No good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training. At least 9 great reasons to do some.

A friend of mine recently asked for my thoughts on an article titled Nine reasons to prioritize anaerobic training over cardio. Leaving aside the issue that “cardio” is ill defined and often contains an anaerobic component (which means that it bugs me when people use the word), this is an extended version of what I answered.

My contention is that the article in question doesn’t actually give any good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training over “cardio”—by which I’m assuming the author means “aerobic training.” (For the rest of this article, I’m defining “aerobic training” in opposition to anaerobic training: “aerobic training” is training with no anaerobic component whatsoever).

Don’t get me wrong: the article gives 9 excellent reasons for why to include anaerobic training into your exercise routine. But I’m unconvinced that these are reasons for why to  prioritize anaerobic training in the sense of “if you only have time to do one of these two kinds of training, do anaerobic training.”

Simply stated, that’s not a good idea. While many may argue that I’m splitting hairs, consider what the effect of “why you should prioritize anaerobic training” is to a lay audience. (I believe that) the effect is “anaerobic training is better than aerobic training”. This raises an important question: if it’s good to prioritize anaerobic training, when exactly should we do aerobic training?

Although no training can be said to be “better than another” in a strictly metaphysical sense, aerobic training and anaerobic training each have their advantages. And it is when you consider their relative advantages over one another that the question I italicized above becomes so pertinent: the time to do aerobic training is in fact before and so that you can safely perform anaerobic training.

 So we return to the beginning: while anaerobic training is important and necessary and has its place, its place is auxiliary to aerobic training. This is why:

In my most popular article on the site, titled High-Intensity Fitness Culture, Explained in Systems, I discussed how the anaerobic system is essentially the emergency, high-intensity, powerful, dangerous, and rapidly-exhausting turbocharger that an organism uses to overcome an immediate threat to its existence.

While the anaerobic system is a critical system (worthy of development and training), there are costs to using it: anaerobic activity produces acidic hydrogen ions, which wear down the body. Those costs will become exacerbated insofar the anaerobic system becomes the dominant energy system in the body.

All of which brings us back to the aerobic system. What exactly, does the aerobic system do? Essentially, its function is to provide long-term energy to the body by oxidizing fats (combining fats with oxygen to provide energy), and to assist recovery from anaerobic activities by processing its main by-products: lactate and positive hydrogen ions.

Insofar as your anaerobic system is more powerful than your aerobic system, your body will have a more difficult time recovering from anaerobic workouts. This is a problem for those who gave given anaerobic training priority over aerobic training, and consequently possess anaerobic systems that are more powerful than their aerobic system can sustain.

The aerobic system also happens to be the system that the body uses for its upkeep and longevity. This is an issue for another article, but the reason is because “longevity” is essentially “long-term recovery”—in other words, the ability of the body to keep recovering for longer, before breaks down enough that it dies. (Here’s a hint you can use to reverse-engineer the content of my next article for yourself).

For the sake of clarity, let me reiterate what I discussed in paragraph 4: all the reasons given in the article I’m discussing are great reasons to do anaerobic training, all legitimate and grounded in extensive research. My contention is NOT that the reasons given in the article are somehow illegitimate, but rather that when they are cast as reasons to prioritize anaerobic training, they become (1) quite misleading to the lay audience and therefore (2) dangerous to those who take the article at its word(s)—the particular words in question being “prioritize over”—and naively follow them to their logical conclusion.

(I am NOT arguing that anaerobic training will become dangerous to those who take the words “prioritize over” to mean “modestly include” regular anaerobic workouts into their predominantly aerobic training).

More often than not…

WARNING: Rant Ahead. Be advised: lack of objectivity. Proceed with caution.

More often than not,

You don’t become resistant to fatigue by training in a fatigued state.

You don’t create more strength and power by training yet more strength and power.

You don’t become better adapted to running more miles by running yet more miles.

More often than not,

You need to train without fatigue in order to develop the systems that help you resist it.

You need to train easy in order to let your body grow from strength and power training.

You need to develop the capability to run more miles so that your body doesn’t break when you try to.

More often than not, performance and training are different things.

What do you think (and why)?



Is there really a difference between “injury-prevention” and “training specificity”?

A lot of us are familiar with sports specificity: you tailor your training to achieve greater performance in individual sports. Some of us go as far as being “event-specific.” We train trails for trail running events. We practice running the inclines and hill lengths we’re likely to encounter during the event.

But I think that we can take the concept of training specificity a lot further: particularly as it pertains to the realm of injury prevention.

What does an injury mean from the perspective of athletic competency? It means that there was some stress, supposedly germane to the sport, that the body simply could not tolerate. Presumably, this is a stress that the body can (and should) adapt to.

I’m not talking about obscene stresses such as the micro-concussions that have been shown to cause brain damage in football players. I’m talking about simpler things: dehydration and hypoglycemia after a marathon, shin splints, etc.

Let’s take shin splints, for example. Shin splints are reputed to occur due to the repetitive stress associated with running. Shin splints—and the subsequent stress fracture—cause people to lose training time and training quality, increase the overall stress of training, etc.

My point is this: an inability to cope with a particular stress (resulting in an injury) is a bottleneck to development.

If an injury prevents a runner from improving, or puts their athletic future at risk (and it does), then injury-prevention should be at the very top of the priority list. Put another way, injury-prevention is the ultimate sports-specific training: it means training the body not just to get better at the sport, but to train the body to handle the basic stresses associated with the sport.

This is a difficult proposition for many people: it is different on a case-by-case basis. The same symptom (shin splints) can have a multitude of causes. When the issue is the amount of stress, increasing lower-leg strength by itself can solve the problem. But others may need to fix an imbalance between the front and back muscles of the lower leg, for example. Others yet may be erroneously unburdening the big calf muscles by giving the job of knee flexion entirely to the hamstrings.

Failure to address any of these issues can dramatically reduce the training response: tighter muscles and less mobility means less neuromuscular feedback. But a higher heart rate is necessary to drive stiff (and weak) muscles. This means more stress. And because some muscles are stiff, the body geometry is disadvantageous: it isn’t going to align itself (or remain aligned) with the primary vectors of force.

Fixing any of these issues will allow the body to learn from and adapt to the sport. Ultimately, I believe that the runner who “paradoxically” spends time correcting muscle imbalances or strategically strengthening bone, muscle, tendon, and connective tissue—and running less miles because of it—will need to run far fewer miles to observe the benefits of training.

We need to make the choice to not merely roll out our tight quads or hip adductors after the fact. I think we need to address the underlying cause of that tightness (a process which may or may not include myofascial release). And I think that we need to put this within the larger context of our training and racing: in no way does injury prevention or rehab constitute “taking time off” from training.

Preventing injuries and doing the rehab is a much better—and more honest— example of “training the body” than going out and slogging miles that are just going to put us back on the table. In every way that matters, we’re doing the training that our body needs, right now.  Tomorrow, we’ll be able to go out and do the training we want, and achieve the effects that we want.

And how much happier, faster, and healthier would we end up if we can trick ourselves into wanting to do the training our body needs?

Stability and Strength Training a la Maffetone

This post continues a little saga I have going on about the aerobic system and fat-burning in relation to other aspects of training, mostly due to my continuing work with Phil Maffetone and MAF Fitness.

People often ask how—or whether—strength training fits into the MAF method, particularly during times of aerobic base building.

My answer, of course, is YES. (Provided, of course, we usefully define what “strength training” means).

The MAF method prescribes exclusive aerobic exercise—defined as exercise that has a virtually nonexistent anaerobic component—in 3 different situations:

  • When ill, injured, or overtrained.
  • When recovering from any of the three.
  • When doing a period of sports-specific aerobic base-building.

In all other situations, we recommend that 80% of all athletic activity be aerobic, while the remaining 20% (which includes competition) can be anaerobic. But this post I want to talk about how strength training fits into situations 1-3.

The foremost problem with asking how (or whether) strength training fits into these situations is definitional. Strength training, broadly defined, is training which allows the body to exert more force into its environment. And based on this definition, some, but not all, strength training is accepted.

The big question is this: what kind of training is aerobic?

For that, we have to look at why the body recruits the anaerobic system for certain activities. The answer is twofold: (1) because it needs to produce a lot of low-end torque—a relatively high amount of power in a short amount of time—and (2) because that activity is going to last for a few seconds—before anaerobic channels exhaust themselves.

This rules out one particular kind of activity: heavy strength training where the body fatigues itself after a few repetitions. Here is your benchmark: if you can only do 5-8 repetitions before exhaustion, it is because you have recruited anaerobic channels.

This holds regardless of whether the heart rate is “low enough” to be aerobic—or hasn’t climbed enough to “be anaerobic.” So, my suggestion to people is to do strength exercises of more than 12 repetitions.

But there’s another caveat: exercises of more than 15 repetitions are not necessarily aerobic. (For example, a 100 yard sprint consists of 65 repetitions—65 steps—at best). So, for these high (15+) repetition exercises, it’s important that the heart rate reflect that the body is working overwhelmingly aerobically—at what Dr. Maffetone describes as the MAF Heart rate.

Good examples of strength exercises with the potential to be aerobic are: proprioceptive (very light load) deadlifts and squats, push-ups, pull-ups, etc.

I also often recommend stability training as an acceptable supplement for periods of “exclusive” aerobic base training. However, this comes with an important caveat: while stability training is very low-intensity work—which means that it very rarely interferes with aerobic base building—strictly speaking, it is an anaerobic exercise.

Stability is achieved and maintained by very quick, continuous movements of the small muscles of the body, in order to counteract tiny losses of balance before they become serious. Providing stability is therefore largely the responsibility of extremely fast-twitch Type IIX muscle fibers, which rely primarily on anaerobic uses of sugar in order to produce energy quickly enough.

Whenever we are training stability, we are training the anaerobic system.

Is this a problem for aerobic-only training? Not in most cases. If you think about it, “aerobic-only” running has a massive stability component: the entire body must be stabilized every step through constant use of Type IIX muscle fibers.

But these stabilizations are small enough in comparison to the primarily aerobic work of running, that anaerobic debt doesn’t rack up in a way that transforms aerobic running into “anaerobic exercise.”

The point at which stability training becomes anaerobic is when it starts raising the body’s stress levels—when it asks the body to exceed the aerobic threshold (a.k.a. the MAF heart rate).

Whenever you want to do stability or strength training without hindering your aerobic base-building, take your heart rate monitor with you. It’s (almost) as easy as that.