An objective measure of aerobic progress and an early-warning test for potential training problems.
Among the important benefits of using a heart monitor is the ability to objectively measure your aerobic progress. Objectively measuring improvement is just as important. Measuring aerobic progress can be easily accomplished using the maximum aerobic function (MAF) Test.
Without objective measurements, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking all is well with training. The MAF Test tells you if you’re headed in the wrong direction, either from too much anaerobic exercise, too little aerobic exercise or any imbalance that is having an adverse effect on the aerobic system. (Stress and poor diet are two salient examples of this.)
One of the great benefits of the MAF Test is its ability to objectively inform you of an obstacle long before you feel bad or get injured. Your training will progress much more smoothly—and quickly—by regularly performing the MAF test.
The MAF Test can be done with any exercise except weight-lifting. The test can also be performed on stationary equipment such as a treadmill or other apparatus that measures power output.
To perform the test, you must first obtain your maximum aerobic heart rate with the help of the 180 Formula. While working out at that heart rate, determine your walking, jogging or running pace—the time that it takes you to cover a certain distance—in minutes per mile, cycling speed in miles per hour, or repetitions (such as laps in a pool over time), and make a note of it. This is the parameter you will test for improvement later on.
Below is an actual example of an MAF Test performed by walking on a track, at a heart rate of 145, calculating time in minutes per mile:
Mile 1 16:32
Mile 2 16:46
Mile 3 17:09
During any MAF Test, your times should always get slower with successive repetitions: the first mile should always be the fastest, and the last should be the slowest. If that’s not the case, it usually means you haven’t warmed up enough. (This is discussed later.)
The MAF Test should indicate faster times as the months go by. This means the aerobic system is developing and you’re burning more fat, enabling you to do more work with the same effort. Even if you walk or run longer distances, your MAF Test should show the same progression of results, providing you heed your maximum aerobic heart rate. Below is an example showing the improvement of the same person from above:
Miles September October November December
Mile 1 16:32 15:49 15:35 15:10
Mile 2 16:46 16:06 15:43 15:22
Mile 3 17:09 16:14 15:57 15:31
Performing the MAF Test on a bike is similar. When riding outside, pick a bike course that initially takes about 30 minutes to complete. Following a warm-up, ride at your maximum aerobic heart rate, and record exactly how long it takes to ride the test course. Your times should get faster as you progress.
Riding your course today, for example, may take 30 minutes and 50 seconds. In three weeks it may take you 29:23 and in another three weeks 27:35. After three months of base work, the same course may take you 26 minutes.
Another option is to ride on a flat course and see what pace you can maintain while holding your heart rate at your max aerobic level. This works best on a stationary apparatus. As you progress, your miles-per-hour should increase. If you start at 12 mph, for example, following a three-month aerobic base you might be riding 17 mph at the same heart rate.
Perform the MAF Test regularly throughout the year, and chart your results. I recommend doing the test every month. Testing yourself too often may result in obsession—you won’t improve significantly within one week.
If you walk or prefer other activities that won’t raise your heart rate to the maximum aerobic level, it’s possible to do the MAF Test without using the maximum aerobic heart rate. Instead, choose a lower rate for your MAF Test. For example, if you have difficulty reaching 150, your max aerobic rate, use 125 during your walk as the rate for your MAF Test.
The point of the MAF test is to help you chart your progress and to know when your aerobic system is getting off-course. Performing the test irregularly (or not often enough) defeats its purpose. If something interferes with your progress, such as exercise itself, diet or stress, you don’t want to wait until you’re feeling bad or gaining weight to find that out. In the situations where your aerobic system is no longer getting benefits, your MAF Test will show it by getting worse, or not improving.