Aerobic Training for Sprinters & Speed Power Athletes

In the world of speed and power training, aerobic training is often scoffed at due to the simple fact that most approaches for developing aerobic qualities are not well suited for the athletes who compete in speed and power sports.

People traditionally think of aerobic capacity as being developed solely through the use of long runs, hours of flopping around on a rower, or some other long duration, steady tempo exercise. Considering that most sprinters, throwers, and football players hate doing that sort of exercise, there has got to be a better way! Fortunately, there is.

Before you too scoff at this article and say something to the tune of, "cardio is useless for sprinters," consider the benefits that come with a well-developed cardiovascular system:

  • You need to breath to survive, so being able to breath and utilize oxygen is a pretty useful capability to have.
  • Recovery between high intensity sets and reps is vastly improved when you aren't dying between sets, gasping for air.
  • The cardiovascular system is the primary mechanism through which nutrients and hormones move through the body. Enhancing aerobic qualities improves recovery by allowing these recovery factors to move through the body with ease.
  • Warming up is also easier when your lungs are working well.
  • Aerobic training lowers your resting heart rate, which makes you more resilient to stress.
  • Aerobic training also raises your lactic threshold to some degree, so you get an improved "Functional Reserve Range"
  • My athletes and myself have noticed better sleep after this type of aerobic training. Who wouldn't want that?

aerobic training sprinters

What this article will cover:

  • Why traditional cardio methods are ill-suited for speed and power athletes.
  • What methods are better suited for these types of athletes.
  • Tips and tricks to enhance your aerobic training as a speed or power athlete.

What is cardiovascular training?

In the most basic sense, cardio training is training that is highly dependent on your cardiovascular system for energy delivery (i.e. exercise that depends on oxygen). You're in the cardio zone when your heart rate is approximately at 50-80% of your maximal heart rate.

Why is traditional aerobic training is ill-suited for speed and power athletes?

There are number of considerations to take into account when programming any type of training, and this is no different when it comes to aerobic training.

Time

Doing some continuous activity for 30 minutes straight confers little benefit relative to the demands of speed and power sports. Since most traditional cardio methods rely on long bouts of work, these methods are inherently flawed when applied to athletes who need to be explosively forceful for 5-20 seconds. 

Energy system and force qualities are generally limited by time, in that you can only put out high quality, high intensity efforts for so long. The ATP-Creatine Phosphate system works for 5-10 seconds in most athletes, and lactic/glycolytic systems work for 10 to 90 seconds for most athletes. By being creative with your aerobic training, you can work muscles locally in sport specific time frames, while systemically challenging the body for oxygen.

Tissue

Training for long, continuous bouts tends to lead to muscle fiber type shifts toward type 1 muscle fibers. Considering we want to run fast, jump high, and lift heavy weights, shifting our high-force type 2 muscle fibers to low-force, high-endurance type 1 fibers is not what we want.

Impact

For people who are well-built, going on a long run is fairly impactful on the joints. Try having a 300lb thrower or lineman slog his way through a multi-mile run on a regular basis and see how his knees feel in a couple weeks. Save the high-impact work for sport specific activities such as sprints and heavy lifts.

Athlete Buy-In

Beyond all of physiological stuff, this is arguably one of the more important concepts that coaches need to grasp. While you shouldn't let your athletes dictate every aspect of a training program, you equally should not have them constantly doing things they hate. The less athlete buy-in you have, the more problems you will have. Who knows, they might even attempt a coup d'etat! Avoid revolution by giving them cardio workouts which make sense relative to their sport.

What aerobic training methods are better suited for speed power athletes?

First, let me give credit to Cal Deitz for turning me onto some of these concepts. Since my earliest days as a performance enthusiast, Cal has provided great insights into training methodology, and if you haven't heard of him then you need to do some more research.

Considering that we want to target sport specific work zones, prevent fiber type shifts toward type 1 fibers, and minimize pounding joint impacts if we can, we must be creative in attacking the cardio conundrum. We need cardio, so how do we develop it with speed and power athletes? Here are a couple ways.

1. Interval Strength Training

The concept is simple - grab some moderately light weights, do an exercise for a sport specific work duration, rest a little bit, then go again. The duration of work should be in line with whatever else you're doing in that training block, and for sprinters this time frame should be around 8-10 seconds per interval. You can go beyond this 10 second duration, but understand that regularly working for more than 10 seconds tends to lead to excessive cortisol production which is not optimal if done on a regular basis.

Example Set:

  1. KB Goblet Squat - 8 Seconds
  2. Push Ups - 10 Seconds
  3. KB Goblet Split Squat - 8 Seconds
  4. KB RDL - 10 Seconds
  5. Rest 1-3min, then repeat 2-4x

The load used should be light enough that your heart rate never goes above 80% of your maximal heart rate, and the rest between exercises should be only as long as it takes to get into the next position and start.

This is the method I would use with sprinters, wide receivers, etc. With this work I would pair some general mobility work, and cue athletes to activate muscles properly such as firing the glutes by pushing through the big toe on the way up from a squat.

2. Escalating Density Training

If you work with large, strong people, interval training is probably low on their priority list of what they want to do. For them, there is a special breed of cardio work which is called Escalating Density Training, referred to from here on out as EDT.

EDT is pretty simple: pick two opposing movements (such as squat and bench, or weighted pull-ups and and overhead press), load 50% of your max on the bar, and then go back and forth doing single reps without any significant rest for 5 minutes or more. 

Example 1:

  • Back Squat @ 50% - 1 rep
  • Bench Press @ 50% - 1 rep
  • Repeat for 5min.

Example 2: 

  • Weighted Pull-Up @ 50% - 1 Rep
  • Overhead Press @ 50% - 1 Rep
  • Repeat for 5min.

At this load and duration, most generally strong folk will keep their heart rate within the magical cardio zone, but will be doing work which contributes to their goals of being strong. If you work with throwers, linemen, or sumo wrestlers, this can be your bread and butter "cardio" training. Remember, as long as their heart rate doesn't go above 80% of max, they will develop cardiovascular qualities while also working on strength qualities.

Bike Intervals

Another simple way to work on cardio qualities without skewing too far from sport specificity is to use bike sprints, preferably at the end of your workout where you've done either strength intervals or EDT.

Basically, warm up on the bike for a couple minutes spinning at a low resistance level, then hit intervals of 5-10 seconds at maximal RPM's and low to moderate resistance levels, followed by periods of easy spinning with little to no resistance. If done properly (and with heart rate zones monitored), the athlete should get their lungs working but not fill their legs with lactic acid.

Example Workout:

  • 1-3 circuits of strength intervals or EDT
  • 2 min easy spin bike warmup
  • 6x6 seconds at 25% resistance aiming for maximal RPMs
  • 1-2min easy spin between intevals
  • 2-3min easy spin cool-down (or just hop off and waddle around for a while till the blood circulates out of your legs)


What modifications can be made to enhance these workouts?

Since this information was probably more boring than you wanted to read, here are some special ways to spice up your aerobic training and make it more effective.

Exhale before each bout.

Say you are doing 8 second intervals with a kettlebell, and you've got 4 exercises in each set. Before you start each exercise, do this:

  • Take a deep breath in (soak it up while you can).
  • Exhale all the air completely (kiss it goodbye).
  • Do your interval without inhaling.
  • Frantically inhale once your interval is over.

Now, you may think that working for 8 seconds without any air isn't very tough, but you would be surprised at how quickly your brain scrambles to try and figure out what is going on before it kicks you in the diaphragm to try and get you to breath.

Why do we do this? By leaving no oxygen in your lungs, your body has to work hard in order to pick up any oxygen that is left in the blood. Over time, this has the effect of making your body scour and utilize oxygen more effectively, ultimately leading to better cardiovascular efficiency.

Use contralateral exercises.

Since we want to systemically challenge the body for aerobic development, but locally target strength and sport specific time zones, we do not want the same muscle working constantly the whole workout. Additionally, we want to find unique ways to challenge the cardiovascular system to push blood and oxygen to where and when it is needed.

To accomplish this, contralateral exercises work well. Say you do a step-up on the left leg while pressing a kettlebell with the right arm, then switch to right leg/left arm. Locally, the muscle fibers are working for the 10-or-so second interval, then they get to rest when the other side gets to work. This helps prevent local changes in fiber type, since you aren't challenging those muscle fibers for endurance to any large degree.

Systemically, the heart is having to work for the entire duration of the exercise, and has to work even harder when you switch to the other side. If a lot of blood is being sent to the left leg and right arm and you suddenly switch to the right leg and the left arm, the body has to figure out how to quickly get blood and oxygen flowing to those limbs which were not loaded previously. This helps challenge the body on a system-wide level for aerobic qualities, while saving the muscle fibers themselves from being worked for too long.

Utilize oscillatory reps.

As seen in the ATHLETE.X Instagram video above, oscillatory/oscillating reps are partial repetitions done at the end range of motion, relying significantly on elastic tissues for energy storage. By using these types of reps, you train the connective tissue to load and expel force in an elastic manner. Considering we want to run fast and jump well, elasticity is important. Also, oscillatory repetitions allow you to do more reps in a given period of time, allowing you to work on cues and position specific elastic strength more than if you did full range of motion movements.

Use this type of training in your off-season, on down days, or when you are over-trained.

Early in the training year, this type of training can be utilized for building an aerobic base. Eventually you need to focus on higher intensity training means, and at such time this aerobic work can be reduced in volume and utilized as a de-load day. As we talked about, getting the blood flowing is good for recovery, so it makes sense to put this type of training at some point in between your high intensity days. 

Lastly, if you are feeling over-trained, this type of work can be used for a week or so to de-load for a while and let your body recover faster than if you just sat on the couch the whole time. Athletes will still feel like they are working toward their goals since they're in the gym, but they will have the opportunity to let their system reboot and come back feeling better than before.

Conclusion

When it comes to aerobic training, we are not simply limited to long bouts of steady state exercise. By utilizing strength intervals, EDT, and bike intervals, you or your athletes can develop aerobic and cardiovascular qualities without sacrificing speed, strength, and healthy joints.

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