Why Every Athlete Needs Aerobic Training

Aerobic training is much more than simply plodding away on a treadmill.

All forms of exercise can generally be grouped into one of two categories: aerobic or anaerobic.

Anaerobic forms of exercise feature short yet intense bursts of high-effort movement. You can only perform this type of exercise for a short period of time (0-120 seconds) before needing to rest. Think sprinting or lifting a heavy weight. Most athletes' regimens largely consist of anaerobic exercise.

Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, features lower intensity yet longer duration. Think jogging or walking. Aerobic exercise may not be as flashy as anaerobic exercise, or as capable of producing the same type of superficial results, but it remains a critical aspect in athletic performance. Let's dive into this form of exercise to give you a better idea of why every athlete needs aerobic training.

What is Aerobic Training?

Aerobic training, also known as cardio, improves an athlete's ability to use oxygen to sustain activity for periods of time. The aerobic energy system utilizes fats, carbohydrates and sometimes proteins for re-synthesizing of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) for energy use. ATP is the primary energy carrier in all living organisms. The aerobic system produces far more ATP than either of the other energy systems (the other two being the lactic acid system and the ATP-PC system), but it produces the ATP much more slowly. Therefore, it cannot fuel intense exercise that demands fast production of ATP. However, aerobic training for athletes is key to optimizing performance.

Why Does Aerobic Training Matter for Athletes?

The aerobic system is the dominant source of energy in sport and activities lasting longer than 3 minutes of continuous activity. But even if you aren't one of these types of athletes, you can benefit from aerobic training. Building a larger aerobic base will help increase anaerobic thresholds and improve your energy efficiency.

Just as our bodies develop fast-twitch muscle fibers in response to anaerobic exercise, our bodies also adapt to aerobic exercise. Sustained workouts of low-to-moderate intensity improve your body's ability to breathe and use oxygen. Here are the types of adjustments our bodies make internally to make these improvements:

  1. Increases in the number of mitochondria inside muscle cells that produce energy from oxygen
  2. Increases in the muscle's ability to use fat as fuel
  3. Greater lung capacity
  4. Improved heart stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped with each beat)
  5. Changes in hormones that break down and move fat through the body for use as a fuel
  6. Increased lean body mass

Obviously, such changes hold benefit for a huge variety of athletes.

What are the Best Aerobic Training Workouts?

Intensity (how hard), duration (how long) and frequency (how often) are the keys to consider when it comes to improving your ability to maintain aerobic activity. Fitness improves when intensity is between 70-80% of maximum heart rate, but this may not be adequate enough for endurance athletes in some sports and events.

Elite endurance athletes often utilize high-intensity interval (HIIT) exercise in their training regimens. Recent studies indicate that HIIT is a time-efficient strategy to stimulate a number of muscle adaptations that are comparable to traditional endurance training. Athletes may include other sport-specific activities in interval training workouts.

The aerobic energy system can be developed with various types of training, including interval, continuous and Fartlek.

  • Interval training for the long-term aerobic energy system would have a work-rest ratio of 1:1 or 1:2. The work periods would usually exceed several minutes and the rest periods would be active but at a lower intensity that could be sustained.
  • Continuous training is training that maintains a constant intensity and lasts for a prolonged period of time (usually longer than 15 minutes.)
  • "Fartlek" training, Fartlek being Swedish for "speed play," is a type of interval training where the exerciser varies the speed and effort throughout the training session according to how they feel, ensuring that they can continue to exercise at all times. There are no rest intervals in this type of training, but the intensity is varied, making it a sort of mixture between interval and continuous training.

Examples of aerobic training workouts include:

  • Running for two minutes at moderate/high intensity, followed by two minutes at low intensity (active recovery). Continue this sequence for 30 minutes.
  • 30 minutes low/moderate intensity cycling, swimming or jogging without changing intensity.
  • A 30-minute jog on a route that includes hills, thereby ensuring bursts of extra effort every now and then, but never stopping throughout the jog.

Aerobic training is much more than simply plodding away on a treadmill for a seemingly endless amount of time. Tuning your aerobic training to your athletic needs ensures the benefits you're receiving can help you elevate your performance.

Photo Credit: PeopleImages/iStock, shironosov/iStock, FOTOKITA/iStock

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Topics: CARDIO TRAINING | AEROBIC SYSTEM