Real Talk about Aerobic Training for Athletes


A few weeks back, my good friend Joel Jamieson and I saddled up to the conveyor belt sushi place in Seattle, WA, for a meal after a long morning of work.

Over the 2 hours that spanned our drive, wait time, and meal, we covered a wide range of topics.



And of course, training.

One thing we still can’t get around is how shocking it is, but in 2014, we still have coaches who don’t understand the aerobic energy system.

And not only do they not understand it, but they continue to mock it!

They assume that if you train “aerobically” that you’re going to end up small, weak and emaciated.

And if done poorly, yes, those things can happen.

But if you’re smart about your training, as well as that of your athletes, building an aerobic engine can be beneficial for you almost regardless of the sport or activity you participate in.

We’ll start off with a primer on the power-capacity continuum, talk briefly about my philosophy on this topic, and then finish off with a few reasons why I feel aerobic training should be a staple in your programming.

A Primer on the Power-Capacity Continuum

I first talked about the power-capacity continuum months ago following Joe Kenn and I’s “Elite Athletic Development Seminar*,” and then again in my 10 Nuggets, Tips and Tricks on Energy System Training.

(*Shameless plug – final details on Coach Kenn and my EADS 2.0 course can be found here: Elite Athletic Development Seminar 2.0.)

basic-power-capacityIf you want to think of the power-capacity continuum in its broadest scope, imagine powerlifting, Olympic lifting or throws (shotput, hammer, etc.) on the “Power” side of the continuum.

These are one-off displays of power or strength, which are followed by an extended period of rest.

On the right-hand side, imagine any long-duration endurance event – a marathon, triathalon, or long bike ride.

These are repeated efforts with little, or often no, rest.

power-capacitySo if those are on the far edges of the spectrum, all team sports fall somewhere in the middle.

With this information, we can start to imagine what type of energy system training may benefit an athlete. Obviously if an athlete leans towards the left hand side of the spectrum, they will naturally be a bit more anaerobic in nature.

And if they are on the right-hand side of the continuum, then they will naturally be a bit more aerobic in nature. After all, if you’re going to produce energy for 40+ minutes in an NBA basketball game, or 90+ minutes in a professional soccer game, you better have a robust aerobic engine!

My Philosophy

I work with athletes that run the gamut with regards to the power-capacity spectrum. I’ve got baseball guys, who are very speed/strength/power focused, and may only perform a few short sprints over the course of the game.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve got soccer players who are repeatedly marking, jogging, or sprinting to make plays or keep up with an opponent.

Last but not least, I’ve got football and basketball players who get intermittent periods of rest in between bursts of both high and low-intensity exercise.

The commonality between my training for all of these athletes?

All of these athletes perform some degree of aerobic work in their training.

Let me say that again, just so I’m clear.

ALL of these athletes perform some degree of aerobic work.

Now I’m sure you’re not surprised that the soccer player, or even the basketball player, performs aerobic training. The aerobic system is robust in its ability to produce energy for prolonged periods of time.

However, some people are shocked when I give a football player, or especially a baseball player, an aerobic base or engine.

After all, they are such speed/strength/power dominated sports, won’t I snatch up all their gains if they do aerobic training?

The simple answer is no.

The Benefits of Aerobic Training

There are numerous reasons I perform aerobic training with my athletes, but it’s first critical to note that while every team sport athlete will get some aerobic training in their programming, the volume, intensity and type will be dependent up on the individual, their sport, and even their position.

Put simply, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It must be individualized.

Now that we’ve covered that, let’s talk about all the benefits you get from aerobic training, or building a more robust aerobic energy system.

#1 – It can help improve strength.

Many coaches assume that if you perform aerobic training that you’re immediately going to morph into a smaller, weaker version of yourself.

This is largely due to the fact that many coaches assume that aerobic training must consist of long-duration, low-intensity, cyclical exercise (i.e. distance running, cycling, or jogging).

It’s not going to make you slower or weaker. Promise.

Joel Jamieson outlines eight methods for training the aerobic energy system in his book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, one of which is called oxidative lifting.

Oxidative (or tempo) lifting is a way to promote slow-twitch muscle fiber hypertrophy. Building a bigger slow twitch fiber doesn’t sound all that sexy, but if you’re an athlete who needs to produce force for extended periods of time, this can help.

Furthermore, I think an unseen benefit of oxidative lifting is that it improves stability and control throughout the body.

When you really slow down that squat or push-up, you improve kinesthetic awareness, as well as stabilizer function. So when you go back and try to uncork a big squat, you not only have more muscle fibers behind it, but better joint positioning and muscle function to boot.

And not to get ahead of myself, but low-level aerobic training can improve recovery not only in between sets, but in between workouts as well. Please read my article, You NEED Long Duration, Low Intensity Cardio, to learn all the benefits of low-intensity training.

#2 – It’s going to improve recovery.

Something I’ve learned over the years is that it doesn’t matter how hard or smart you’re training. The real key is in recovery.

Nowadays I’m thinking less about how training affects recovery, but rather the opposite – how my recovery (or lack thereof) is going to affect my training.

In other words, recovery drives training – not the other way around.

Here are just a few ways the aerobic energy system improves recovery:

  • Reduces resting heart rate, making your heart more efficient,
  • Improves capillarization, promoting more blood flow to muscles, and
  • It strongly activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which kicks you into “rest-and-digest” mode.

So even if you play a power-end sport, some low-level aerobic activity can help facilitate recovery, which then allows you to train harder.

#3 – The really, REALLY big reason – Improving SKILL

Now that we’ve covered the basics, here is the single biggest reason I promote some degree of aerobic training with my athletes:

A fit athlete is able to do greater amounts of high-quality skill work when compared to a less fit counterpart.

Read that again, and think about how impactful this can be with your athletes.

If a baseball player can go out and swing for 10 minutes and then fatigue sets in because they’re out of shape, they’re only getting 10 minutes of high-quality skill work in in a day.

They may put in more work, but again it’s all about quality.

Now take that same athlete and give them an aerobic foundation. Let’s say they can go out and perform high-quality skill work for 20, 30 or even 40 or more minutes.

Who do you think is going to get better faster?

At the end of the day, what we do in the gym is general physical preparation.

As much as we love ourselves and the programs we create, the goal is to take those physical traits we create in the gym and utilize them to enhance athletic skill.

On the field or court, no one cares what your numbers are like in the gym. It’s all about your ability to use those physical traits in your sport of choice.


Aerobic training for athletes is a hugely controversial topic, and one that I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of yet.

However, in my opinion, if you take the time to build even a modest aerobic foundation, you’ll be rewarded with healthier, more resilient athletes.

Take some time this year to build an aerobic engine for your clients and athletes; I think they’ll thank you for it!

All the best


(Lead photo courtesy of Keith Allison)


Leave Comment

  1. Mike,

    Knowing a lot of options exist outside the weight room for this, what do you think are easy ways for coaches to help clients through correspondence tracking and monitoring. I think it offers professionals options to get better results and a new revenue stream. What systems or software do you like.


  2. Can you give an example energy system workout for each of the sports you mentioned above? Football, basketball, soccer, baseball

  3. Greetings,

    Interesting note on combining aerobic activity with specific skill set (baseball/swing bat, basketball/shoot free throws, boxing/punches etc.) the weak link in your chain will break first. When the technique starts to degrade because of exhaustion the corresponding strength, flexibility, mobility, etc. weaknesses are exacerbated and located. An additional benefit of this results is in order to keep optimal technique the mind-body connection is intensified to produce more indelible and sustainable muscle memory.


  4. I really like you’re thoughts on this, Mike, especially point #2. There seems to be a big disconnect between the worlds on the capacity continuum. It’s as if they standing firmly on their side of the line proves their methods and philosophy right, and the other’s wrong. There’s a disrespect for the other’s craft. The reason people fall into one camp or the other is because they’re better at something, and they ride that success into liking it and proclaiming its superiority. More posts like this can help bridge the gap, building shared truths instead biased divisions.
    Thanks for the learning.

  5. What are some methods you integrate with your athletes to improve their aerobic capacity? How would you maintain this aerobic base if the goal becomes more anaerobic? I understand a lot of this depends as there are many variables to consider such as the athletes current physical abilities, sport, position they play, off- season period, etc. I’m having a difficult time implementing these methods with my younger athletes, especially those individuals who need to lose fat/ weight. What are your recommendations for those athletes who need additional work to lose fat/ weight on non- training days? Due to scheduling I only train them twice a week and would like to incorporate additional training on days they don’t train with me.
    Any help is greatly appreciated
    Thank You

    • Kip – Great question, and it’s not easily answered. If the end goal/sport is anaerobic, then you may need some dedicated mini-blocks in-season to maintain the aerobic base.

      Depending on the age of the athlete and what else is going on, you can still do cardiac output, high intensity continuous training, alactic-aerobic work, etc. There are lots of options but as always, the answer is “It depends.”

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