When an athlete decides they’d like to get “in shape,” they often default to long, slow steady-state cardiovascular training.
They get the Rocky Balboa mentality and believe that a 10-mile run first thing in the morning is the only answer to improving their aerobic fitness. While doing so may yield initial benefits, over the long haul, it’s rarely a sustainable approach.
Not only is this sort of exercise time-consuming (a 10-mile run at a 9-minute-mile pace takes an hour and a half, for example), but it often leads to overuse injuries and extreme boredom.
We have to find more efficient ways to train, and the most important factor to successful training is upholding the idea of minimal effective dose: What’s the minimum amount of work I can do to still achieve the results I desire?
For athletes or averages Joes looking to get in shape, slow steady-state cardio is rarely the answer.
I’m lucky if get four hours a week of coaching time with my athletes. If I chose to spend the majority of it doing slow aerobic work, I probably wouldn’t have a job for very long.
The majority of sports require individuals to perform repeated high-intensity bouts of agility, speed, power and strength.
Endurance, on the other hand, is not a high priority for most sports, save for long-distance running, swimming, cycling, etc.
That being said, endurance is important for athletes when recovering between high-intensity bouts. If you don’t have a solid aerobic base, you’ll find it much more difficult to sustain high levels of strength, power and speed from one bout to the next.
Therefore, building an adequate aerobic base is still essential for many athletes, save for the rare few where getting winded isn’t a concern during competition, such as shot-putters or Olympic weightlifters.
But if we aren’t going to spend hours logging long miles, how are we supposed to increase our aerobic capacity?
Simply put, this can be done through series of repeated high-intensity short intervals of 15-30 seconds followed by 15-30 seconds of rest. The key is to make sure you’re working above your maximal aerobic speed during those short intervals.
Working up to approximately 120% of one’s own maximal aerobic speed is optimal. What this technique provides is significant time over one’s own aerobic capacity in an intermittent fashion. Imagine that the fastest you can run in 5 minutes without breaking pace is 7 mph, that would be your ceiling. Now, imagine that in 5 minutes you intermittently ran 30 seconds at 9mph followed by 30 seconds at 6 mph, your average pace would be 7.5 mph. This means that you completed more work and worked at a higher average intensity than your 5-minute continuous method. Unfortunately, most individuals go about doing this without understanding how intense or how long they should do their intervals for.
I would highly recommend you read Dr. Dan Baker’s work if you are interested in this technique, specifically his article titled “Recent trends in high intensity aerobic training for field sports.” Nonetheless, to implement this method, one must first establish a baseline from which to work.
The simplest method for establishing a maximal aerobic speed is to set a timer for 5 minutes and run as far as you can. This can also be done for biking, rowing, swimming, etc., but for simplicity we will stick with running. From there you will take your distance and divide it by 300 seconds.
So if you ran 1,400 meters/300 seconds, you ran at an average speed of 4.67m/s. To find your interval speed you should program within your workouts, which should be approximately 120% maximal aerobic speed, you would take 4.67 x 1.2 to get 5.6m/s.
As a quick side note, 120% maximal aerobic speed is the optimal speed with which to train because it allows one to spend the greatest relative time above their VO2max while still recovering before the next interval. Intensities of 130% maximal aerobic speed are too much to recover from in a sensible amount of time, and 110% maximal aerobic speed does not provide enough stimulus above the VO2 max. From there, you would structure your workout, with an example as shown below:
- Week 1: 20 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS.
- Week 2: 22 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS
- Week 3: 24 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS
- Week 2: 18 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS.
Aerobic Training Zones. Image from Dan Baker Recent Trends in high intensity aerobic training for sports.
This method is extremely simple yet highly effective. Remember that progressively overloading your conditioning similar to strength training is essential for driving adaption. Additionally, this article is by no means exhaustive and there are many more ways to go about this type of training. Conditioning doesn’t have to be one long death march after another. Think of ways in which it can be more efficient as well as unique to the individual.
Lastly, programming in this fashion will allow one to set goals and really take ownership for their conditioning with an understanding of how they should be performing.
Baker, D. (2011). “Recent trends in high-intensity aerobic training for field sports.” Prof Strength Cond, 22, 3-8.
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