In this day and age aerobic exercise has come under a lot of criticism. Recent studies have shown that people can burn a greater amount of calories in a shorter period of time by performing High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Therefore, why should anyone perform aerobic training that would consist of slower/longer workouts. It is a lot easier to tell someone that you only have to perform 4 minutes of high intensity exercise than 30-60 minutes of a lower intensity workout.
However, life is not that simple. Calorie expenditure is one of the goals of exercise but it should not be the only goal. The true goal of exercise should be to create a healthier, more resilient body and mind, weight loss would be a beneficial side effect. It is my opinion, that an aerobic foundation is essential to creating a healthier individual. It is not that I am against High Intensity exercise, however, I would prefer individuals to be performing high intensity exercise once they have established a solid aerobic foundation.
What is the Aerobic System?
All life activities are dependent upon a source of energy. There are two main energy systems that are active at all times: the aerobic system and the anaerobic system. Your aerobic system is the primary energy source.
Also, there are different types of muscle fibers in our body. There are slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers and fast twitch (Type II). In general, slow twitch muscles are our postural muscles and they rely heavily on the aerobic system. The aerobic system prefers to burn fat for energy rather than glucose (sugar). By training your aerobic system, we will improve our ability to burn fat. In addition, training your aerobic system will increase mitochondria in your muscle cells to generate energy (ATP) and increase capillary vascularization for increased oxygen utilization.
Aerobic conditioning is a necessary foundation of virtually all training. The longer an event, the more your body will rely on the aerobic system. A strong aerobic base will even benefit one’s recovery in-between sets of strength training as well as anaerobic interval training too.
Many people, especially many “athletes” are running long distances with a very poor aerobic system. Therefore when they are performing “cardio” exercises they are not efficiently using the aerobic system and are relying heavily on their anaerobic system to get them through their training. Over utilizing your anaerobic system can cause a significant stress to your body. When people discuss how chronic cardio is detrimental to health it is because people are performing cardio exercises without fully utilizing their aerobic system.
How do I improve my Aerobic System?
In order to improve your Aerobic system you need to train “aerobically”. This entails performing an activity for a period of time at a consistent heart rate. Typical aerobic activities are:
However, it is possible to strength train aerobically or perform other activities aerobically.
To maximize your aerobic conditioning you must perform activities below your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate. When training above your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, you will be utilizing more of your anaerobic system and this prevent you from fully developing your aerobic system.
To determine your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, I tell patients to use Dr. Maffetone’s 180-Formula, to calculate click here, for more information on Dr. Maffetone’s Heart Rate Formula click here). Next, you should obtain a heart rate monitor (I recommend Polar 300RX).
The length of your aerobic workout will be determined by your conditioning level. For example, someone with a poor aerobic base and basically starting from scratch, should set a goal of 30 minutes of aerobic activity. They should begin slowly and increase their heart rate for about 10-15 minutes until they reach their Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate. Then they should maintain close to their Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate for 10 minutes then begin to cool down, for an additional 15 minutes. Somebody with more endurance experience, may want to strive for an aerobic workout where they maintain their Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate for 30 minutes or longer.
Switching to aerobic training can be a difficult task for a lot of people. A common complaint is “I just cannot train that slow.” But it is a process and if you stick with it you will find that your pace will improve as your heart rate stays the same.
How much aerobic training do I need?
The simple answer is “it depends.” The amount of aerobic base you need will be dependent on your sport. If you’re interested in all around fitness then your goal is to develop your aerobic system to the max as well as your anaerobic system. If you’re more of a strength and power athlete, then your aerobic conditioning will not need to be as developed as a long distance runner. This may seem obvious to some, but many fail to realize the importance of aerobic for ALL athletes.
Obviously, time is the biggest factor when it comes to training. If you have a stressful life, always on the go, and dependent on caffeine and sugary snacks to get you through the day, then I would recommend more aerobic training than anaerobic training. If you have a strong aerobic base, eat healthy, get plenty of rest, you will benefit from anaerobic (high intensity) training. However, I would not perform anaerobic training on back to back days, and only perform high intensity workout for 2-4 week blocks then take a break.
Does my lifestyle affect my aerobic system?
This is one of the most important concepts of building the aerobic system. Building your aerobic system is a way of life rather than a training regimen. Your diet and stress level have a huge impact on your ability to burn fat and your entire aerobic system. By eating a Paleo-based diet that is full of vegetables, fruit, animal fat and protein, and no refined carbohydrates you are well on your way to building a better aerobic system. Fats from olive oil, coconut oil, butter, pasture-fed animals, are a great fuel source for your aerobic system. It should makes sense that fat consumption is essential for your body to be better at burning fat.
Stress such as work, too much exercise, and not enough sleep will negatively impact your aerobic system. When you are stressed your body releases cortisol which will promote sugar burning and the anaerobic energy system. Also, the more developed your aerobic system the better your body will be able to handle the stress of life.