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).

8 thoughts on “No good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training. At least 9 great reasons to do some.”

  1. Great article. Most people who do a lot of anaerobic training (as a per cent age of their total exercise time) are those that are forced to because they have poor aerobic systems I.e. those that won’t walk up a hill even though they have to go really hard to run up it, or those who don’t have time to train muchso they make each session really hard.

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  2. Ivan, I recently ran a personal worst half marathon after 12 weeks of MAF base building and 3 weeks of adding in a small amount of anaerobic work. My last MAF test was 12:01 per mile. During MAF training, I always walked hills to keep my hr within limits. I ran several 2.5 hour long runs and an hour a day 3 or 4 other days. I included some light strength work like squats and plank. I had about 30 miles per week. Those last three weeks before the race, once per week I did a 4 mile tempo run at a 10:10 pace (flat course), a 25 minute tempo at a 10:05 pace (flat course), and hill repeats. On race day, I ran the hilly first 6.5 miles at a 10:30 pace and the hilly last 6.5 at 11:15. My legs just didn’t seem to have the muscular endurance to maintain pace when running up many long, gradual hills. I know MAF running
    “builds a bigger cardiovascular engine,” but my legs just couldn’t keep up. I felt aerobically strong, just not strong on the hills. What should I change in the future? When can I add in regular hill training?

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    1. Donna:

      There’s very little question that most people are going to need a good amount of strength (anaerobic training) to do well on hills. I think that what you have to do is add a bit of hill training into your regular workout. For that kind of training, I laid out a basic formula in my latest post—the one about the Jenga Tower metaphor—about how to do that.

      The most important thing to keep in mind, when incorporating hill training, is to do just enough that you get a response—that your body “rises to it”—but not so much that you can’t easily recover from it. (That idea is sort of built into that recipe).

      Lately, I’ve been talking to Rene Borg from ChampionsEverywhere, discussing the more complex intersections of stress: for example, some people are very, very good at pushing themselves. They have excellent sympathetic (SNS) tone, which means that they often feel good when going hard all the time.

      A lack of equilibrium between aerobic and anaerobic training (meaning too little anaerobic training) can lead these people to lose that ability to push themselves—dulling their edge, so to speak.

      That’s not what you want. Anaerobic training is very important, particularly for these sorts of people. But these people in particular are the ones that tend to get overtrained when they keep pushing the scale towards anaerobic training. So, the key is to find a balance where you stay healthy and stress-free but you can and do push yourself the way you want.

      Unless you’re ill, injured, or overtrained, this balance will generally be at an aerobic-anaerobic ratio of 5-10:1.

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  3. If I have determined that I am in the overtrained group, how long should I avoid anaerobic exercise to the nearly exclusive use of low heart rate training?
    I really liked the Jenga article. It helped me better understand the function of building the “aerobic engine”. I am concerned that my exclusive low intensity (180 minus age) training will also cause a substantial setback in strength.
    I’m trying to figure out the earliest point to add some strength training without inhibiting the growth of my aerobic base.
    Thanks.

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    1. Camm:

      The best way to deal with overtraining is to treat it like an injured limb. I mean that once a limb is fully healed, it is still very weak.

      We can say the same about the aerobic base (and various glands, organs, and nervous system) with overtraining.

      In overtraining, there will be a reduction in strength (which is a property of the anaerobic system), just like there is a reduction in the strength of the arm when we put it in a cast to heal from a fracture.

      One of the problems is in framing the loss of strength as a “setback.” It’s not. The body can very quickly recover levels of performance it had before PROVIDED THAT it heals completely and is allowed to regain its performance at its own pace.

      Similar to the limb that just came out of a cast, a body that just recovered from overtraining is in no position to tolerate anaerobic training. You need extensive physical therapy on a limb before the connective tissue is strong enough to start re-building strength. The same is the case with an aerobic base/body that is fully “healed.”

      Finally, I’d like to float to you the possibility that the mentality of trying to find the earliest point to add strength training might have been one of the converging conditions that led to overtraining in the first place.

      I’d like to suggest the alternate route of prioritizing keeping the body healthy. If you put the body in a position to respond well with a robust training response to minimal strength training (by making it healthy), you’ll be able to not only develop strength quite easily, but also get to keep it: a strategy where strength occurs as a by-product of exposing a healthy body to strength training is hostile to overtraining.

      To convert all this discussion into a specific answer to your question, the earliest point where you should introduce strength training is when your speed at a fully aerobic heart rate has been developing for long enough that you’ve become certain you should have implemented strength training one or two months ago.

      (The “bone” that gets broken in an overtrained body is not one you want to re-break. Re-breaking it is the real setback).

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