Most the athletes I work with and probably anyone reading this blog are aerobic creatures. So why am I talking about anaerobic training? And more importantly why do I assign anaerobic training to my athletes? Also why am I asking hypothetical questions to my readers even though my high school English teacher specifically told me not to? Well read on and hopefully I will answer all your questions. Except for the last one… sorry Mrs. Stirtz.
First off here’s a quick recap of what the anaerobic power zone is. This zone includes speeds above your velocity at VO2 max, which is the minimum speed needed to hit your VO2max on ramp test (approximately your 1500-3000m race pace). Now, your body never is 100% aerobic or 100% anaerobic, both systems are being used constantly regardless of which zone you are in. But I call this the anaerobic power zone because the anaerobic system is the prime driver of power output. VO2 max represents the maximum capabilities of your aerobic system so any additional rises in power output above this value must come from your anaerobic system.
So what happens to your body when you are training in the anaerobic power zone?
We improve anaerobic efficiency:
Any time you stress a specific metabolic pathway you will enhance your physiologies efficiency at that pathway. The anaerobic system includes the creatine phosphate system and the glycolytic system. Both of these systems create energy and at a rapid rate without oxygen, but typically max out after 2 min. Improving physiological efficiency in this zone is nice but again as aerobic creatures who run events much longer than 2min this is pretty low on the list of priorities and so too much time training this zone can actually be counter productive. This is actually brings up an important point, faster does not always mean better! Spending all our time sprinting will optimize our anaerobic capabilities but neglect and deoptimize our aerobic abilities. So anaerobic zone workouts need to be used with moderation.
We increase muscular strength and power output:
Now we’re getting to the good part! Because we are running just about max effort in this zone we will be demanding close to a max power output from our muscles. In effect that makes training in this zone the ultimate specific functional strength workout! Instead of spending large amounts of time in the gym we can utilize anaerobic power training to specifically target the exact muscles needed to run fast. Yes, this won’t get you to the highest one rep max possible (and yes as a distance runner I had to google what a ‘lifting PR’ was called), but our goal in training is speed not strength alone.
We improve our biomechanics:
If the phrase “improve our biomechanics” doesn’t get you salivating I don’t know what will. As a coach, I have tons of athletes asking me how to improve biomechanics. While there are some strength and stability routines out there that can help, running fast is amazing for form development. Anaerobic power training improves biomechanics in two main ways. First, is the strength element I just discussed. The stronger you are the better your muscles will be able to stabilize you as you run and prevent form collapse. There is also a neuromotor/ coordination element as well. Like shooting a basketball, hitting a baseball, doing whatever it is lacrosse players do, or any other skill, good mechanics takes practice so your neuromotor system can learn how to perform the skill. Running at fast speeds in the anaerobic training zone typically coincides with better form because as your body is reaching its limits metabolically it will switch focus to improving other elements it still can control like your form to increase speed. So, by practicing running at higher speeds, we are also practicing good mechanics! But these good mechanics aren’t just for top end speed. Your body will take what it learns from running in this zone and apply it to all other running speeds to some degree!
The result of anaerobic power training is we get faster at all zones! Hot diggity dog!
Your body is an amazing thing that is constantly striving for optimization and improvements in economy. So, it’s not going to let all these top end adaptations go to waste and only use them when sprinting. Instead, it’s going to constantly be using the benefits cultivated from this training in all other forms of running. Each zone will use a smaller percentage of max muscular strength, but if your starting power output is larger than the person standing next to you on the starting line a sustainable 70% of your top end power is going to blow their 70% top end power out of the water.
Purely training your aerobic system to an elite level while avoiding any type of anaerobic power training is kind of like putting a Ferrari engine in a Honda Civic. I’m sure it took a lot of work and honestly, it’s a marvel you pulled it off, but you’re not going to go like a Ferrari. High power output training makes sure your body can cash the checks your aerobic engine writes.
How do you implement it in your own training?
Hopefully at this point I have convinced you of the usefulness of anaerobic power training. So, now let’s focus on how to implement it into our training. (That’s right, the guy who makes his living telling people how to train, is going to give you some free training advice because he’s a terrible businessman.)
The most common way I implement this type of training, is through strides. Strides are short bursts of speed typically lasting 10-30sec. Because there are some inherent risks of pulling or straining your muscles whenever you demand such a high power output, we want to really make sure we warm up to these. So, we’ll want to at least get 15min of running in before even attempting a stride and even then we’ll want to take our time to build into each rep. For strides you will want to start at 75% max speed and slowly progress to 90% max speed. We never want to go all out because at that point our form will start to break down and we’ll be really increasing our risk of injury. Basically, we want a fast and efficient running form like a miler, not like a flailing Scooby Doo character getting chased by a ghost.
We don’t really need to rush recovery here because we aren’t trying to stress our aerobic system. So, it’s ok to take your time (~1-2min) to catch your breath before the next rep, just make sure to keep moving in some fashion so your muscles don’t tighten before the next rep. We can shorten the rest between reps for some workouts but that will shift the focus from a pure anaerobic power workout to more of a threshold workout (I will address that in my upcoming tempo article).
As for frequency and volume, we don’t need a ton of volume for this, but we do need frequency. We don’t want a crazy high volume of this type of work because again that will cause your body to place to high of an emphasis on anaerobic metabolism adaptations. However, because we are training your neuromotor system here frequency is key. While your neuromotor system rapidly adapts to training stimulus (making strides one of the quickest ways you can improve speed) it also rapidly detrains without stimulus. Ideally you should get strides in 2-3 times per week either at the end of easy runs, as a standalone workout themselves, or at the end of an aerobic power or tempo session if you’re feeling spicy. But we’ll touch more on combo workouts at a later time.
Example anaerobic power workouts:
Easy run followed by 4-6×20-30sec hills with walk/ jog down recovery
Running strides on a 5-8% incline is a great way to introduce anaerobic power training! This is because running uphill will generate a similar level of power output as flat stides but the slower speeds caused by running on an incline mean hill strides will have a lower impact on your joints and tendons.
One thing I should touch on is, 20sec strides will target your creatine phosphate system and will allow you to have a higher power output, but won’t work as much on your speed endurance and comes with a higher risk of strain. 30sec strides will involve your glycolytic system more which will decrease your power output but will better work your speed endurance and comes with a lower risk of strain. For athlete’s new to strides I start them with 30sec strides first and then introduce 20sec strides. Once you are familiar with both try to constantly vary which ones, you are doing throughout training so you get the best benefits from both types of stride.
Easy run followed by 4-6×20-30sec fast/ 2min easy jog recovery
Once you have mastered hill strides you can progress to flat land strides. Though they are inherently riskier than hills, flat land strides will really hone your speed and mechanics to the max!
Hillz Pay the Billz:
20min easy, 8-10x 30sec hills with jog down recovery, 20min easy
Unlike short stride sessions, long stride sessions will become a significant workout so you need to treat it like one!
I am speed:
20min easy, 8-15x 30sec fast/ 2min easy, 20min easy
Only attempt this one if you have mastered all preceding stride workouts and even then, approach with caution. With great speed, comes great responsibility!
You should now have everything you need to understand the reasoning behind anaerobic power training and how to implement them into your own training! So go forth and be speedy!