The Return of Aerobic Work
Not long ago, I frequently used the word “conditioning.” I thought the best way to condition athletes was through anaerobic workouts that tested the limits of pain and pushed the boundaries of regurgitation. After all, we’re taught that sports are anaerobic, and that blasé aerobic work has no place in a serious program.
Today, the word “conditioning” makes me cringe. As you can imagine, I cringe a lot. And, unlike before, vomit-inducing anaerobic work is rarely in the cards for me or my athletes. Thanks to people way smarter than me (Joel Jamieson, James Smith, Buddy Morris) I have an appreciation for different types of “conditioning,” much like I have an appreciation for different types of strength.
I can’t define “conditioning” as the very word is akin to the phrase “lifting weights.” You can lift weights in many ways and for many reasons. Most of us do it to get stronger. But others do it for more specific reasons, like training for strength-speed, strength-endurance, and starting strength. For those of you that managed to get past the first ten pages of Supertraining, you know this list continues seemingly ad infinitum.
So if we lift weights to get stronger, do we perform conditioning to become more conditioned? The problem is ambiguity. We have different types of “conditioning” just like we have different types of strength.
Conditioning, in its true sense, refers to training the body’s energy systems. We easily distinguish between the anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) systems. We even associate different body types to proficiency in each system. Jacked football players and sprinters are anaerobic beasts. Gangly marathoners, however, are aerobic creatures.
But neither stereotype is correct because jacked football players frequently rely on the aerobic system. Yeah, I said it. Football is aerobic. Before I face the stones, let me explain.
Breaking the energy systems into anaerobic and aerobic isn’t enough. The anaerobic system can be further split into the alactic pathway and the lactic pathway. Each corresponds with the energy deriving metabolic processes.
Alactic Anaerobic – (ATP-CP) – 1 to 12 seconds – Immediate
Lactic Anaerobic – (Glycolytic) – 60 to 90 seconds – Intermediate
Aerobic – Hours – Long term
Bottom line is, all anaerobic work is not created equally. Football is a prime example. In an effort to “condition,” coaches rely on suicides, Prowler pushes, and Tabata intervals until their athletes’ legs are loaded with lactate and loopier than Gumby’s.
But the right kind of anaerobic? Nope.
Next, it’s important to know that each metabolic pathway has a power component (how fast the system can derive energy) and capacity component (how long the system can be sustained).
So someone with great alactic power can produce a few intensive bursts of energy at a high level. This, for example, includes an Olympic weightlifter, powerlifter, 100m sprinter, javelin thrower, shot-putter, etc. These athletes give a maximal effort, blow their load, and take a long time to recover. Just think of hitting a PR in the gym. It’s not easily repeatable.
Someone with great alactic power and capacity, however, can replicate intensive efforts over time – a baseball pitcher, for example. A pitcher with amazing alactic power will hit triple digits on the radar gun. But if their capacity sucks, their speed will diminish with each successive throw. So a pitcher with good capacity and decent power is likely to be a starter. One with a lot of power and shady capacity, however, more likely a closer.
Importance Of Capacity
Many sports require short-term explosiveness – alactic anaerobic power. This is why the NFL Combine gawks at 4.3 speed.
Over the past few years, aerobic work has been vilified for decreasing absolute explosive potential. But most sports require capacity in addition to power. There are problems if 4.3 speed turns into 4.7 speed during the second quarter, 5.5 speed during the third quarter, and 6.1 speed during the fourth quarter.
Ray Lewis isn’t known for playing six downs and calling it quits. He’s known for being on the field every play and always performing at a high level.
So what’s more important, absolute power, or the capacity to sustain power? Wouldn’t it be better to run a consistent 4.5 and sacrifice a little power for a lot of capacity?
The Aerobic System’s Role
There are two underappreciated aspects of the aerobic system. First, it’s very important in developing alactic anaerobic capacity (think explosive stuff). Second, most sports are aerobic despite the common perception.
Upon exercise, all energy systems turn on. The power clean is rooted in alactic anaerobic power because of its short duration, not because the aerobic system fails to ignite. The duration, not the intensity, determines energy system involvement.
As repeat sprint exercise continues, the energy system contributions become “truer” to their respective time zones. And each successive explosive bout increasingly relies on the aerobic system (1)(2).
But studies emerged about aerobic work diminishing explosive ability. And we all got caught up in absolute power, foregoing capacity.
“Despite the endless promotion of interval training as the only form of training necessary,” Joel Jamieson says, “the world of combat sports has not seen a noticeable increase in conditioning over this time. If anything, the general conditioning level of fighters today is worse than it’s been in the past.”
Basketball is another example. There are some sprints and jumps here and there, but for the most part you see guys trotting up and down the court. Yeah, they’re jogging. Fancy that.
Somehow we’re brainwashed into thinking that athletes never jog, but it happens in nearly every sport. In soccer, unless the ball is in their vicinity, athletes lazily move about the field. Football? Jogging to and from the sideline and back to the line after every play.
And what about athletes with their faces in oxygen masks (even though they don’t really work)? I don’t foresee Boba Fett inspired uniforms with oxygen tank backpacks anytime soon, so these guys better start fixing their shitty aerobic development.
To be fair, the sports mentioned also have a short-term explosive component, which makes respecting the work-to-rest interval important. A 2009 study found that, “More than 70% of the total [soccer] match duration was performed at low “aerobic” intensities, while only 1-3% of the match was performed at high-intensities (“sprinting”) (3). The overall work-to-rest ratio of these soccer players averaged out to a 2-4 second sprint every 90 seconds.”
In math speak that interval looks like 4:90. Football usually shakes out to 6:40, barring a two-minute drill (in which case it becomes even more aerobic). Olympic weightlifting, at minimum rest, is about 3:120. Truer alactic anaerobic sports like javelin and the 100m have even longer rest periods.
Compare those ratios to Tabata’s 20:10. Not even close.
Aerobic Work vs. Lifting Weights
Way back, nearly all athletes performed aerobic work. Bill Starr writes about running in The Strongest Shall Survive. Thomas Kurz in The Science of Sports Training notes that weightlifters jog in the early off-season. Old school fighters were known for doing roadwork. Hell, even Ricky Bruch, the eccentric discus thrower, jogged.
Now, aerobic work is shunned. But the aerobic system not only increases overall health markers but also aids in recovery from heavy weight training sessions.
As discussed in Heart Rate Variability Training, an over active sympathetic nervous system – a pitfall of shitty aerobic development – destroys performance.
It’s like this: a developed aerobic system kick starts the recovery process. More time recovering means more recovery.
Also, you’re able to save and concentrate “intense” bouts of energy for when they really matter. The opposite of this being in a constantly amped up state and slowly wearing yourself down – this is what I referred to as “idling” in 12 Tips to Tune the Nervous System.
Methods of Aerobic Development
Aerobic doesn’t always mean distance running. As long as your heart rate stays around 120-150 BPM (everyone has a different lactate threshold) and lactate doesn’t accumulate, you’re training the aerobic system. “Fun” things outside of distance running are stringing together a circuit of the following:
- Rope jumping
- Mobility exercises
- Tumbling and locomotor movements (cartwheels, forward rolls, backward rolls to handstands, inch worm walks, and bear crawls).
But if you enjoy running, tempo runs, essentially “low intensity” interval training, are a great choice. Tempo runs involve running a predetermined distance in a time window that’s of a low enough intensity to tax the aerobic system and yet fail to go anaerobic (70 yards in 20 seconds, for instance). Once the distance is covered, the runner can rest for thirty-or-so seconds to keep the heart rate in check before doing another heat.
More specific to a lifter, however, is a method used by track coach Dan Pfaff that consists of doing many sets of Olympic lifts over the course of 50+ minutes for 1-2 reps, striving to keep the heart rate around 150 BPM.
Ultimately, the best aerobic work matches the specific demands of training. A circuit of push-ups, squats, and pull-ups can train the aerobic system, but it isn’t ideal for a soccer player. Lance Armstrong isn’t a world class marathon runner. His adaptations are specific to riding a bike.
Aerobic work is making a comeback. All conditioning isn’t created equally. What’s the work : rest interval? What energy system(s) are utilized? Do you need capacity? Power? Or both?
One thing is for sure: you could stand to do a bit more aerobic work. That is, unless you’re holding out for the Boba Fett technology.