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  • Writer's picturePatrick Griffith

Training the Cardiovascular System - Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

As endurance athletes we often get set in a pace that our body likes to work at. Maybe it is a pace you have done for years and you always feel like you are getting a quality workout in no matter how long it is. While this pace gives you a sense of accomplishment in a workout it may not be the best way to train.  

The human body uses two different systems during periods of work, the aerobic and anaerobic systems. The aerobic system is your endurance system. This is the system that your body can use all day long. The aerobic system relies on oxygen to produce energy and can use fat and carbohydrates as sources of fuel. The anaerobic system is your top end gears. This system can produce energy at a very high rate for relatively short periods of time and doesn’t use oxygen.

Now after that quick refresher from high school science back to the importance of training these systems for endurance athletes. When we work at a moderate intensity or that go-to pace you use for all of your workouts, we are using a little bit of both systems. By not focusing on one system at a time during training we often won’t see any improvements in performance. Therefore, it is crucial for all athletes to focus on one system to build up at a time, even if it might not feel like you are working as hard as you should be. A couple of common ways to track which system you are using is a heart rate monitor or a rating of perceived exertion.

Heart rate training has been a staple of the endurance athlete for a while. There are multiple different ways to track what the heart is doing during workouts from a chest strap to a watch. A heart rate monitor is an objective tool that allows you to monitor what system you are using. One of the most common ways to track this is using heart rate zones. Heart rate zones are based on a calculation of your heart rate maximum and resting heart rate. Zone 2 or 65-75% of your heart rate max is the sweet spot for aerobic system work. This is often where a large amount of time is spent for endurance athletes because of how important this system is for racing. Zone 4 and 5 or 85-95% of your heart rate max is the range where your anaerobic system is working more. This is where working hard at intervals, hills, speed sets are incorporated into your training plan. This system is equally as important to train for endurance athletes as it increases power, overall speed, and muscle mass.

Rating of perceived exertion is a scale from 0-10. 0 being you are enjoying a cold beer on the beach and 10 being you are cursing your coach for 30 seconds at a time. Rating of perceived exertion is another excellent way to tune into your body and feel which system is working. Aerobic workouts should be anywhere from a 3-5. You should be comfortable and be able to carry on a conversation with someone or yourself. Anaerobic workouts should be anywhere from 7-9. These workouts should feel hard and you should only be able to say a few selective curse words at a time.

Now that you know a little more about the importance of training each system separately remember to have a specific plan for each workout. Training to build your body up takes time and patience. So, remember to take the easy days easy so you can crush the hard workouts and races. Happy Training

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