Why Don’t I Get Faster?

Run Slow

Find and fix these 7 health and fitness hazards that can slow you down

One of the most common questions I receive is from athletes asking why, despite all the training, don’t they get faster and improve performance. “Why doesn’t the MAF test improve—why am I still slow?”

Many factors can impair progress despite an optimal training program. Injuries, health issues, and other problems—many very well hidden—can prevent one from reaching their athletic potential.

Seven common hazards are outlined here. Any one of them can cause injury, impair health, restrict fitness, and ultimately slow you down.

It might seem like a paradox, but working out regularly may not make one immune to poor health or reduced fitness. Fatigue, asthma, depression, hormone imbalance, sleepiness after meals, and other signs and symptoms are clues that the body is not working optimally. The same is true for more serious disorders such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. While we think of those who are sedentary as being afflicted with these problems, they are also found in athletes. Moreover, the ongoing overfat epidemic does not spare those who burn a lot of calories while running, cycling, swimming, or performing other workouts. This type of training does burn many calories—but too often more sugar and less fat.

Almost all health or fitness problems come with a warning. Various signs and symptoms, especially when grouped together, can provide us with clues—a red flag of potential hazards ahead. Heed the warning.

Below are seven surveys, groups of signs, symptoms and lifestyle habits common to a particular condition that can prevent the body from making progress. A “yes” answer to any one question may not be significant, but if two or three in one group applies to you, the likelihood of that problem increases significantly. In other words, those individuals who have more clues pertaining to a specific condition have higher risk for it.

Included under each survey is its possible implication or condition, common dietary and supplement needs, lifestyle considerations, and tests you or your healthcare professional might consider for verification or monitoring.

Survey 1

  1. Frequently eat restaurant, take-out or prepared/packaged foods
  2. Consume these vegetable oils regularly: corn, soy, safflower, peanut oil, or canola, or margarine
  3. Chronic pain
  4. “itis” conditions: arthritis, colitis, tendonitis, bursitis, etc.
  5. Hair loss
  6. Aspirin (or similar drugs including NSAIDs) improves symptoms
  7. Body fat above normal
  8. Frequent anaerobic training
  9. Take birth control or estrogen replacement
  10. Family or personal history of stoke, heart disease, osteoporosis, ulcer, cancer, allergies or asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, or cataracts
  11. Low-fat diet
  12. Depression

Possible Implications: Chronic inflammation. It’s not only common, but most people are actually unaware of its presence. It is often the earliest stage of cancer, stroke, Alzheimer disease and heart disease, not to mention to common ‘itis’ conditions such as tendonitis, arthritis, colitis, and bursitis. It can also trigger a wide range of unhealthy conditions: cataracts, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue, and asthma, immune dysfunction and hormonal balance, and promote pain.

Diet: Consume more natural anti-inflammatory foods including raw ginger, garlic, onions, turmeric, and 10 servings of vegetables and fruits. Include ocean fish (not farmed) such as salmon, sardines, tuna, anchovies, and mackerel.

Avoid all trans fats and refined carbohydrates as both can promote inflammation.
Reduce omega-6 vegetable oils such as soy, safflower, corn, peanut, and canola.

Most Effective Dietary Supplements: EPA-DHA (from fish oil). Flax oil is much less effective.

Lifestyle: Avoid anaerobic exercise, including strength training and competition until problem has resolved.

Tests: C-reactive protein (blood test).

Survey 2

  1. Fatigue
  2. Increased body fat
  3. Chronic inflammation
  4. Physical injuries
  5. Hormone imbalance
  6. Feelings of depression
  7. Reduced endurance
  8. Performance plateau
  9. Unable to improve aerobic pace (MAF test)
  10. Overtraining

Possible Implications: Aerobic deficiency syndrome. Typically a combination of reduced aerobic and excess anaerobic function. It often is the result of a combined training, dietary and lifestyle stress problem.

Diet: Eliminate refined carbohydrates, and increase food frequency.

Most Effective Dietary Supplements: Varies with individual’s need.

Lifestyle factors: Avoid all anaerobic training until problem is remedied.

Tests: MAF test, and others as per individual needs.

Survey 3

  1. Fatigue
  2. Dizziness upon standing
  3. Crave salt
  4. Allergy or asthma
  5. Low blood pressure
  6. Feelings of depression
  7. Often wake in the middle of the night
  8. Sensitive to bright light or difficulty with night driving
  9. Sexual desire reduced
  10. Recurrent infections
  11. Hormone imbalance
  12. Amenorrhea
  13. Frequent hunger/cravings
  14. Increased body fat
  15. Frequent anaerobic workouts

Possible Implications: General indication of adrenal gland dysfunction. Elevation of the stress hormone cortisol is often associated with lower levels of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, but is only one type of adrenal problem.

Diet: Eliminate all refined carbohydrates. Reduce or eliminate caffeine. Avoid skipping meals, and increase frequency of healthy snacks.

Most Effective Dietary Supplements: No particular supplement is good for all types of adrenal imbalances.

Lifestyle: Assess and reduce physical, chemical and mental stress. Avoid anaerobic training until problem is remedied.

Tests: Salivary hormone tests for cortisol, DHEA and sex hormones.

Survey 4

  1. History of bone fractures
  2. Low bone density
  3. Poor recovery from training or racing
  4. Reduced sexual desire
  5. Long standing hard training
  6. Loss of muscle mass
  7. Use of tetracycline
  8. Low-fat diet
  9. Low-cholesterol diet
  10. Feelings of depression

Possible Implications: Low testosterone.

Diet: Avoid low-fat and low-cholesterol diets unless for specific medical reasons as both are important for testosterone production.

Most Effective Dietary Supplements: DHEA, pregnenolone and or licorice as indicated in additional tests.

Lifestyle: Assess and reduce physical, chemical and mental stress. Balance aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and strength training workouts.

Tests: Blood and or salivary hormone tests as indicated.

Survey 5

  1. Poor concentration or sleepiness after meals
  2. Increased intestinal gas or bloating
  3. Polycystic ovary (ovarian cysts)
  4. Frequent hungry
  5. I ncreased body fat
  6. Chronic fatigue
  7. Insomnia or sleep apnea
  8. Waist size increasing with age
  9. Difficulty improving endurance
  10. Personal or family history: diabetes, kidney or gall stones, gout, high blood pressure, high cholesterol/low HDL, high triglycerides, heart disease or stroke, breast cancer.
  11. Low protein intake
  12. Cravings for sweets or caffeine

Possible Implications: Carbohydrate intolerance. This condition can reduce fat burning and impair performance. It can also precede more serious conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic inflammation, and others.

Diet: Eliminate all refined carbohydrates. Eat smaller, more frequent meals and healthy snacks throughout the day.

Common Supplements: Varies with individual.

Lifestyle: Reduce physical, chemical and mental stress. Aerobic workouts only until problem is remedied.

Tests: The Two-Week Test. Blood tests for glucose, insulin and others as needed.

Survey 6

  1. Athletic performance plateau
  2. Over age 50
  3. Work or reside indoors most days
  4. Moderate to dark skinned (natural or tanned)
  5. Risk or history of bone fractures or osteoporosis
  6. Reside in northern climates (above 30-40 degrees north) or around cities
  7. Regular use of sunscreen
  8. Wear tight knit/protective clothing when outdoors
  9. Pregnant or nursing
  10. Body fat too high

Possible Implications: Low vitamin D. This problem is not unusual in athletes who train outdoors.

Diet: Fresh fish (not farmed) such as salmon, tuna, halibut, herring, and mackerel, egg yolks, butter, Shiitake mushrooms.

Common Supplements: Vitamin D from fish liver oil.

Lifestyle: Sunshine is the best source of vitamin D. Proper expose is necessary.

Tests: Blood test for vitamin D.

Survey 7

  1. Chronic injuries
  2. Fatigue
  3. Performance plateau or reductions
  4. Less than about 7-8 hours sleep each night
  5. Regular anaerobic training throughout the year
  6. Low-fat, low-calorie or low-protein diet
  7. Depression, anxiety or other altered moods
  8. Chronic or recurrent infections
  9. Asthma or allergy
  10. Reduced sexual desire
  11. Resting, training or racing heart rates too high or low
  12. Menstrual problems

Possible Implications: Overtraining

Diet and Supplementation varies with individual.

Tests: MAF Test, salivary cortisol, others as required.

Chronic inflammation, aerobic deficiency, adrenal stress, hormone imbalance, overtraining, carbohydrate intolerance, and low vitamin D are common problems. Any of these conditions can reduce health and quality of life, and significantly contribute to injuries and poor performance. For more information on each topic, follow the link.

Most people can make appropriate adjustments in their training, diet, and lifestyle to remedy the problem. Others may need to seek help from an appropriate health professional. Now is the time to address these factors.

26 Comments

  • Eh says:

    So what do we do with no progress and no “yes” answers to any of the surveys? I’ve been strict MAF trying to build my base for almost a year with no progress. My volume is 8-10 hours a week. Very low carb, no sugar, no caffeine, low stress lifestyle.

  • Felipe says:

    Hi Ivan. I’m reading the comments and I got a question.

    If I do 15 air squats, 15 plyometric squats and plus 15 squats carrying some weight, staying below my MAF-HR in all of those, is it guaranteed that I’m keeping fully aerobic?

    • Felipe:

      Not a guarantee. The best way to know you’re keeping it fully aerobic is to make sure that after a warm-up of 15 minutes, you go for a very long time doing one kind of repetitions (like running) under the MAF HR. That said, if you do stay under your MAF HR with a training routine similar to the one you described above, it’s likely that you are remaining overwhelmingly aerobic.

  • Matthew says:

    Ivan,

    Thank you, that answers all my questions. You’re responses are so timely and detailed and I really appreciate the time and effort you put into all of them. Everything you said resonated with me, makes sense, and I’m sure will help me in the long run. It is a process, and although I do want to drop weight/fat, I realize that obtaining a healthy lifestyle is more important.

    I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

    Regards,
    Matthew

  • Matthew says:

    Ivan,

    For the most part yes. I understand that the 12-15 rep range is aerobic training, I suppose I was asking if, for my present situation (where I need to become more aerobically adapted for the next 3 months per your instruction), should I implement ANY anaerobic activity? Should I still adhere to the 80/20 ratio of aerobic/anaerobic, or should I go 100% aerobic until my symptoms subside?

    For example, for the next three months I should not perform any strength training below the 12-15 rep range and no interval training where I go above my MAF HR. That is what I am understanding. Is that correct? If so, I believe that answers all of my questions.

    Thank you!
    Matthew

    • Because you’re overtrained, the best approach is to do MAF training for 100% of your total training. That’s your best guarantee that you’ll soon be able to return safely to training in a more diversified fashion.

      • Matthew says:

        I see, again thank you for your responses. Obviously I want to get back to not being overtrained as soon as possible. Would you recommend that I not lift weights at all? What I have been doing lately is circuit style training in the 12-20 rep zone under MAF. But if you don’t think I should do any resistance training, then I want to know if that would be the best approach. I have also been doing runs (3-6 miles) about 3 times a week under MAF (in addition to 2 circuit sessions). All under MAF. I figure that if I am under MAF then everything should be ok, right? So that’s 5 days on and 2 days rest/active recovery like a walk for 30-40 min.

        Thank you, Ivan.
        Regards,
        Matthew

        • Matthew:

          Any circuit training under MAF is fully aerobic. If it’s under MAF and it lasts more than 15 reps (like a typical routine does) then it counts.

          It should be all right. However, the best indicator of whether it’s working isn’t that you’re following the formula, but whether you feel increasingly relaxed and fulfilled after training (as opposed to increasingly stressed and drained).

  • Matthew says:

    Hello Ivan,

    I am reading a number of the articles here on the MAF site and am extremely intrigued by all of your advice and instruction on health and fitness. I appreciate all the time that you are taking answering questions, thank you.

    I did have a question I hope you could answer. I looked at the symptoms for survey 3, and realized that I can definitely say that I have 9/15 of the symptoms. You mentioned after the section to “Assess and reduce physical, chemical and mental stress. Avoid anaerobic training until problem is remedied” in addition to dietary instructions. By “…until problem is remedied,” do you mean until the symptoms subside? Also, I have been strength training and doing sprinting since college. I am 24, male, and played soccer all through high school and soccer and always was overweight for some reason. I always did more training (running, sprinting, and strength training) than my teammates, but could never get the body fat down. Still having trouble losing fat without sacrificing a lot of strength (I seem to lose weight best when I stop strength training and running for some reason).

    What are your thoughts? Again thank you for taking the time to answer all of the questions and comments people have been asking you.

    Regards,
    Matthew

    • Matthew:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I wont mince words—using time for one thing (aerobic training and stress-reduction) means that we’re using less time for something else (strength training). We won’t get as strong as fast by mixing it up than by only doing strength training.

      One of the reasons it’s sometimes difficult to get body fat down (sometimes even marathoners have this problem) is too much cortisol in the absence of testosterone and adrenaline, to put it in a slightly oversimplified manner. In other words, the particular hormone mixture means that you’re too stressed out relative to your energy levels, so your body starts putting on fat.

      In a case like yours, the reason you can’t get the body fat down is due to the sheer volume of strength training you’re doing (relative to your actual capabilities). You won’t really be able to change your body composition until you change the hormone mixture, and the first step is by bringing down your stress levels. (The reason you can’t bring up testosterone and adrenaline, and you have to reduce cortisol, is because your levels of testosterone and adrenaline are exhausted).

      Let me use a metaphor: Jenga. Training is like playing Jenga. If you want to reach strength “X”, that’s like trying to build your tower up to height “X”. Now, you may have enough blocks—enough of what I like to call “metabolic capital”—to raise the tower up to height “X” or you may not. If you don’t, you have to start pulling blocks out from the bottom levels to make the tower higher. This is “overtraining”.

      So to speak, your levels of adrenaline and testosterone are out of whack with your levels of cortisol due to trying to keep this unstable structure stable.

      So, in light of this metaphor, how do you get better?

      There’s a way to expand our physiological capital—our pool of bricks: aerobic training. The base of your tower will become wider and steadier. Now, aerobic training doesn’t help you become stronger—the tower doesn’t get taller if you add bricks around the base—but it does increase your potential to become stronger without destabilizing the tower.

      After a period of aerobic training, you can now grab some of those new bricks, add levels to your tower, and increase its height, putting you a little closer to your strength and power goals. What is aerobic training? Simple: any training that occurs below the MAF HR and you can do for more than 12-15 repetitions.

      How long is “enough” aerobic training? For people who aren’t endurance athletes, “until symptoms subside” is a decent benchmark. But since you play soccer, I’d like to make a recommendation closer to what we tell our endurance athletes. Endurance athletes need to see 3-6 months of aerobic progress—getting better at their MAF test—before they are ready to integrate strength training.

      To be on the safe side, I’d recommend that you see 3 months of aerobic progress, and then keep a very good mixture of aerobic exercise in your training routine (I’d say at least 80%). Elite soccer midfielders run a 10-K every game. Forwards run even more. Even though you need speed and power for peak performance, you need the aerobic system to recover well between sprints and tackles. What I would recommend is to up your percentage of aerobic running, up your percentage of skill training, and stick with soccer-specific plyometrics as strength. There’s avery good book, Plyometrics, that you can use as a guide.

      That way, you can be a lot more specific about your strength and power training, get lots more bang for your buck, and be able to reduce your strength volume significantly without sacrificing fitness.

      • Matthew says:

        Ivan,

        Thank you so much for that awesome, succinct reply. This makes a lot of sense. I have noticed in the past that for some reason when I stopped strength training (even for just a week), my body responded really well, and for some reason when I started lifting heavy again, my body just got burnt out really quickly.

        I do have a couple more questions:

        You mentioned that aerobic training is “any training that occurs below the MAF HR and you can do for more than 12-15 repetitions.” So, if I wanted to continue to implement some form of resistance training, it should be done above the 12-15 rep range to keep it aerobic, correct? Would you suggest circuit-type training (like full-body) to keep it aerobic and to try to increase my aerobic capacity? Also, would it be advisable to still do squats and bench press (amongst other lifts) as long as keep it within or above the 12-15 range?

        Lastly, on a nutrition/calorie note, during this time of lowered anaerobic activity, what would your nutrition and calorie recommendations be? I typically follow a lowish carb diet with a heavy emphasis on unprocessed, unrefined foods. But I was mainly wondering if I should be concerned with calories. Usually I just follow the diet I just mentioned, eating when hungry, but still monitoring my calories to make sure they don’t get too out of control.

        Thank you again for your time and considerations.

        Regards,
        Matthew
        Nutrition/calories

        • Matthew:

          You’re welcome.

          As per your first question, let me clarify something (at the risk of being redundant): anything over 12-15 reps that is also under MAF counts as MAF training. While that sort of MAF training also works as strength training in the sense that it builds strength, it counts towards your 80% of aerobic training. So you don’t have to trade it for genuine anaerobic strength training.

          Squats and bench presses are fine. The reason for the 12-15 range + under MAF is twofold: (1) if the amount of weight that you’re using will kick up your heart rate over MAF, you’ll know by the 6th or 7th rep. (2) This is because when the weight is too heavy (or the power requirement is too big) the body turns on the anaerobic energy system, which it can’t power without a high heart rate (so the heart rate climbs and climbs).

          So, expect to be doing this with relatively light weights.

          In regards to nutrition, one of the biggest promoters of aerobic function is the hormone leptin. Not only does leptin increase fat-burning, but it also helps dilate blood vessels and airways, etc., counteracting the effects of anaerobic function and enabling the body to function more aerobically. This hormone occurs due to the presence of fats in the diet. So, upping the percentage of healthy fats in your diet—tree nuts, avocado, coconut oils and creams, etc.—are good ways to increase the aerobic response.

          Although the correct diet doesn’t make the aerobic system more powerful, it does make it more active within its present abilities, meaning that you make it relatively more trainable.

          Does this answer your questions?

  • Amy says:

    Hi,
    At the end of the section for Test 7, it says “For more information on each topic, follow the link.”. There’s no link. Where to look please? Thanks.

    This section fits me to a tee (I have Lyme Disease, and inflammation is an enormous part of this), but other parts fit too — nearly the whole list. I’m trying to keep my runs strictly under 127 for MAF 180 (I’m 48 years old), but I get wild spikes over 140 sometimes. Other times I think I will die of boredom rather than any other symptoms, running so slowly. I’m reading PM’s “Big Book of Health and Fitness” right now and trying to be patient with the process as well.

    Anyway, thanks in advance for input on my initial question about the link.
    Best,
    Amy

    • Amy:

      We need to fix that link. There’s a lot of projects on at the moment so we’re behind on a few things.

      Just be patient with the process.

      But also consider this:

      Aerobic function (which is what the MAF Test measures) is influenced by a lot of things, most of all stress. What does this mean? If you have muscle imbalance, your body will be under more stress. Same thing if your nutrition is bad, or if you are under a lot of work stress, or if you had a death in the family, or if you stare at the computer for too long, or if your sleep schedule is irregular.

      If you are too stressed, your aerobic system will be impaired, which means that your aerobic function will be reduced. You’ll develop much more slowly that could otherwise be possible.

      In practical terms, this means that if your MAF test doesn’t improve, it’s not because “MAF doesn’t work for you.” It’s because there is some unidentified stressor that is creating too much anaerobic function and impairing your aerobic development.

  • SteveL says:

    I know when I run in the heat I have to slow down to keep my heart rate at MAF. So if I’m going to do a MAF test when I know it’s going to be hot out I will only do it in the early morning hours otherwise the data would be skewed.

  • Mike says:

    Could you please speak to heat and humidity and how it affects heart rate. I live in Fl and was making real good progress, but have recently gone back to baseline

  • SteveL says:

    Ivan: Does carbohydrate intolerance have any impact on asthma?

    • I’m not sure if CI has any impact on asthma per se However, a carbohydrate intolerant person who eats a lot of carbohydrates may get negative effects. For example, I have moderate CI and sinusitis and lots of allergies (not the same thing). When I eat too many carbs, I get all kinds of issues in my throat and nose. Here’s what Dr. Maffetone has to say on the topic of asthma.

      Hope this helps.

  • Eva says:

    I have asthma and I am a runner, albeit a slow runner. I have done all my runs for the past month at MAF pace (14 min/mile run/walk). Will I ever get faster? Or am I doomed to run this slow at MAF pace by my asthma?

    • Eva:

      You should start getting better. However, the problem with asthma is that the airways get partially blocked. Running at the MAF heart rate, since it involves very little stress, should teach the airways to relax and let in more air. However, a big part of the reason your speed is so slow isn’t about how developed your aerobic system is; the problem is that less air is getting into your lungs and bloodstream. If you take care of the asthma, you’ll see your speed improve dramatically, even without doing anything for your aerobic development.

  • Jessica says:

    Um,… what should be done if you fall into several of these groups?! Biopsy confirmation of hashimotos, on the low end for bone density, good sleeper, adrenals good (as of a week ago), cholesterol of 153, testosterone low (30), vitamin d low (23), hemochromatosis, 32% body fat, sensitive to bright light, menstrual issues…. working with doc on vitamin d, testosterone, thyroid regulation, hemochromatosis management.

  • SteveL says:

    If a person is carbohydrate intolerant why would than in itself affect MAF pace? I would think a person’s first mile time wouldn’t be affected by being a sugar vs fat burner over that short of a distance.

    • Steve:

      The reason most people start out by burning sugar during their workout is because they warm up too little or exceed their MAF pace. In other words, your first MAF mile should ideally be no less fueled by fat than any of your other MAF miles. If you are carbohydrate intolerant, this means that your aerobic system is less developed. This should definitely show up in the first mile.

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