There are a lot of misconceptions and myths about aerobic and anaerobic training. Here, we’ll explain what these do for your training. We’ll show you exactly how they work and how you can get better at each one and reap the benefits on and off the field.
AEROBIC VERSUS ANAEROBIC
It all comes down to how your body creates energy for physical activity (and life, in general): aerobically and anaerobically.
Aerobic means your body is able to supply energy just by your respiration. In other words, just by breathing, you can generate enough energy to fuel your body. The good thing about your aerobic energy system is it can last for a long, long time. In fact, the vast majority of your life is spent aerobically. As long as your activity stays in an aerobic zone, you can go for incredibly long durations.
The drawback is it can only support low-to-moderate levels of exercise (like reading this story). An easy jog or bike ride should be aerobic, but once you crank up the speed, you won’t be able to get enough energy from breathing, and you’ll have to get energy elsewhere (anaerobically).
Anaerobic means whatever physical activity you’re doing is hard enough your body cannot supply all the energy you need by breathing; now, your body needs to tap into your storage to support your body. The good thing is it gives you the power you need to sprint, lift heavy weights and perform at your max effort. The problem is your body only has a limited amount of energy anaerobically.
IS ONE BETTER FOR YOU?
Lately, many in the fitness community have renounced aerobic training — “traditional cardio” — in favor of anaerobic training because the former is “slow, boring, etc.”
However, the truth is both energy systems are extremely important. In fact, having solid aerobic conditioning actually improves your overall performance because it supports your recovery after high-intensity physical activity. It also has significant benefits in everything from heart health to brain health.
If you play basketball, for example, you’ll need a strong anaerobic system to still be able to sprint hard in the fourth quarter, but you’ll also need a strong aerobic system to recover quickly between plays, during breaks and well after you leave the gym.
HOW TO IMPROVE EACH ONE
To improve your aerobic system, you’ll do a lot of work in your “aerobic” zone, which is generally a heart rate between 120–150bpm. (Anything above that zone would be anaerobic and anything below wouldn’t be hard enough to stimulate improvement.) Do at least 30 minutes of training — a jog in the park, a bike ride or an easy circuit of bodyweight exercises — in this zone 2–4 times per week.
To improve your anaerobic system, perform your traditional interval training or HIIT workouts — alternating between max effort work and rest. Just make sure you rest long enough to recover fully, otherwise you’ll accumulate too much fatigue and shift the work onto your aerobic system.