Friday, October 9, 2009

Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Training for Combat Athletes


Disclaimer: I am not a trainer, nor do I have any degree or certification in sports performance.

Over the last decade and a half, more and more "modern" athletes and trainers have turned away from the morning "roadwork" that combat athletes have relied on for centuries. The long distance work that generations of successful fighters have used for conditioning (mind & body) have been pooh-poohed as "backwards," and "unsuitable" for explosive sports like boxing or MMA.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can be summarized as a series of all-out sprints of activity, followed by full or partial rest periods. The most famous study was directed by Dr. Izumi Tabata from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan. What would become known as the "Tabata Principle" consisted of 4 minutes of training, broken down into 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, continued 8 times, for a total of 240 seconds. After 6 weeks of training, Dr. Tabata found that his athletes improved 28% in anaerobic capacity, and 14% in their ability to consume oxygen (VO2 Max/aerobic).

There is no doubt that interval training is intense, time-efficient, and effective. If anyone doubts it, just try it on the track. That being said, so many people now tout it as the end-all, be-all of conditioning, that steady pace distance running is completely disregarded. The following statements are heard often:

"MMA is a sprint, not a marathon."

"Long , slow distance running doesn't have a place in a sport that is as explosive as MMA (or boxing.)"

"Slow running changes fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow ones, limiting an athlete's ability to react quickly and explosively."

These comments have some basis in fact, but they ignore certain parts of the Tabata study, and are misleading in some ways.

For one thing, the Tabata study makes a big deal out of the improvements taking place on "trained athletes." This is important, as it is much harder to get significant results out of athletes already "in shape," compared to relative novices. In fact, the athletes in the study had decent, but not great VO2 max averages before starting the study. The argument that similar improvements could be made with other training protocols, especially since these are relatively un-trained athletes, rarely gets made.

Secondly, even the group of athletes who were being trained with the Tabata Protocol were also instructed to perform LSD (Long, Steady Distance) runs once a week.

Finally, are we sure that combat sports are REALLY anaerobic in nature?

Aerobic means "with oxygen," and being in an aerobic state is when the body's demands for oxygen and fuel can be met by the body's intake. (breathing in oxygen) An extreme example of an aerobic athlete is a marathon runner.

means "without oxygen," and the system is used under maximal effort, where the body is working so hard that the demands for oxygen and fuel exceed the supply. The body must then rely on the stored reserves of fuel. An extreme example of an anaerobic athlete is a 100 meter sprinter.

The problem with the argument that combat sports are anaerobic is that this system can only operate for a short time before it is spent. Once that happens, the demands for fuel and oxygen must be supported and replenished with the aerobic system. This happens QUICKLY. In fact, by the time that maximum effort has passed 75 seconds, more than half of the energy being used is supplied by the aerobic system. During the two minute rounds of amateur boxing, 63% of the energy requirements are coming via the aerobic system. With professional boxing and MMA fights lasting as long 48 minutes, broken into 3-5 minute rounds, it is clear that these are not purely anaerobic activities.

The point of all this is that the title is misleading. There should not be a question of anaerobic OR aerobic training, but just a matter of using both to bring up your weaknesses. If you come from a sprint-heavy background before beginning training in combat sports, you will most likely benefit from longer distance-style training. This will help lower your resting heart rate, and allow for quicker recovery between rounds. Conversely, if your resting heart rate is low, but you are lacking in speed and power, you may want to place an emphasis on interval training to bring up the lagging areas.

In short, each is good, but both is better.

Further Reading


mrblackmagic said...

I also think the mental conditioning people get from road work in the classic sense is huge.
I really think that 99% of the fight game is mental. So either doing torturous HIIT training or Arduous long road work or calisthenics till my arms are going to fall off...honestly Im not training my body; Im training my Mind.

I think this gets left behind with alot of focus on conventional HIIT training and fitness gym style conditioning.

Katana said...

This is easily one of the best blogs I've read on this subject! Awesome work! I'll keep reading.

Anonymous said...

Clear, well-organized, engaging--sounds like someone is ready to submit that letter to Men's Health Magazine... Keep it up!

Martin said...

Eric - Good point about the mental aspect. It's grueling and therefore good.

Katana - Thanks for coming by.

Anonymous - I think I know who you are. And thanks :)

geongia said...

I recently came across your article and have been reading along. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make readers read from the beginning to the end. I would like to read newer posts and to share my thoughts with you


Aurea said...

The intense and time-efficient Tabata Principle has been used by some MMA fighters due to its benefits to the body at fast pace. My best friend also used this training principle to prepare for his matches which landed him wins in the amateur MMA field. Now being retired a few months ago to be a full-time family man, the last battle being won by submission by using the force of his opponent's kick on his face to capitalize with the gogoplata even with the cost of his teeth flying out.

When we went to the dentist a few weeks after his final fight, a lot of choices ran through our head, like implants or even dentures. Fort Lauderdale where we currently reside, has thought about getting dental implants instead, for easier maintenance. When we returned to the Fort Lauderdale dental care clinic, he talked to me about what to do next, and I told him that to pass on the MMA knowledge to his kids, while I teach them Aikido, so they can defend themselves when the need arises.