Skip to main content

MAF for Power Sports

Tennis anyone? How about team sports and car-racing? We all need aerobic fitness to prevent injuries, get healthy, and burn off more fat.

Endurance athletes know the importance of building the best-possible aerobic systems. A high percentage of the total energy used to participate in activities such as distance running, triathlon, cycling and cross-country skiing is generated through the aerobic system.

Training slow to get fast is an often heard comment in the MAF camp. It appears counter-intuitive, but building endurance involves optimal development of our slow-twitch muscles, also called aerobic. For example, 99 percent of the energy needs in a marathon comes from the aerobic system. For an Ironman triathlon it’s more than that, and in relatively shorter races such as a 10k run, it’s still 95 percent. Even for events such as the mile, 65 percent of the required energy depends on the aerobic system.

Aerobic fitness also has important benefits for those who participate in power sports, including team competition, as well as sports like track and field. Developing the aerobic system helps support explosive activities like lifting and sprinting. In addition, aerobic function is a key to optimal well-being, especially for all athletes who want to avoid injuries, ill health and overtraining while lengthening their careers.

Other improvements for all types of athletes include added movement and cross-training benefits.

While the no-pain, no-gain trend has dominated the fitness boom for several decades, its success is highly questionable if not a complete failure. Injury rates are soaring, athletes are equally susceptible to disease as sedentary people, rates of obesity have tripled, and even a high percentage of athletes are now part of the worldwide overfat epidemic.

One clear problem is that most exercise and athletic training programs completely ignore the value of the aerobic system, and most also do not establish an adequate aerobic base before adding anaerobic workouts.

Minimalist workouts for maximum performance

I developed the the MAF 180 Formula to help professional and amateur endurance athletes, as well as everyday health enthusiasts, achieve their fitness goals. I’ve also used these same principles to help others in a wide variety of athletic endeavors, including, football, baseball, tennis, swimming, car-racing, sailing and even hot-air ballooning. The same principle always applies — a well-developed aerobic system is the basis for optimal performance.

This system involves a high volume of low-intensity exercise. Not only does this have an effect on muscles at the cellular level, it also increases the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel — yes, even for sprinters — while improving the immune system and reducing the risk of injuries.

A frequently asked question is whether different heart rates should be used for different sports. For example, should the maximum aerobic heart rate, as determined by the 180 Formula, while swimming be different when the same athlete is cycling or running? How about walking, or tennis? The short answer is no. The 180-Formula holds true for all aerobic training activities.

At the same heart rate, all sports require essentially the same levels of metabolic activities. However, other aspects are quite different when comparing swimming to running, for example. One significant difference is perceived exertion. One objective factor that makes perceived exertion so different is gravity stress. The difference in this stress between swimming and running is dramatic; there is very little gravity influence in the water, but that same force is maximally affecting the body during running. A great deal of energy may not have to go into countering gravity stress in the pool, but just the opposite is true during a run. And, partly related to gravity stress is the increased volume of muscle activity during running compared to swimming.

Of course, the time to start aerobic training for all athletes is long before competition begins — soon after the conclusion of the previous season is ideal. Measuring progress during this period with a heart monitor is important not only for the athlete, but for the coach, trainer, healthcare professional, and others involved in the overall conditioning process. Once more sport-specific training begins, the heart-rate monitor can still be used to ensure proper warm-up and cool-down, interval-type workouts and overall recovery.

Because I’ve worked with athletes in virtually all sports, my approach to overall conditioning — improving fitness and health and building aerobic function — is very similar. Below are examples of the use of heart monitors in different sports. But all sports are not listed: Once the general idea is clear, applying these methods in any sport or exercise will be relatively easy.


Endurance is a significant component in tennis. Consider the length of time — from the start of a warm-up to the conclusion of the final round, especially if it’s a long and difficult match. In these events a significant amount of energy (perhaps 50–60 percent or more) comes from the aerobic system. So a tennis player relies heavily on aerobic function to get through an event. And, the more aerobically trained (the more readily a player can access fat-burning for energy), the more glycogen will be conserved. As the player gets to the later games and sets, there will be more anaerobic function for speed and power instead of significant fatigue. We all know that a long tennis match can be won or lost in later sets, and we can recall some of the great matches of tennis legends such as Bjøn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Venus and Serena Williams, and Billie Jean King that taxed the bodies of these competitors to the very end. It often comes down to who has the most energy left rather than mere talent.

By training the aerobic system, tennis players can ensure more than adequate reserves at the end of their matches, and nearly unlimited energy overall, reductions in injuries, and the many other benefits the aerobic system provides.

Using a heart monitor will not only help develop the aerobic system but will provide important feedback regarding aerobic progress. For example, a player starting out may play a one-hour match with an average heart rate of 150, with heart rate peaks hitting 185. After developing a good aerobic system, this same player may now be able to compete in the same match with an average heart rate of 130 and the heart rate never going over 155. This is a dramatic difference, and shows the power of good aerobic function. Conserved glycogen, maintained muscle balance (to prevent fatigue and optimize the swing), improved neurological function (eye-hand coordination), improved hydration, and many other benefits follow.

During the aerobic training period (before the competitive season), a heart-rate monitor should be worn during play and the maximum aerobic heart rate not exceeded. As time goes on, the player will be able to perform much harder without the heart rate going up as much. This reflects increased energy, which allows the rest of the body — especially the brain and muscles — to function at much higher levels. If a tennis player regularly uses a stationary bike or runs to help train the aerobic system, that player will improve in these activities as well (i.e., biking or running faster at the same heart rate).


During the off-season, common in virtually all team sports, an athlete can develop a great aerobic base through running, biking, swimming, or any endurance workout. During this period, getting on the court also can include wearing a heart-rate monitor, as long as the athlete does not exceed the maximum aerobic heart rate. As the weeks go by, more and more intensity can be gained on the basketball court at the same heart rate, so that as the preseason approaches, a high-level practice game may not bring the heart rate nearly as high as during the start of aerobic training. Players who develop an aerobic base have much more energy, better eye-hand coordination, and overall better function, especially in the latter part of a game.

Motor Sports

Among the more interesting sports in which I’ve introduced athletes to the use of heart-rate monitors is race-car driving. I’ve worked with Mario and Michael Andretti, Derek Bell, Al Holbert, and others. Like with many traditional sports, including baseball and football, bringing new ideas into motor sports was not easy. My entry was helped originally after  working with a young, unknown driver named Chip Robinson. I trained him like an endurance athlete so his brain and body functioned better behind the wheel going at triple digit speeds in heavy traffic. He wore a heart monitor during all his preseason endurance training, which included mostly running and walking. He even entered some running races for fun.

However, behind the wheel during practice sessions the stress of driving was evident. So I had him wear a heart monitor during these driving sessions (and even during races). I discovered that his heart rate, which I later confirmed in other drivers, nearly paralleled his driving speed in miles per hour. Chip’s, however, was more over-reactive than the other drivers’, demonstrating his need to build a bigger aerobic base.

A race-car driver may be running the car at relatively slow warm-up speeds of 90–100 miles per hour, for example, and the heart rate will often be at that level too. Driving poses a certain amount of inherent risk, and a high level of alertness is necessary to perform well and avoid crashes. This all translates into stress, which raises the heart rate — the faster the speed the higher the heart rate. I’ve seen 180 mph equate to heart-rate peaks of 180.

For a race-car driver, this information is very important, especially for those who overreact while driving fast, which was one of Chip’s problems. If a better aerobic system is developed, the heart rate will not overreact, although it will still rise to “normal” race levels. An appropriate heart rate, considering the stress of driving at very high speeds, improves a driver’s ability and makes him or her a better competitor. It also improves eye-hand coordination and adrenal function.

A feature common to all sports and physical activities is that a highly developed aerobic system translates into greater efficiency — allowing an athlete to run, walk, play, ride and drive faster at the same lower heart rate. This also is reflected in increased burning of stored fat for energy, reducing the body’s storage of fat, an added benefit to this type of training.