The Connection Between Combat Sports and Aerobic / Anaerobic Training

By Joe Mullings

Whether its BJJ, Grappling or MMA, all of us have felt the seizing up or the “crash” of a muscle group during a scramble, hanging on to a locked triangle for a long time or a guillotine choke a hair more than we care to. The respective limbs go dead and we end up going from the hunter to the prey. You know that moment when you know you are not going to finish your opponent and you are dreading letting go of the submission because you just cant hold it any longer and you know you are going to get spanked? Straight-up horrible feeling.

This is due in part to an anaerobic activity that produces lactic acid that builds up to a level that causes the muscle group to pretty much shutdown. Lactic acid is produced when there is not enough oxygen being transported to the glycogen, your anaerobic fuel source in your muscles to produce energy for your activity. Not enough oxygen being transported to the muscle, the lactic acid dump begins. Lactic acid is always present during anaerobic exercise and can stay at a tolerable level if there is enough oxygen being delivered to the muscle group. However, when lactic acid gets over its “trained limits,” that’s when the pain / burn begins and muscle failure reveals itself.

For this article, let’s look at 2 pacing items that determine levels of lactic acid in the muscles; exercise intensity and presence and transport of oxygen to the muscles. This is where the relationship of training your aerobic system has a direct impact on the performance of your anaerobic system.

Aerobic training directly affects the growth of your capillaries, mitochondria and stroke volume of the heart. Capillaries carry oxygen to the muscles, mitochondria are the little engines inside the cells that generate energy from fats (aerobic energy) and carbohydrates (anaerobic energy) and stroke volume of the heart is basically the amount of oxygenated blood your heart pumps per beat. So if you can increase your aerobic capacity through long ,slow distance training, you can dramatically impact the transport system of oxygen to the muscles you are trying to improve their ability to process lactic acid. Think of increasing your “oxygenated blood flow highway’ from a 2-lane country road to an 8-lane interstate.

Consider establishing a “base program” in your training efforts. Incorporate a 30 minute session of aerobic training 3 to 4 times a week of just long and slow aerobic exercise. Swimming, jogging (not running), rowing, cycling are all good activities. The key is to try and disengage our hyper-competitive natures to “go hard or go home” mentality. The exercise should be at a pace where you are comfortable enough to hold a conversation with someone and not be strained. Sounds counter intuitive to the classic training mentality of combat sports. However, it is

critical that in these sessions you remain in an aerobic state and not an anaerobic state in order to build up the pathways that will allow you to handle excessive lactic acid build up in your system.

It appears so. When your aerobic capacity is increased with training, you produce less lactic acid than you do when untrained. The reason: your aerobic system can better handle lactic acid’s precursor, pyruvate.

You are also better able to burn fat for fuel, a process that does not directly produce lactic acid. During maximum efforts, you will also be able to withstand higher lactic acid levels in the muscle, before they begin to fatigue.

Fat is a primary fuel source for the aerobic energy system. Over the course of a base period your body learns to break down and utilize fat as an energy source more efficiently. As an added bonus, this adaptation helps post-exercise fat metabolism as well.

This is an important factor, especially for long-distance athletes. The fat we have in our bodies could provide enough energy to perform many distance events back to back, whereas muscle glycogen depletion can occur in as little as one hour. The less muscle glycogen you utilize, the more efficient you are. Contrary to the aerobic system, the anaerobic system consumes carbohydrates rapidly and the byproduct is lactic acid.

Base progression

There should be progression during base season as with any other training period. I normally prescribe 12-16 weeks of base training. This will vary with the athlete’s fitness level and the type of event they will be peaking for. Over the course of base, I progress from the low end of the aerobic energy system and gradually proceed in steps to the high end. The heart rate zones I use fall into the 71- to 90-percent range of lactate threshold or 61 to 80 percent of max heart rate.

I also incorporate specific strength training at an aerobic level. This entails different types of low-cadence cycling and slow hill running or even walking. These workouts also increase in volume throughout base. Base training is an excellent time to work on form and economy as well. As intensities increase later in the season, it’s harder to concentrate on form.

By establishing good economy habits early in the season, you’ll carry them forward. It’s also important to incorporate drills and technique work when you’re training at low intensity to keep boredom at bay. Base training doesn’t mean you’ll never move fast. Run strides, foot speed drills and fast pedal work can all be integrated. Towards the end of base, I start power work but use brief durations and full recovery between efforts.


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