The Science of Success

Martin Gruebele embodies the theory and practice behind the MAF Method.

If success is more science than mystery, Martin Gruebele may be the living example.

The 52-year-old German-born physical chemist and biophysicist won the masters title in cycling’s 2016 Race Across America, finishing the 3,000 miles in 11 days and 49 minutes.

Martin, who holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry, is a professor at the University of Illinois. His awards in the field of science include numerous prestigious honors including the Friedrish Wilhelm Bessel Research Prize, and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Fellowship. His achievements as an athlete include, in addition to the RAAM title, a 7th-place overall finish among 430 Americans in the 1,200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris bike race in 2015, and national and international rankings as an Ironman triathlete.

If those feats weren’t enough, he’s now racking up masters wins on the running trails as an ultramarathoner. In 2016 he added masters wins at Des Plaines River and Hennepin Canal trail runs, both 50 milers in Illinois. He also recently finished his first 100-miler, clocking in at under 20 hours and placing 21st out of 248 entrants in the Tunnel Hill 100.

The science behind his athletic success? MAF.

Martin took up endurance sports as a hobby at the age of 40, buying his first bike in 2004. When he brought the bike back for its one-month tuneup, the mechanic at the shop was astounded that a novice had already put 800 miles on it.

But he didn’t stop there. Before long he was racking up mega-miles on the roads, and then he added running, and eventually swimming and triathlon. While he found success at all these sports, it wasn’t without a price. Martin often suffered nagging minor injuries that would sideline him from time to time.

Martin’s sister, concerned about his health and possible overtraining, gave him a copy of The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Dr. Phil Maffetone. The book was left unread on his coffee table for months until, sidelined by injury in 2012, he decided to pick it up.

As he sifted through the information, Martin was immediately drawn in by the scientific feel to the book. He began to see how his previous regimen of mostly high-intensity training — intervals and other hard efforts — were at the root of his injuries and were also holding him back athletically.

He decided to embark on an all-MAF style of training, dumping the intervals in favor of the 180 Formula, and using the MAF Test to track his progress. He immediately began to feel better and get faster training at a lower heart rate.

Over a seven-month period, Martin improved his MAF Test from about 9:10 to 6:55, while his resting heart rate fell from about 60 beats per minute to 40.

One thing particularly striking was the scientist had been tracking data on his workouts for years. Now with the new MAF numbers pouring in, he was able to scientifically plot the improvements in his performance. Plus, he was now injury-free.

In 2016, he entered the RAAM, called the “Toughest Bike Race on Earth.” He was one of 14 masters cyclists in the race, many of them more experienced. After the third day of the race he was 150 miles behind the leader in his category. However, Martin had been riding 20 hours a day and sleeping four hours, while the other cycles were riding 22 hours and sleeping two hours. By day eight, he was more than 100 miles ahead of all of them, using superior fat-burning abilities to lengthen his lead and finish sixth-place overall and first in the masters division.

Martin’s book, “Masters RAAM — A Winning Strategy” describes the plan he used to win this title as well as his personal experiences from the race.

With the 100-Mile Tunnel Hill 100 ultra run now on his resume, Martin now has sights set on the Badwater Ultramarathon, which some say is the world’s toughest footrace. The race is a 135-mile course starting in the searing summer heat at 279 feet  below sea level in California’s Death Valley and ending at an elevation of 8,360 on Mount Whitney. Entrance to the race is exclusive and by application only.

Martin’s successes demonstrate the living science behind the MAF program and his endorsement is no mystery — he says for ultra-endurance sports he doesn’t see why anyone would train any other way.

Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • Dan says:

    Very impressive indeed. Which brings me to the following question: I am looking to purchase a reliable and inexpensive hearth monitor, so that I can train according to the MAF method. However, I don’t want one the forces me to carry a smartphone; so the recommended Polar H7 is out, assuming I will need to monitor my heart rate while running and adjust my pace. What’s your recommendation? Thanks!

    • The Wahoo Tickr X stores HR data for the duration of the run. However, I like using HR/GPS watches such as the Suunto Ambit3.

    • Jussi says:

      DC-rainmaker is probably the best source to study, which device you should have.
      https://www.dcrainmaker.com/2015/11/winter-sports-gadget-recommendations.html
      Polar H7 is a generic sensor belt, which pairs also with e.g. Polar M400 (GPS watch, which I have) , or some other polar models
      There are now watches which measure heart rate from wrist, but they are less accurate than traditional ones (some more off, some less), and error usually increase faster you move.
      I recommend getting a GPS watch, to measure & store distance and speed same time.
      Polar is generally reliable brand, others I don’t know.

      Good Luck

    • Mario says:

      Go for good watches, definitely worth it! I have tried other options, hasitating to invest such amount €, but it was an absolute game changer, and now I regred that “lost time”. I have Garmin Fenix 3, massive contentment.

  • Richard Leiser says:

    “800 miles on the bike in the first month he takes up endurance sport as a hobby” suggests that he was already EXTREMELY fit to begin with.

  • Bryan says:

    If he had a MAF of 9 minute miles, he was very fit aerobically. All the more impressive that he still improved significantly on that using Maff running.The hardest gains are at the upper end of performance.

    • Bryan:

      In strict genetic terms, I believe that it is the potential of the average human (the statistically most frequent one) to consistently run 8 minute miles at an aerobic heart rate. By “potential” I mean an average human in peak running fitness and skill, close to ideal weight (relative to height) and body composition, and optimal aerobic health and power. What I’m basically saying is: knock all (I mean ALL) the rust off your typical 30 year old, 12-minute-MAF-miler, and multiply that by a few years of training, and you’ll have them running 8 minute miles.

      Let me restate this: For the runner with average/most frequent genetics, I believe that the “upper end of aerobic performance” would be around a 7:30 minute miles. I don’t have a lot of ground to stand on for this claim, other than my experience of just how assaulted our health and fitness is by our modern urban environment. Put a person in optimal environmental conditions for a few years, and I really do think you’ll get 8 minute miles. Put them in optimal training and recovery conditions, and you’ll have them running 7:30 minute miles. In other words, it’s my opinion that if you really take enough rust off a person, once you get far enough along in that process that you’ve already oiled and replaced all the parts, and you’ve even begun to metaphorically polish the engine block, you’re going to end up revealing the brand name, and you’ll see that it reads “Ferrari.”

      You could say that this is what I want people to believe. What I don’t want them believing is that the present state of their engine (which is often far more degraded than they think it is) is somehow “who they are.” I want to provide people with a view of themselves that if they aren’t fast, it’s probably not because of their genetics—we are the greatest endurance runners outside of camelids (and we have far better scientists than camelids do). Anyone who can’t really, really run a half-marathon and still have enough wind to run another one is because of the state of the “engine block,” rather than because of the brand of the “car” itself.

  • Martin Gruebele says:

    Richard, Ivan,

    Good questions and comments. I probably have some genetic advantage, but it’s not a “pro level” one. For instance, USAT ranks me consistently in the top 10% of triathletes, and the same is true in my age group. Even if you adjust for age, it does not come close to pros. For example, my threshold wattage is 280 W, vs. 400 W for a pro. I would say that anyone who can do an Ironman sub 12 hours (my best time is 10:44, best in age group are about 9:45, pros about 8:15) can do ver similarly than I can on aerobic threshold training.

    The 800 miles came in the summer. I was really excited about getting that bike, after not having done ANY exercise consistently for about 12 years! So I pedaled away 20 miles every day, 40 on weekend days, and voila! 800 miles. I actually had no idea that was an unusual monthly distance until the bike mech stared at the cyclocomputer 🙂 For RAAM, I had to train up to 2200 miles a month, but it’s nothing compared to the 75,000 mile annual mileage record on a bike!

    I’m gonna enjoy that ultrarunning now. Thanks to aerobic threshold training at solid but not ridiculous volumes (just 40-50 miles/week), I came out my first 100 mile ultramarathon in sub2- hours with just a blister on my left foot, and was up-and-running again 5 days later. Again, pacing was an important ingredient, not superhuman running ability: while other racers went out faaast, at marathon pace, I stuck to an aerobic pace that I felt I could keep up for the next 19 hours. Indeed, I never was in any distress, although that blister slowed me down a bit at the end 🙂 Cheers, Martin

  • Hanna says:

    I am half way through Dr Gruebele’s book – really fascinating and inspiring!

  • christine schirtzinger says:

    Ah, so very impressive Martin!! So very impressed and inspired with your accomplishments!!!

  • Stephen Cauchi says:

    Really interesting story. But aren’t you at risk of ‘aerobic overtraining’ unless you do the occasional anaerobic workout? What’s the minimum amount of anaerobic training someone like Martin would have to do?

  • paul webster says:

    I am a 64 year old runner ( 30 marathons-ultra marathon’s since starting running aged 49 , over last 5 years becoming a triathlete , recently representing GB as an age grouper. I am really interested in the MAF system as it offers a “holy grail” less injuries, better speed , better health, however in trying it I have found running slowly to be doable but to cycle under the heart rate (180-64 =116) to be so hard its seems unrealistic. Is there different heart rates between running /cycling or swimming?

    • Paul:

      An easy way around that problem is to do your aerobic cycling 20-25 BPM under your MAF HR. As your cycling fitness increases, you’ll find that you are more and more able to train at your MAF HR.

      The issue is that cycling uses fewer muscles than running (and most other sports), meaning that the body’s metabolic effort is concentrated into fewer muscles. The local aerobic threshold of these muscles is exceeded at a lower heart rate than running, resulting in the increased effort.

  • paul webster says:

    Thanks, that really helpful, I think that I meant to say was that cycling under the 116 heart rate was very easy and couldn’t see a benefit. cycling 20 BPM lower does make sense. As I am 65 in 9 months is it acceptable to add the 10 bpm recommended for 65 year olds?
    cheers

    Paul

  • mathew says:

    I am a little dubious of the claims that just by running slowly one will increase their speed. Many sport scientists suggest that while the bulk of endurance training is in the aerobic zone there needs to be a proportion of training above lactate threshold in order to increase speed quicker.

    I really like the sound of this method of eating/living and the easy running/cycling sounds good but how does this dovetail with a training plan that would require interval and tempo sessions.

    I say this because you mention above about 7:30 minute miles is achievable for a half marathon but I already run faster (7:00) than that and would like to get faster. What advice can you give and what are your thoughts around this?

    Thanks.

    • Mathew:

      Certainly not just by running slowly, and not for everyone all of the time. That said, enough people are suffering from some level of burnout or fatigue (or alternately, simply have never developed an aerobic base) enough of the time that training between thresholds or above the LT2 does not produce the expected results—or produces them temporarily before a generalized collapse of health and fitness (injury, illness, overtraining, etc.).

      In order to get this (significant) group of people to a place where high intensity training can provide the expected results, a period of aerobic development (through exclusive low-intensity training) is, as far as we have seen, foundational. During this process, a person’s aerobic speed (under the aerobic threshold) will increase dramatically—often several minutes per mile. This means that it is not uncommon for us to see aerobically deficient individuals or overtrained athletes improve their marathon times by 45 minutes or more with aerobic training alone. However, honing the high-end race speed of a fully healthy body absolutely requires some high-intensity stimulation (achievable by various kinds of anaerobic training or frequent racing).

      To answer your question specifically: the MAF Method allows us to put high-intensity training in context.

      High-intensity training produces positive results (without a sharp downward turn in health or fitness in the near future) in the presence of an aerobic base that is capable of absorbing the stresses and metabolic by-products of that high-intensity activity. So, any downturn in your aerobic speed (at a heart rate below your aerobic threshold) is a direct indicator that your aerobic base is either fatigued or in decline, meaning that your body is at the moment that much less capable of absorbing the stresses of high-intensity training. This means that the body is ripe for repetitive stress injury, illness, or overtraining. At this point we would recommend eliminating anaerobic training until aerobic speed is restored, and then reinstating anaerobic training in moderately smaller amounts.

      For this, we use the MAF Test—a simple running speed test at the aerobic threshold—in order to track the ups and downs of aerobic speed (and therefore aerobic capacity) across time.

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