Aerobic Work – Why burning hot all the time puts the fire out.

For those of you looking to have your best “score” possible in an upcoming online 5 week fitness test, this post is too late. However, for those who are interested in improving health, longevity, AND performance in the future, this post is for you (so I guess this post is for everyone)

Aerobic, as Blevins put it is a dirty word. In most of the groups we “run” in (see what I did there?), the word has come to denote LSD as a form of exercise closely related to jazzercise aka, do you even lift bro? Over the past few decades, high-intensity training (HIIT)/interval training has become the new fitness craze, just as “endurance training” was in the 80’s. With the boom of CrossFit (which is just another form of HIIT, sorry Crossfitters, Crossfit didn’t invent the clean and jerk nor the muscle up) HIIT is at its peak, and for good reason. I have been coaching Crossfit since 2008 and have seen the life-altering changes by the mere application of “functional movements” at “high-intensity” paired with nutrient intake coming from real food. But what if I told you that going “hard” everyday actually would make you go slower when it really came time to “go hard”? Just as the really good LSD athletes know that deadlifts, squats, and presses for structural strength, make them better at their activity; the really good HIIT athletes know that adding in AEROBIC work to there already high anaerobic workload will benefit anaerobic testing (or sport) in the long run.

Just a few terms before we go on:

Aerobic work – work done with oxygen and fat as energy (think hours of movement due to the lack of lactate/pyruvate)

Anaerobic work – work done primarily with glucose (the simplest form of carbohydrate, or sugar) *limited amounts of work due to limited amounts of glucose and lactate/pyruvate accumulation in muscles

Mitochondria – organelles inside cells that are responsible for gathering nutrients to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

ATP – is a molecule, or molecules, that allow transfer of energy. Without ATP muscular activity and muscle growth is NOT possible. For arguments sake, lets say it’s important.

Without going into so much detail of bioenergetics (I do not have the time, space, or knowledge for that much information). There are two major types of energy systems, the aerobic system and the anaerobic system. As you read above one is energy from oxygen and one is energy from without. Think walking vs sprinting as fast as you can for 100-200 meters. One you can do for a very long time, one you’ll need extended periods of rest to repeat at similar energy outputs.

Since we opened up with talking about this “online fitness competition” (I did it again, I am on a roll) I wanted to discuss how aerobic exercise benefits a clean and jerk or a muscle up. A weightlifting movement such as a clean and jerk or a gymnastic movement such as a muscle up, on their own, are anaerobic efforts. Doing a single rep of those requires little to no oxygen, and no real calorie; ATP is all that is required. However if we are doing multiple reps and multiple sets say over a 10′ period, really fast, burning hot, then energy expenditure is the hot topic. To get better at these movements in that 10′ time domain, is it as simple as just repeating efforts similar to that? Yes and no, most likely there will always be a yes and no.

Simply put, to repeat bouts of anaerobic exercise, one needs specific nutrients to be shuttled into muscle cells for the repeated contraction of fibers. The reason for those contractions are ATP molecules, and the reason for the delivery of those ATP molecules, are the mitochondria organelles. All this makes a bit of sense right? Well to improve ATP production we need more mitochondria, duh, but how do we go about that? The single greatest way to improve function, volume, and density of mitochondria is through LSD, or aerobic work. There’s that dirty word again.

Training is largely stress adaptation. We put our body through stressors (training and others) and through recovery/rest it adapts and we become more efficient (get in shape). However if we always train in one pathway, the other will start to deteriorate (think powerlifter who has trouble walking to their car, or endurance runner who looks something out of a POW camp). With that being said if our goal is to be powerful over a “long” period of time, then we need to be able to resynthesize ATP at a higher rate than the next. To do this we need to train ourselves to become efficient, we must train our body to be able to shuttle those nutrients under stress. What I am saying is that, if all we ever do is spend time in the anaerobic/burning hot domain, then we will never fully train our body to be able to become as efficient as our genetics will allow in shuttling nutrients for energy, which remember, we want to put a barbell over our head and pull ourselves up on rings more times than the next person.

Putting aerobic training into your plan is simple, but first individually, you need to understand what your aerobic threshold actually is. Aerobic training isn’t simply going out for a jog, aerobic training means the workload is largely fueled by oxygen and fat (which is pretty abundant). What dictates the change over from aerobic work to anaerobic work is mostly, and if not all, related to heart rate and your individual aerobic threshold. High level athletes (Lance Armstrong, Rich Fronning, Lebron James..etc) have many things going for them, but the main reason (among many others) for their ability to be great is their ability to be efficient. They can stay aerobic longer than the next person, and if we can stay aerobic longer than the next then we will have more energy, what a concept! A 5 mile run for me at my aerobic threshold of 150bpm and a 5 mile run Time Trail for you, are completely different events. If you are going out there and trying to make it a PB and I am running the 5 miles at a specific HR (my aerobic threshold) then our response (stressor) to that 5 miles are two different things. If all things go as planned, my recovery process is that one of increased usage of mitochondria (which shuttles ATP) and yours is largely a huge dose of cortisol and depleted glycogen.

The best example I can give of the need and benefits of aerobic work to help anaerobic work is Football. It is a sport where the energy demands of strength and power are at the top of the totem poll, and endurance is at the bottom. Players need to be able to sprint, push, throw, and jump at HIGH outputs for extended periods of time, but with much rest between (think plays followed by huddles). When talking about creating a plan to best train football players, 3 major factors need to be present. First, ATP resynthesis during plays is initially achieved via the phosphagen pathway however oxidative mechanisms are maximally engaged over a series of downs. Second CP repletion during recovery is VO2 dependent. Third, lactate removal is achieved largely by oxidation muscle fibers; thus increasing oxidative power is critical for allowing the athlete to repeat short bursts of strength and power. To go hard, one must have trained the ability to efficiently go “long”

*Don’t even get me started on the “fitness professionals” that are my colleagues who think 10 sets of 500m rows is “aerobic” work. Again, it is all regulated by heart rate and if a “fitness” athlete is doing repeated bouts of 500m efforts, they clearly have no clue what it means and if they have a coach, that coach is lets say, a fake. The only aerobic part about those repeats is that it occurs in the name anaerobic. The lack of intelligence is astounding in some people. On a daily basis I see these popular “fitness” athletes, who many believe to be god’s and goddesses of their fitness world, post about their crushing epic aerobic work of 7,000 meters on the rower with every 2 minutes they must complete 10 burpees. That is NOT aerobic work. Is it a “good” workout? Sure, I guess, but it is not aerobic work (unless they know their aerobic threshold and wore that HR monitor of course)*

Of course to be good at 10′ HIIT efforts you need to do them, but not as often as you think. Our ability to recover, get stronger, and get faster largely lie with our ability to shuttle and reshuttle those nutrients. Once your “season” is over try adding in 2 real aerobic sessions a week for a few months into your plan. If you adhere to real aerobic work, I bet you’ll feel better in the short term and will be amazed by how much better you feel in the long run, and during those short bouts of intense movement.



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