you discuss. Does this answer your question?

  • Chuck says:

    I enjoyed and learned much during the 2 week carb sensitivity test and have been training on the 180 method. As an old jock at 52, I no longer have a desire to race competitively, but as a prior cross country runner I don’ t see how the 180 program will work. There has to be speed work, intervals, and training at a race and barely sub-race pace, which is going to blow one’s heart rate well into the anaerobic range. So, obviously, I’m missing the formula of how to combine aerobic and anaerobic workouts…is there a schedule template as a starting point that can be adjusted to personal conditioning and goals, because walking and jogging will not prepare you for a race. Thanks.

  • shane says:

    I have recently found this training approach and have some questions.

    my back ground is in the last 7 months I have changed my lifestyle and lost 38 kgs

    I have not been doing a lot of training more just food choices and walking each day. I am looking to add running to my training now, and have been doing ok until I started reading about these different methods and now feel confused.

    does all of your training (running, riding, swimming etc) have to be at or below MAF rate?

    Like another comment I seen here I to started without knowing from walking to a slow jog then increased speed then got injured, I then rested and recovered injury then started again, but trying to stick to heart rate, I found I couldn’t run slow enough to keep consistently under the MAF rate and walking is way under.

    I got frustrated and done a 5klm run increasing pace each klm till I got to a 4 min klm pace but now injured again.

    I am thinking trying to run slow is throwing out my running style/mechanics? would that be right? and if so is that leading to the injuries?

    I believe that in listening and reading info about this MAF method that it will work for me but not sure the best or most efficient way to start.

    • Shane:

      One thing you could do is start by alternating walking days and jumping-rope days. Then, as your aerobic system starts developing—yes, walking will help—start integrating slow jogging into your workout. When you do, always stay under the MAF HR and focus on keeping a very quick pace, even if it means that your stride length is extremely short.

      • Henry says:

        A thing that I’ve been using is putting on a playlist with 180 bpm and run on the spot, this has helped me getting used to run high cadence which has in turn helped me run more efficient and with less stress on muscles, tendons and joints.
        Another befactor is muscle training such as squats and lunges.

  • Lew says:

    I am back to training and racing in 5ks now, I have been doing the 180 formula since it came out . So what is a good weekly plan for training for a 5k? what is the good interval distance ? 440 ? half mile repeats ? or mile repeats ? or good tempo runs with farklets thrown in ? or finally nice steady strong hill run ? Or all of it ? Right now I am about 15 to 20 miles per week , And I have been testing all of the above. My goal is to run 7 min mile pace for 5k . My 440 time is around 1:38 . So yes i want to be fast , but healthy in the process.

    Thanks Lew McCorvey

    • Lew:

      Most combinations of the strategies you mentioned, when combined with a generous amount of aerobic training, is great for racing a 5-k. Figuring out what combination of speed training works best for you is a trial and error process. But in order to stay healthy (and be consistent and fast) a majority of your training will have to be aerobic. That said, the distances that I would start training with would be 200 up to mile repeats for the 5k, focusing on 200-400 distance for strength and speed development and using the longer distances (half-mile, mile) as a bridge to integrate the strength and speed into my 5-k pace.

      • Rob Hasler says:

        Just thought I’d share my experiences. I’m also looking at getting quicker over 5K and 10K distances in preparation for XC season. I have noticed that the biggest improvements in my times are when I have not trained anaerobically but have just done consistent slow miles (without getting injured).
        I found out about the MAF method recently and realised that this is probably what I have been doing unknowingly in training. Now I am running at MAF 145bpm, I found this to be much quicker than I thought I would (although have to walk on big elevation). I’m also training for a mountain marathon and ultra in the build up to the XC season.

        I will now focus on MAF training exclusively as I am sure I can reduce my time even further without the need for speed.

        Currently running 5K in 17:12

        I’m running my first MAF test tomorrow on the track.

        Finally, thank you for all your comments on these articles – it makes for great informative reading, something that is rare on most other sites.

      • Jim Murphy says:

        What’s the rule of thumb for a 5K race? Target a consistent min/mi pace or hone in on a certain bpm above MAF ? (I’m sure this was addressed somewhere in the archives but I couldn’t seem to find it).

        FYI – I love MAF! Running is fun again! Not to dis “Run Less Run Faster” training, I did get faster, but not only did I find the workouts grueling (albeit short), there was always some anxiety over running “against the clock”.

  • James says:

    Hi

    No question today but a confession: I hope you don’t mind that I copied your article, pasted in a word doc and printed it out – far easier to read at home than here at work – and I have deleted the document already to avoid saving anything on my harddrive.

    Cheers
    James

  • Valerie says:

    I have been following the MAF method for approximately 3 months and have lost 15 lbs. improved my energy and health overall. I am 55 years old and have never felt better. My MAF target is 130 and yes you might have to walk in the beginning but gradually you will be able to run. Every year I was struggling with an some kind of injury this was the first year I could run 1/2 marathons with no injury or pain afterwards. It actually works you just need to be patient. Ivan is also a great resource!! Thanks Ivan for the tip on jump roping for gait improvement.

  • Shane says:

    If I am looking to improve 5k times, is the MAF method good for that, or do you need more interval training?

    • Shane:

      You need interval training to develop the kind of top-end speed you’ll use in a 5-k. But the MAF method is really a method that teaches you how, when, and why to switch between high-intensity days necessary to develop top-end speed, and the low-intensity days necessary to develop the aerobic system, which does make you faster and faster, but is the kind of low-end speed your body can sustain for 30 miles.

      So think of exclusive aerobic “MAF” training as something that will help you get waaay faster than before—but all the speed you get from purely aerobic training will be the kind you can sustain for a very long time.

    • Andy Reed says:

      Camm – take a look at the gait of Haile Gebresalassie (not sure on the spelling there); he ‘overpronates’ onto a very planus foot; it’s an ungainly looking stride but clearly very effective, as he held the marathon WR for years! I find that far too many runners are given ‘orthotics’ to correct their natural alignment. The human body is very adaptable. I look at orthotics as an aid to recovery from injury – much like a crutch in a bad ankle sprain. You wouldn’t continue using crutches for the rest of your life. Pronation is a normal motion in the foot. The best way to avoid injury is to trail correctly, and perhaps add in some specific intrinsic foot muscle strength exercises.

  • Camm says:

    Ivan,
    Thank you for your response, but I’m not sure it directly addresses my particular issue. Are you guys suggesting that one can develop a normal arch in the foot that will lead to reduced over-pronation?
    I am trying to square the issues caused up the natural chain from foot, to ankle, to knee, the hip ect… caused by the very inefficient rotations caused by a flat foot caving to the inside by going barefoot or in my case even using a light weight running shoe.
    I understand the idea of small incremental doses of barefoot (crawl before you walk and walk before you run), but as much as I would love to eventually abandon heavy running shoes and custom orthodics — I’m having trouble grasping how anything is going to change the fact that every step (due to flat feet) will cause unnecessary stresses on some or all of the chain from the foot to the back. Eventually something would seem to get hurt?
    Am I missing something from this? I have been looking for more detailed examples of who can/should and should not begin to go barefoot, but have not been successful.
    Are there any examples of correcting pretty serious over-pronation with slow but steady doses of “barefooting”.

  • Camm says:

    Ivan,
    I have a question about the strong urge and benefits mentioned of going barefoot as much as possible. I am very “flat-footed” and subsequently severely over-pronate. I currently utilized orthodics and motion controlled shoes to address this in my running.
    Is Dr. Maffetone suggesting that going barefoot is always a good idea and should be utilized as much as possible?
    Thank you,

    • Camm:

      Going barefoot is a good correction for many foot problems, and a great way to maintain foot health. But all changes must done gradually: reading about the many cardiovascular benefits of running does not give us leave to start running 50 miles a week. Regardless of how good it is to be able to run well, and how healthy it is for the cardiovascular system, we’ll destroy ourselves if we undertake a theoretically “healthy” activity indiscriminately.

      What being barefoot does is that it reveals the body’s incorrect motion patterns. A tight muscle or an incorrect pattern translates to friction or uneven pressure on the sole of the foot, which gives the body a cue to which muscle to strengthen and how to move it together with other muscles. However, there are a variety of gait problems (say, rigidity in the big toe joint) that make it very difficult for the body to adapt to the signals that walking barefoot is giving it.

      Furthermore, let me discuss something that is true of any movement exercises: the body learns them in the same way that the brain learns math problems. In other words, you can’t be zoning off on your iPod, or chatting with a friend as you walk barefoot, and expect the lesson to stick. Why? Your body is focused on something else. By definition, it doesn’t perceive what is happening down at the feet as important or meaningful.

      Once you have fully healthy and tough feet, walking everywhere barefoot, even without focusing on your feet, will help entrench foot health. Does this make sense?

  • Julian Abel says:

    Here is a comment about feet – feet have 3 recognisable arches, but there are probably more. Arches are tensegrity structures, which means that the more you put stress on to the top of the arch, the more elastic recoil there is. The ligaments, fascia and tendons in the feet are the bottom part of the tensegrity structure. The worst thing you can do to an arch is to support the arch itself, as you disable the tensegrity part of it. This is what happens with running shoes that have supports in them. It is no wonder people get injured when they wear them and no wonder that people run faster barefoot. Elastic recoil is present throughout the body and using it means you spend less energy for your movement.

  • Manoj Dadia says:

    Thanks for this article. I have a question regarding food. you said “This does not mean avoiding natural carbohydrates during a race, when consuming them can actually aid fat-burning. ”

    What would you consider natural carbohydrate, which can be taken during a race, which will aid fat burning.

    I am 48/male, and have started training at my MAF of 138 ( little over a month), for which I have to walk 80-90% of time with intermittent slow jog to bump up the heart rate. Yes I am doing 15-20 mins of warm and cool down with every walk/run.

  • Another great article Dr. Maffetone! I think a lot of athletes under-estimate the importance brain function.

    The 180 formula and cutting out processed food has made The biggest impact on my speed since 2013. Thank you and hope all is well!

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