Stationary Bike and the Maffetone Method

My stationary bike provides my go-to cross-training workouts and serves as a great backup plan every time I am have a running injury, or just cannot get out of the house that day. When something hurts (Achilles, hip, knee, etc.) from running too much, I will stay inside and bike for a few days. This usually lets, or even helps, the pain or swelling subside so I can get back on the road. A month ago I started running with the Maffetone Method of low heart rate training, and I have stuck to running and walking during that time. (Click here to read my 30 day Maffetone Method update.) However, this week my right knee has been bugging me a bit, so I decided to break from running and dust off my stationary bike last night. This led to a very different experience than I have had so far with low heart rate running.


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I just turned 32 a few days ago, so following the MAF formula of 180-Age, all of my aerobic workouts must keep my heart rate below 148 BPM. For running I usually just try to keep it between 140-148, and I have no problem getting my heart rate into this range. The problem is running slow enough to keep it from going too high. When I started biking last night I quickly realized that I was having the opposite problem. It was going to be very difficult to keep my heart rate in the 140s because I was struggling to get it anywhere close to that high.

Per Maffetone recommendations I warmed up for a few minutes before I started trying to get my heart rate into that aerobic, fat-burning zone. During my easy warmup my heart rate barely broke 100, so I bumped up the resistance level on the bike and sped up a bit, which got it into the 120s. This made for a slightly harder workout, but it was still a manageable speed and resistance. It felt like I could do this for an hour and get a pretty solid workout, but my heart rate was still way too low.


In order to get my heart rate over 140 I had to keep cranking up the resistance, which put it at a level that I was not prepared to sustain for more than a few minutes at a time. It felt like I was cycling through mud, and my quads and hamstrings were really feeling the burn. After several weeks of incredibly slow running, no speed work and avoiding the biggest hills in town (because I knew they would make my heart rate spike too much), this resistance was a bit shocking to my legs.

The difficulty of the bike resistance left me unable to ride at one steady speed and resistance level, so I was constantly changing things up every few minutes. I would turn the resistance down for a bit and pedal as fast as I could handle, probably between 20-25 mph. Even going that fast, which is very fast for me, I could not keep my heart rate over 140 bpm if the resistance level was too low.

So I figured out there were basically 2 ways to keep my heart rate up:

  1. Medium resistance at a very high speed
  2. Very high resistance at slow to medium speed

Low resistance could not get my heart rate over 125 bpm no matter how fast I pedaled, but I found that both of the options that worked to get my heart rate over 140 were very difficult for me right now. So I just alternated between these 2 options for 30-40 minutes, which was about as much as I could handle last night. Then I finished with an easy 15 minute cool-down to complete a 1 hour workout.


  • I need to strengthen my quads and hamstrings so I can better handle higher resistance on the stationary bike.
  • The stationary bike is quite a versatile tool.
    • I have typically used it in an almost therapeutic way to keep my muscles moving and blood pumping when I am unable to run for whatever reasons.
    • I occasionally used it to replicate different running workouts such as long slow runs or shorter speed sessions.
    • Now I can use the bike for resistance training, and if I want to get my heart rate in the proper ranger, I have to use heavy resistance.
  • While I am running slow all the time right now as I build my aerobic base, the stationary bike offers me an opportunity to make my legs move really fast again. While it is not the same as running fast and carrying my body weight, it is nice to break up the mundaneness of all the slow running.
  • As hard as I have to work to keep my heart rate in the 140s on the stationary bike, it seems like it could really help my fitness to make this a regular part of my weekly workout schedule again. I just do not get that burning feeling in my legs or heavy breathing during my runs right now, so the stationary bike allows me to remember what it means to work really hard during a workout again, all without getting my heart rate above 148 bpm.

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  • William Dahl

    Same problem I experience with an exercise bike. My body quickly adapts to the new training stress and, as you’ve basically summarized, to continue to get the same training effect, you have to either pedal faster…or add resistance. Phil says that is normal, and shows improvement. If you can pedal faster, or farther, at the same HR, your cardiovascular fitness has improved. However, as you’ve noted, on the bike, that can be increasingly stressful on your legs. Like you, I was recently at the point where I had to pedal so fast at lower resistance, that it seemed like my legs were a blur…or cycle at a higher resistance level…which did get my HR up, but really burned out my legs. It’s a dilemma that I haven’t resolved yet. Been just walking lately, with a weighted pack (rucking). Enjoyed your post.

    • Thanks for sharing your similar experience. Glad to know I am not alone when it comes to riding the stationary bike on the Maffetone Method! It is really interesting how different forms of exercise work within the Maffetone Method compared to how I previously did the same exercises. For example, I have been mostly avoiding large hills since I started MAF running, but I decided to try walking one of the biggest hills in my neighborhood. I could not even walk up the hill without my heart rate jumping up over 150 bpm. I did 4 turns up this hill and had to stop halfway up every time to let my heart rate go down before I continued. This week I have been trying to run at the beach, both in the sand and on the coastal highway. This has turned into walking about 75% of the distance because even walking was keeping my heart rate at or above my MAF heart rate in beach heat. Comparatively, just a week ago I ran 15 miles on a treadmill inside my gym. With controlled temperature, pace and incline, I was able to run all 15 miles without walking at all, drinking just 40 oz water and taking in no calories. It is amazing how differently my body and heart rate act under various changes in conditions.

      • William Dahl

        Yes, I agree. Running will spike your HR fast, unless you are highly conditioned (I’m not). At least outdoors, apparently the treadmill is a whole different animal. That sounds like the best approach for outdoor running, alternate running/walking. Although I’m a huge fan of Dr. Phil, and have many of his books, I no longer use the HRM when I stationary cycle. Much more enjoyable, and still productive, if I just go by perceived exertion. Yesterday I rode my recumbent for 25 miles, pedaled fast enough to elevate my HR and break a light sweat. No idea what my HR was, but it felt great, I’m certain it wasn’t too high. Slept like a baby, and woke up recovered and fresh. If I had ridden at Phil’s suggested pace, I’d typically feel a little burned-out the next day, it would nuke my quads, from either the high tension, or super fast cadence.

  • Isaac

    Thanks for sharing! In addition to this, I found that your heart rate changes if you’re crouched over the bars or if you’re upright.