Training the anaerobic energy systems

Macgregor McNair Training Methodologies 2 Comments

I believe 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.

In order to be a well rounded and conditioned fight athlete, one must be able to efficiently produce energy to meet the varied demands of competition. Since most combat sports are ‘acyclical’ in nature, meaning that there are brief and prolonged periods of extreme physical exertion, as well as periods of little significant physical exertion. Most fighters go through periods of high threshold, fast paced, anaerobic dominant contractions followed by brief periods of relative inactivity allowing them to partly recover mid-fight.

While the heart rate of most fighters in competition will tell a different tale; generally the heart rate will ‘redline’ for the duration of the round or fight, and drop briefly in between rounds. For combat sports with a single round or time limit (eg: BJJ), the heart rate will remain in the upper limits for the duration of the fight, mainly as a result of elevated adrenal function. The heart rate will stay elevated regardless of inactivity, or relatively low exertion levels at certain points during a BJJ fight.

In the words of the great Joel Jamieson, “the goal of training to improve performance is A) maximise total energy production, and B) correctly balance total energy production between aerobic and anaerobic processes given the specific demands of the sport and the nature of the intensity-duration curve required for high level performance.”

All of this to say that a fighter who wants to be as well-conditioned as possible should be training to be as efficient as possible in both anaerobic glycolytic energy utilisation, as well as lactate conversion by the aerobic oxidative systems. Both the anaerobic systems AND the aerobic systems need to be as efficient as possible to meet the energy/force production demands specific to most combat sports.

Please understand that like most modalities in strength & conditioning for fight athletes, you simply cannot train only the anaerobic systems all year round, you need to periodise intelligently so that the athlete is peaking in physicality, conditioning and confidence heading into fight week. One of the things I will keep telling you is that physical preparation for the fight athlete can be an unforgiving bitch, if you grind the athlete into oblivion for too long, redlining all year round, there may well come a time when the athlete’s bodily systems push back and force them to take time off and recover fully - this is generally referred to as overtraining, or neural/adrenal fatigue.

So, I want to share with you a practical example of a method I have used successfully with a handful of athletes. Some athletes can handle this type of training for longer phases than others, depending on a lot of genetic, training and lifestyle factors. You should start to see some improvement in the desired metrics in most athletes after 3-4 weeks of working this type of session twice per week. I have included a sample Anaerobic Alactic energy system workout which we used in preparation for Apryl Eppinger’s Gold medal performance at the 2015 IBJJF Asian Open Championships.

This workout is not for absolute beginners - I would recommend having at least a year of some form of conditioning training under your belt before taking this on. The aim of this workout is to MAX out every interval, and hit new PB’s on your output metric every session. This is what I refer to as ‘redlining’, and you should not keep the athlete in this phase for longer than 4 weeks before adding in some lower intensity variation.

The workout will be a total of 15-21 x 10 second intervals @ 100% of maximum output, then up to 60 seconds of rest between each interval. Assuming you have access to different pieces of equipment, for example the Wattbike, Versaclimber and Rower, I recommend splitting the 15-21 intervals over the 3 pieces of equipment. 5-7 x 10 second intervals on the Wattbike (with up to 60 seconds rest between each interval), followed by 5-7 x 10 second intervals on the Versaclimber (with up to 60 seconds rest between each interval), followed by 5-7 x 10 second intervals on the Rower (with up to 60 seconds rest between each interval).

Note: set the resistance on each piece of equipment to a moderate-high setting every time you complete this session, choose an adequate amount of resistance so you can keep a ‘sprint’ pace while keeping it challenging. Don’t set the resistance too high or it will slow you right down, also don’t set the resistance too low so that you are not redlining, find the sweet spot. Keep rest between exercise/equipment to 60 seconds, rest fully when the workout is over. I highly recommend you record the machine’s output metric for each and every interval - be it meters, feet, wattage output, calories etc. This is very useful data for quantifying the effectiveness of this method.

These sessions should be very challenging (around 8-9 out of 10 on the scale), and the accumulation of fatigue will play a massive factor towards the last intervals. After a few sessions using this method, you should hope to see the output metrics for each interval show either higher peaks in the first of the intervals, or less of a drop off towards the last interval - obviously there will be a direct relationship between an athlete’s increased peaks at the beginning of the workout and the increased drop off in output towards the end. Some athletes will display a genetic disposition towards the anaerobic end of the spectrum (increases in early peak output), while some will hit their anaerobic ceiling for early peak output and should focus on minimising the peak drop off as the workout goes on.

The goal here is to create high threshold anaerobic demands of an acyclical nature, and force the systems to adapt and recover. Fast twitch high threshold motor units will be stimulated and developed (peak power output), as will the body’s lactate buffering capacity and oxygen delivery capabilities.

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