Cardio and Energy

By: Joe Mullings

From 20,000 feet…..Cardio Training and Your Energy Systems

“Fatigue makes cowards of all of us”. I think it was Lombardi who is credited with that quote. No matter how high level your skills or technique are. No gas….No go. Your cardio training for your game is critical. The science and nuances of it are deep. In this article I would like to just break it down for you to understand in generalities what is happening and in a follow up piece I will get into the “why” and how you can effect it. We will also differentiate later as to how management of energy systems in MMA and BJJ are also quite different.

There are 3 components to your energy systems. They are not separate, they all work together and overlay each other. I will describe them separately in order to identify them, but they are always in constant flux.


ATP – this is stored energy already in your cells. It is used to do immediate work. Typically used for performing immediate strenuous work. Only about 4 to 8 seconds of explosive work is fueled by this system. When the body burns through the initial ‘fuel’, already in the cell, this system has the ability to create more ATP that can provide energy for another 30 to 35 seconds depending on the athlete.



Short Term Energy (Anaerobic or Lactic Acid System) – this is the system that you will immediately jump into after you have blown through your “stored” or ATP system. This system can be used for about 2 minutes of all out activity depending on the athlete and his training. This is the energy system phase that you often hear people talk about “lactic acid buildup” and when it goes bad, the athlete crashes and his muscles and cardio system lock up and “gasses”.

Long Term Energy (Aerobic System) – this is a long term source of energy and can be used for hours and hours. It uses a constant supply of oxygen that will keep pace with the activity. Think marathon, cycling, rowing, etc.

Lastly, in order to understand on a basic level as to what is happening to your energy systems you must also understand the role lactic acid plays in the process. Lactic acid is sometimes your friend and sometimes your deadly enemy. In BJJ and MMA you spend most of your time in the Short Term / Anaerobic Energy System. During this time there is a lactic acid build up due to the load on the cardiovascular and muscle group. Lactic acid assists in the re-energizing of your energy systems or fuel……as long as your cup does not spill over!

I like to describe the lactic acid in this energy phase as a surfer and a wave. If you can manage that lactic acid production and “ride the wave”, you will be able to cruise in and out of a phase that recharges you and flow in and out of that Short Term phase that allows you to keep a steady pressure on your opponent. If you navigate this successfully, you will appear to have lots of gas in your tank.

If however, you get too far ahead of that “lactic wave” and can’t claw your way back….you will crash hard. Once you are too deep in the lactic phase, your muscles become too acidic and then “seize up”. Think Carwin and Lesnar fight.

To understand the relationships and how the systems work together, the ATP and the Anaerobic Systems are the ones that are used a majority of the time in BJJ and MMA. Due to the explosiveness of the activities and the all out use of all muscle groups and intensities in the sport dictate this. Let’s use a scenario to best describe what is happening with the energy systems. Keep in mind you are always flowing in and out of these systems but one of them is always predominant, while the other 2 are in the background.

At the start of a fight, between adrenaline and your first burst of energy for a takedown is all out power. Here you are accessing the ATP system and the “stored” energy already available in the cell. You both get tied up and scramble to the floor and for a minute or so there is a heavy grappling exchange going on and your breathing is labored. Don’t freak out here (which increases adrenaline levels and energy consumption which makes mattes worse.). The heavy breathing is due to the body looking for oxygen to feed to your muscles. The load is so intense that your body is working at an oxygen deficit – you are sucking air hard and your heart is pumping and feels like it is about to burst from your chest. This is normal! Our bodies are working way above our sustainable capacity and the lungs are sucking in air and the heart is trying to blast oxygenated blood to offset the lack of oxygenated blood in that area. Eventually if you don’t get too far ahead of the lactic acid wave, energy production can catch up for the coming minutes. This is what you call your “Second Wind”.

In a well trained athlete, you should think of your body as a diesel engine, it takes a bit to warm up, but once it gets its groove on and the load request by the energy system matches up with the oxygen intake and you properly “ride the lactic wave”, you can run through your opponent. Manage your “lactic wave’ wrong….you crash.

Look for follow up features which will delve into more detailed information on how you can increase your fight performance:

–    Training Cardio for BJJ and MMA, there is a Huge Difference
–    How to Effect Your Energy System and its Components
–    What is Lactic Threshold Training?


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