Aerobic Training for Athletes

Aerobic training, also called cardio, improves an athlete's ability to use oxygen to sustain activity for periods of time. Examples of sports that demand long-term supplies of oxygen include marathon runners and distance swimmers.

Success in many sports requires repeated burst of high intensity activity that draw on quick energy sources, but require increasing levels of aerobic fitness as the duration of the activity increases.

Since you get better at whatever you train for, matching the energy patterns (how intense, how often, how much recovery time) of a sport with your training program is key to success in competition. Matching sport demands with workout regimens is called sport-specific training.

Athletes' bodies adapt very specifically to low to moderate-intensity activities that last for a more than just a few minutes. Sustained workouts improve your body's ability to breathe in and use oxygen. Here are the types of adjustments our bodies make internally to make these improvements.

Effects of aerobic training on the muscles (mainly slow-twitch fibers) and support systems (e.g., respiratory, endocrine) that increase cardio fitness and muscular endurance include:

1. Increases in the number of mitochondria (small structures known as the powerhouses) inside muscle cells that produce energy from oxygen,

2. Increases in the muscle's ability to use fat as fuel,

3. Greater lung capacity,

4. Improved heart stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped with each beat),

5. Changes in hormones (epinephrine) that break down and move fat through the body for use as a fuel,

6. Increased lean body mass.

Intensity (how hard), duration (how long), and frequency (how often) are key ways to improve your ability maintain cardio activity. Fitness improves when intensity is between 70-80% of maximum heart rate, but this may not be adequate for endurance athletes in some sports and events.

Elite endurance athletes often utilize high-intensity interval (HIT) exercise in their training regimens. Recent studies indicate that HIT is a time-efficient strategy to stimulate a number of muscle adaptations that are comparable to traditional endurance training. Athletes may include other sport-specific activities in interval training workouts.

Aerobic Training Tips

1. Design fitness programs that match the energy demands of a sport in terms of how long, how hard, and how much recovery time are needed. Sports with intermittent work (e.g., basketball) with short recovery periods require somewhat different training regimens than continuous activity (e.g., 5 K run).

2. Vary intensity, duration, and recovery in planned, long-term cycles for consistent improvements over time.

3. Include interval training that includes sport-related activities using high intensity training (HIT).

4. Monitor changes in resting heart rate over time. Fewer beats per minute indicate a higher stroke volume--a positive training effect.

5. Monitor food calories to ensure that energy intake is consistent with energy expenditure to maintain lean body mass.

6. To reduce fat weight, do not reduce calories excessively.

Brief, but intense bursts of activity also require anaerobic muscle metabolism. Through well designed sports fitness training programs, athletes develop the proper balance of both aerobic training and anaerobic training to match the demands of their sports.

Related pages:

Endurance Fitness

Specificity Principle

What is ATP?

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Gibala, M. J. & McGee, S. L.(April 2008). Metabolic adaptations to short-term high-intensity interval training: A little pain for a lot of gain? Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, (36)2, 58-63.

Martens, R. (2004). Successful coaching(3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Sharkey, B.J. & Gaskill, S.E. (2006). Sports physiology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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