Training the Aerobic energy systems

Macgregor McNair Training Methodologies 0 Comments

Over the last 15 years or so, it has become popular to dislike and avoid training the aerobic energy systems for high performance athletes in the combat sports. I know, I was a hater. There are a lot of convincing arguments on both sides as to why you should or should not include training the aerobic energy systems.

These days I am a big believer that the role of a Strength & Conditioning Coach is to increase the athlete’s potential to produce energy to meet the demands of the sport, to increase the duration that the athlete can produce energy to meet the demands of the sport, and to build the physicality and energy/force production foundations for the athlete to more effectively perform their skills in their sport. Here is my spin on how and why the aerobic systems should be applied to the training cycles of fight athletes.

Firstly, unless you knock out or submit your opponent in the first 60sec of your fight, you are going to utilise your aerobic energy systems in your fight, like it or not. You can be the most fast-twitch dominant athlete out there (see UFC fighter, Hector Lombard), devastating your opponents in the first half of the first round of every one of your fights, but eventually you are going to run into that dreaded brick wall when you have depleted your precious anaerobic (glycolytic) reserves and you are forced to rely on you aerobic (lactic/oxidative) energy systems to dawdle into the later rounds (see Hector Lombard vs Neil Magny) before being finished by your “better conditioned” opponent.

I love watching Hector fight, he is one of the most exciting guys on the UFC’s roster, but it always feels like he is a ticking time bomb, about to run out of gas any second. Now, genetics could play a massive role in Hector’s rapid depletion of glycolytic anaerobic reserves and suboptimal aerobic oxidative energy production - but it might also be the case that his training program plays too heavily to his strengths without attempting to balance out his weaknesses.

Without suggesting that all fighters train to be endurance athletes, I would like to suggest that you consider including aerobic energy systems training to help build a base on which you can rely as your anaerobic reserves run dry.

As they run dry, the great Christian Woodford says “the anaerobic energy systems or ATP-PC & anaerobic glycolosis create a byproduct called lactate, if lactate accumulation is greater than the aerobic energy system’s ability to convert the lactate into energy, it lowers PH levels, increases hydrogen levels, inhibits nerve conduction and neural function within the motor units”. Therefore it is in the fighters’ best interest to train the aerobic energy systems to be as efficient as possible to avoid this neural inhibition.

Granted, if you are training the high threshold anaerobic systems ONLY, your muscle fibres will be forced to tap into the aerobic energy systems through the accumulation of anaerobic depletion, but without necessarily developing the aerobic systems.

According to the great Joel Jamieson; “At the highest rate of energy expenditure, even the anaerobic systems cannot regenerate ATP fast enough to maintain energy homeostasis and ATP levels decline. The body is designed to fatigue rapidly and reduce energy expenditure before cellular damage occurs. This is seen during periods of high anaerobic energy production because this only occurs when there is a high rate of energy expenditure. Athletes with the highest levels of aerobic energy production fatigue the least but also produce less maximum power because they have lower anaerobic speed/power reserves. Athletes with highest anaerobic production produce the most power, but fatigue the fastest as well”.

So, we must work to optimise the genetic potential of both energy production/expenditure processes through training both anaerobic and aerobic systems efficiency. Some athletes may have the anaerobic genetic predisposition to resemble Hector Lombard, while others may more closely resemble the aerobically dominant Nick Diaz. In reality, as Strength & Conditioning coaches we must constantly be looking to address the weaknesses in our athletes, while minimising the compromise in their strengths. This is part of the process I refer to as optimisation.

I would like to share with you an effective way to train the aerobic oxidative energy systems. This type of training cycle can also be used as a deload cycle, or an out-of-competition cycle to reduce the stress on the body caused by the majority of high-threshold work. One method I would suggest you use to develop and optimise the aerobic energy systems is called the “tempo intervals” method. Popularised by the late Charlie Francis, the tempo intervals method is relatively low-intensity, and can be completed in a 35-45min session 2-3 times per week, for 4-6 weeks. Note: for best results, alternate between the tempo intervals method and another aerobic development method of your choosing - perhaps I will share an alternative method in a future article.

The way I administer this method is to measure the athlete's output on a particular piece of equipment (the Wattbike, Versaclimber, Assault bike and Rower are good examples) for 10 seconds at 100% maximal effort. Measure the distance, wattage output, calories or whatever the metric may be, so long as you have data for 100% output for 10 seconds.

The workout will be 20-30 x 10 second intervals @ 70% of maximum output you just measured, then 45-60 seconds of active rest, repeat. If you have access to different pieces of equipment, using the examples above, Wattbike, Versaclimber and Rower, I recommend splitting the 20-30 intervals over the 3 pieces of equipment. 10 x 10 second intervals on the Wattbike, followed by 10 x 10 second intervals on the Versaclimber, followed by 10 x 10 second intervals on the Rower. Note: set the resistance on each piece of equipment to the same setting every time you complete this session, and keep rest between exercises/equipment to 45-60 seconds, rest fully when the workout is over.

These sessions can also be used incredibly effectively as active recovery sessions for athletes dealing with neural and adrenal fatigue. This form of active recovery will help improve function of the athlete’s adaptive biological systems without overloading them. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most challenging, these workouts should rate 5 or 6.

You should start to see increases in work capacity, improvements in resting heart rate/HRV, improvements in rate of recovery, and the feeling of having trained without grinding yourself into oblivion.

If you are interested in knowing more about what we do at The Unknown, have any questions or feedback - please don’t hesitate to contact us at or leave a comment below.

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