The Maff test – week 2

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So, this is my account of week two of Dr Phil Maffetone’s Two Week test. The purpose of the test, which I touched on briefly in part one of this blog, is to eliminate carbohydrates from my diet for two weeks and to exercise only within my maximum aerobic heart rate limit, a two-pronged attack to both remove the supply of fast-burning fuel from my body and the demand for using it, thereby re-training my body to use its natural fat stores. Why, exactly, am I going to all this trouble?

The Maffetone method – so called because it is a holistic lifestyle method and not just a diet and exercise plan – focuses on identifying the causes of and contributors to stress, promoting the body’s natural resources to defend itself. It has been used (and recommended) by many endurance athletes, including Ironman Mark Allen, as well as average Joes looking for a solution to perpetual fatigue – although less so by sprinters, rowers, athletes relying on short bursts of high intensity effort. According to the good doctor, a potential stressor on the human body is an undiagnosed but common occurrence of carbohydrate intolerance – to be clear, this isn’t a “all carbs = bad” blanket statement, it’s simply questions the ability to digest the quantity of carbohydrates found in a standard western diet. If you find it hard to believe that too much carbs could be a thing, think about how crazy you thought I was for taking this plan on in the first place, consider if the thought flashed through your mind “what the hell is she going to eat then?” If you did think that, try to imagine what your diet might look like if you avoided carbs for two weeks. In Britain especially we commonly eat bread or cereal for breakfast, sandwiches and crisps for lunch, rice, pasta or potatoes with dinner. It’s not much of a stretch to ask if we really need that much starch in our diet. It’s only a step further to ask if we can more efficiently burn our fat stores and forever avoid the dreaded bonk.

Hand in hand with this principle goes a re-education of exercise limits; understanding the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which the book summarises thus:

Aerobic: The ability to obtain more energy through increased fat burning

Anaerobic: The increased use of sugar for energy and decreased fat burning

If you’ve ever told yourself “no pain, no gain” during a workout, the chances are you’ve been working above your aerobic threshold – in other words, anaerobically – and are burning sugar for fuel. We can store a limited supply of this, as anyone who has hit the wall at mile 20 despite mainlining Lucozade can attest. By simply working within our aerobic capacity we are using aerobic muscle fibers – more resistant to injury than their anaerobic counterparts – and burning our fat stores, stores which are significantly more prevalent and provide far more energy pound for pound than sugar can do. But, and here’s another factor that flies in the face of common practice, it means doing a lot of slow running in order to get faster and build endurance. I mean, all my running is slow running so yet again it seemed like a much more intuitive plan for me than it might do for a lot of people. In fact I remember hearing about the Maffetone method for the first time not via Chris McDougall, but in a podcast interview with Larisa Dannis who described her workouts as being limited by her max heartrate, where the improvement comes from increasing speed against a fixed effort rather than increasing effort to improve overall speed. At the time I thought that it sounded like a much less painful and much more sustainable way to get results, and so far the practice seems to be bearing fruit. To know for certain though I will need to retake the MAF test (described in part 1) at monthly intervals and measure the improvements. Watch this space.

A lot of the measures he suggests do make sense when taken in isolation and within context, even though the programme as a whole can sound extreme at the outset. So I was careful not to lose sight of the reason I was attracted to it in the first place: namely that I am feeling as unwell as I’ve ever felt, due to a known combination of work and life stresses I can’t do much about, overtraining in my running (which I am tempering with a month and a half off from racing), and other stressors which I need to identify before I can resolve. With that in mind, anything seemed worth trying. The idea that excess carbohydrate could be a stressor seemed worth exploring, offering a seemingly win-win outcome. If reducing my carbohydrate intake relieves some of that pressure, yay. If it doesn’t and I can still eat cake sandwiches and pasta without fear that it’s poisoning me, yay.

Monday 24th July

Back to the working week. I felt a little sluggish after the weekend but part of that had to be attributed to the fact I was still recovering from a busy race schedule. And perhaps a whisper of a hangover. Breakfast was Brazil nuts, which turns out to be a great way to start the day if you’re not used to eating much early.

Andy has graciously allowed me to take control of lunches for the week and took a Tupperware full of Turkish salad, macaroni and tinned mackerel – and as far as I know, didn’t hate it. Had to be an improvement on Wetherspoons, anyway. I topped my own portion of salad with pepperoni (bending the processed meats rule) and huge chunks of halloumi. I can’t think of a single meal that halloumi doesn’t improve.

Dinner was the remainder of our curry. Andy bulked his up with rice, which can’t be the worst carbohydrate going, and I with roasted cauliflower. This turned out to be a delicious and surprisingly filling side, and went well with the curry (once I’d dumped a load of cumin and chilli on it). I tried to up my fat intake with some pork crackling snacks, after spending all last week thinking protein is the key. While the cauliflower roasted I took myself for a couple of miles around the local area, keeping as rigidly as possible within my maximum aerobic heart rate – 147. It’s probably a good measure of just how fatigued I am that some days I can barely move my legs fast enough to reach that maximum, as low as it is – I’m scratching around the mid thirties. I don’t think that’s a good sign.

Tuesday 25th July

I had a proper breakfast today – sausage, eggs and bacon in the work canteen. Who knew, it set me up well for the day and I didn’t need a single snack. In fact I barely drank any coffee. I can’t tell you how many years it’s been since I got to 4pm without six cups of coffee.

I did my run at lunchtime, taking the rare opportunity to leave the office for half an hour and came back feeling so much better for having the luxury to enjoy more than a hurried ten minutes around the block. When I got back I had a roast chicken salad waiting for me, which I have to admit I wasn’t really hungry enough for, but I knew dinner would be late as I promised to wait for Andy to get home from football. I won’t get this kind of structured day again for a while, and creature of habit that I am, I could easily make this a daily routine. Evening runs just aren’t doing anything for me at the moment; by the time I get home my muscles are worn to gummy threads like overstretched Blu-tac. The afternoon flies by.

Dinner is a huge mound of stir fried green veg with two fillets of sea bass pan-fried in butter. It. Is. Delicious. Even Andy agrees, although after a vigorous session of 5-a-side it’s not really enough for him and he has a chaser of chicken dippers. I realise I have had a glass of wine almost every day since starting this plan, which is probably not the point. I may have to examine just how much I’m drinking at the moment.

I had my little tub of almonds and Brazil nuts while waiting for Andy to get home, and the ubiquitous almond butter later in the evening while Big Little Bro and I chatted into the small hours about all the degrees we’re going to do when we’re rich. His plan is basically to stay in academia for as long as humanly possible. He makes a very compelling argument. I go to sleep dreaming of being a student again.

Wednesday 26th July

I overslept, unsurprisingly, so didn’t have time to make myself a lunchbox. Drat. At least I managed another cooked breakfast at work – which is amazing value and relatively clean eating. To be fair, I hadn’t felt the need for lunch or snack yesterday and I can always pick up a bag of almonds from the corner shop, so I wasn’t too worried.

It being a pretty active day at work I did have to stop for a proper lunch – the canteen had roast half chicken on which I supplemented with salad.  I did a lot of hurrying back and forth between another theatre down the road, not to mention a few miles on foot around the building, and for the first time since starting this test my endurance failed me.

We had planned to make stroganoff for dinner but I ended up staying so late with work to finish off there was not time to make it. I ran from work to the tube sation and from the tube station home, but it was a slow and painful run. Halloumi omelette gave me just enough energy to get to sleep.

Thursday 27th July

Broadcast day today again – which means another late finish, a lot of stress and another load of running around with irregular breaks. I managed a breakfast of carrot batons and peanut butter but that wasn’t until 12pm, swiftly followed by Nando’s chicken and peas for lunch.

Scrolling back through the macronutrients log on MyFitnessPal, I suddenly realised that sausages do of course have carbs in them (depending on what is mixed with the sausagemeat). Damn bugger balls. I mean I’m not exactly the most discliplined dieter but I thought I wasn’t doing too badly. A little research into the principles of the keto diet, which is a longer term and more sustainable but less flexible option for this principle of eating, shows that between 20 and 50 grams of carbs a day is the recommended maximum limit. Comparing my intake over the last two weeks with that at least I can see I’ve not been exceeding 25 grams a day, and most of those come from vegetables still on the yes list, so they must be OK. I am looking forward to bolstering some of those allowable grams with yoghurt and fruit though.

I get home at half 2 in the morning. Dinner was more nuts. As far as fuel goes it did just about get me through the day, but it is getting a bit miserable if I don’t plan my lunches ahead of time.

Friday 28th July

Ahhhh… day off. It’s our ninth anniversary today. We had plans to spend the day together doing middle aged things like shop for a new bathroom, but Andy had to go into work in the morning so I took the opportunity to sleep and continue Project Clearout. I treat myself to a breakfast of bacon, eggs and halloumi fried in butter which is THE BOMB. I didn’t need lunch as such but we had decided to go out to Boxpark for dinner anyway so I left good and early for dinner.

This is where things got messy. Boxpark had some amazing street food outlets to try – not many of them test-friendly though, so I started with a plate of grilled chorizo and a malbec. Thinking I wouldn’t find anything else to eat I have to confess to stealing a slice of Andy’s sourdough toast and hummus. It tasted good, but I immediately felt plate-pickers remorse.

And then we found Feed Me Primal, a paleo food stall. Holy crap why did we not find this first? An incredible plate of carb free noms, starting with a cauliflower rice base, topped with grilled veg, steak and chicken, then spinach and almond flatbread. I cannot even describe how good it was – even ANDY actively enjoyed it. As in, find this recipe and replicate it. No persuasion needed.

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From there however, it all went downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective). I can’t pretend rum punches, increasingly bitter wine and eventually two shots of tequila feature on the Two-Week Test “yes” list, even if they don’t specifically appear on the “no” one. All I remember after that is screwing up Andy’s Uber rating by making the driver stop so I could throw up, and wailing “I’M GONNA DIE” into our mop bucket.

Saturday 29th July

Argh. Death.

Fry up at George’s Café. All I could manage to stay alive.

Missed parkrun. Missed day out with friends. Had to have two naps before going to sleep.

Lunch was half a jar of peanut butter and tears. Dinner was an entire pot of Onken yoghurt that I made my little brother go out for.

I cannot find the chapter in the book about how to survive a hangover.

Sunday 30th July

The final day of the no-carbs low-HR two-week test, if I can still call it that after the myriad infractions. It would be the biggest test of all, going for a social trail run with the Chasers combined with a bit of Prudential Ride 100 sightseeing. We had planned to start at Box Hill, run to the top to cheer on the cyclists there, then run back down and west along the North Downs to Guildford to round off the day. Nut butter for breakfast, and not a single hint of the hangries to start with.

Although we weren’t going at any kind of pace, starting off on a climb sent my heartrate through the roof straightaway, and probably knocked me out for the rest of the run. It was lovely to be out on the trails and enormous fun shouting at cyclists, but my leg muscles were threadbare before we even got to Denbies and by the top of that hill I was already shuffling. Counting back through the races and work projects I’ve done this year, it’s not surprise I can barely move my legs any more, but it’s still demoralising to realise I’m back to square one until I can recover.

I snaffled a Chia Charge bar and a nutty 9Bar, neither of which were totally carb-free but the closest thing I could find in the morning. I didn’t feel any sugar crash or energy slump symptoms – I just wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to stop moving, just for a day. Cat cajoled me through the last five miles, through me grumbling and whining and stopping for a stretch and looking for nearby train stations to bail out to. It was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I felt like a ball of negativity gathering volume and ferocity and I rolled down a hill of despair. I was not good company.

But finally, despite my best efforts, we made it to Guildford Station, stopped off at Marks for the biggest bag of nuts you’ve ever seen, and were homeward bound. I soaked myself in a hot bath as soon as I got home and lay flat on the sofa while Andy ordered curry for dinner. Half a roast chicken (good), a sneaky bit of tarka dhal (not good, but GOOD), Bombay peas (probably good). Bed: excellent.

Monday 31st July and beyond

So, what next? Well, the next step is to gradually reintroduce various different carbs to my diet – although never in two meals in a row – and evaluate which ones still affect me, while continuing to train within my maximum aeriobic heartrate of 147bpm. I might have been a bit lax on the final couple of days but to be fair I think I’d already found myself pretty certain that bread, pasta and potatoes have to be handled with caution, whereas pulses, vegetable and yoghurt are very manageable. The proof would of course be in the low-carb pudding – weighing and measuring myself to compare with the results before I started.

For two, frankly undisciplined and completely unscientific weeks’ worth of food experimentation, I was rewarded with three and half pounds in weight lost, and two centimetres lost from both my waist and hips. Some of this has to be attributed to water loss (despite my efforts to stay topped up), but I do at least feel slightly less wobbly around the edges. More importantly than that however is the fact that I’ve got through two broadcast weeks without feeling sluggish, bloated or dizzy, and without needing my reading glasses or near-lethal doses of caffeine. I can barely manage a day, usually. This, above all else, is a win for me.

With moderation, I’m not missing carbohydrates as much as I thought – in fact, it was the easiest thing in the world to decide to continue limiting my carb intake beyond the two weeks, and avoiding processed sugar indefinitely. Rice, beans, fruit and yoghurt are the first things back on the menu, provided I don’t go overboard, and the odd slice of bread won’t kill me – although that and beer are probably my biggest weaknesses. I’ve been gleefully embracing “fatty” foods, having learned what good fat tastes like, and chucking out anything bearing the legend low-fat, low-calorie or “light”. I am satisfied so much more than I used to be. I no longer need to snack, or suffer light-headedness and sugar crashes in the middle of the afternoon. I, a runner who could be sponsored by Haribo and Nutella, have honestly not craved a single bite of sugar.

But how valid, exactly, was the test? The occasional slip-ups aside – and I should clarify here that the book’s advice is to restart the test every time you do, which I obviously did not follow – it’s worth reviewing it in the context of its overall purpose, which wasn’t exclusively about weight loss for me. It was about a holistic lifestyle reboot, retraining my body to use its resources for fuel, for recovery and for reducing its susceptibility to stress. My lifestyle is stressful; either I change my lifestyle (not happening) or I change the way I handle it. The alternative would be to carry on freewheeling down this slope of negativity, taking everyone I love with me. It also held a mirror to a burgeoning problem which, if I’m honest, shocked me a little. I’ve tracked my food and drinks on MyFitnessPal every day for the last couple of years and obsessively reviewed every morsel and every calorie, but only in these last two weeks noticed just how heavy a drinker I’ve become. I’m not proud to admit that it took counting grams of carbohydrate to finally notice that I automatically reach for a beer or a wine at the end of every day, reasoning that it’ll help me sleep better or digest my food or just because I deserve it. Still, even if the test itself is bogus, at least I’m more conscious of what I’m putting in my body. Until football season starts, of course.

So, reducing one potential stressor – nutritional imbalance – has to help contribute to the whole, and I believe it has. Reducing another – the effects of overtraining, by running to effort and limiting anaerobic activity – was an easy win as well, especially for a midpacker endurance athlete. Eliminating the main stressor in my life – work – may not be an option until I win the lottery, but by managing the other stressors I am giving myself a bigger capacity to cope with it. There’s no silver bullet there; I won’t get over that particular hurdle without a protracted period of rest, and as it happens I do have a week off work coming up. In the interest of empiricism, I’m very tempted to try the test again after my break, to be sure of the validity of it. Then again, it’s already served a purpose of sorts, retraining my cravings and confirming some suspicions. There are not many things I can be 100% sure of, but if there’s one it’s that the occasional puppy-eyed stare at someone else’s buttered toast comes from missing the taste, the pleasure of the treat, not because my body is telling me I need it. Those stares are reserved for Meridian nut butters these days.

If this resonates with you in any way, the first thing I would say is do your research. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. The nutritional aspect of the Maffetone Method may sound as if its not a million miles from the ketogenic diet, the paleo diet, Atkins, LCHF, all with slight variations on very similar principles; but unlike the diets listed it promotes flexibility and adaptation informaed by regular monitoring of results, rather than a rigid plan. As always, it’s worth learning about what the plan involves and even consulting a nutritionist before undertaking any significant lifestyle changes. Not a blog.

Here’s the disclaimer bit. To be clear, I’m not an expert; neither am I on commission nor holding shares in the book or in Meridian. I just wanted to share my average Joe experience in the hope that someone else asking themselves the same questions I did can perhaps find some answers of their own. If you only take one thing away from my post, take this: when you begin to feel like a passive force in your own life, when you feel that your training has hit a plateau or your nutrition needs a reboot, read. Learn. Observe, examine, analyse. The clues are all there, if you take the time to find them. Anyone can make a change: just make sure you’re making the right one for you.

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