Why You Need to Build an Aerobic Base by Chris Graham


[Chris Graham is currently a graduate student at The University of Texas at Tyler where he is studying Kinesiology. He is currently a sport performance intern in the Athletic Lab mentorship program.]

When it comes to conditioning for athletes, it seems that all the emphasis over the last several years has shifted toward using high intensity interval training (HIIT) to develop an athletes conditioning as a shortcut compared to long slow distance (LSD) training. There are many reasons for this including the old paradigm that if you train slow you’ll be slow, games are played at high intensity so training should be at high intensity, or that training at these high intensities will build mental toughness in athletes, but is this the best approach to take when planning for long term improvements and sustained aerobic gains for athletes?

While we may immediately think of most sports outside of marathons and other long distance events, as almost purely anaerobic, therefore prioritizing high intensity training, the majority of sports include a large aerobic portion in terms of energy pathway utilization. This happens in a number of ways, either there are short bursts of high speed and power interspersed with rest periods, or there’s some form of to moderate to high level of activity that only lasts a minute or two at a time. While on the surface this looks like an activity fueled primarily through the ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolytic systems, Gaitanos et al found that over the course of 10 six second sprints, anaerobic ATP production dropped by 64% while total power output only dropped 27% (Gastin, 2001, p. 731). This would suggest that aerobic energy contribution increased over the course of those ten sprints so that the athlete could meet the energy demands for the later sprints. McGawley et al also found that over the course of 5 six second sprints, aerobic contribution increased from ~10% to ~40%. So even though the work periods are fairly short, the more we do, the greater their aerobic contribution.

Another study found that repeat sprint ability (RSA) was correlated with an athletes minimum velocity to reach their VO2max (vVO2max) as well as their velocity at the onset of blood lactate accumulation (vOBLA). So to improve performance in repeat sprints or typical game situations, it’s beneficial to increase an athlete’s aerobic speed, which is the speed that they can maintain while still in a predominantly aerobic energy zone. By improving the efficiency and output of the aerobic energy system, you will be able to reach higher speeds before reaching your anaerobic threshold which is where the OBLA occurs (Kindermann, 1979).
Researchers have found that when exercising maximally or near maximal levels, the aerobic system responds rapidly and at around 60-75 seconds becomes the predominant energy supplier. In non-maximal exercise, it is estimated that shift to aerobic dominance occurs around 20-30 seconds (Gastin, 2001, p. 736). This is in contrast to the notion that the aerobic energy system is “slow” and only responds to low intensity activity. With this information, it becomes clear that any athlete that competes in anything that has repeated all out efforts, or near maximal intensities that last longer than 20 seconds should develop their aerobic base in training.

When it comes to building an aerobic base, there have been various studies to show that you can improve your aerobic fitness through HIIT at a faster rate compared to LSD training, however many of these studies do not state that the majority of aerobic gains were mostly made in the first few weeks and then plateaued through the remainder of the study. Maffetone found (2016) that after an extended period of HIIT, aerobic capacity began to deteriorate the longer this training method was used. In addition, many HIIT studies mainly only measure VO2max which is not significantly correlated with the ability to repeat sprints (Da Silva, 2010, p. 2120). Even though you’ve increased your ability to use more oxygen for energy, you do not become more efficient at using that oxygen for energy production.The best way to increase aerobic efficiency is by training in an aerobic zone either through steady state training or an interval method where you don’t allow your heart rate to get above (180-your age), which is a formula that estimates the intensity that will correspond to your maximum aerobic function as calculated by Maffetone. There are some modifications to this based on health and training status which must be taken into account, for those recovering from a major illness (surgery, hospital stay, etc..) or are on any medication you should subtract 10 from your calculation, for people who are just getting back into training, have become injured, regressed in training, are inconsistent, or get more than two colds per year you should subtract 5 from your calculation, if you are consistent with your training (4x per week) without any problems then use your calculated number, if you have been training for two plus years without any problems and have progressed in competition then you should add 5 to your calculation. While these modifications will work for the majority of the population, for some high level athletes you may need to add 10 to your calculation if you find adding 5 not enough after self-assessment. For the many people who do not have heart rate monitors, this intensity typically corresponds to about 65% of your maximal speed (Bertuzzi, 2013, p. 456).

While building an aerobic base hasn’t always been seen as the sexy and fun parts of training, it may prove to be one of the most beneficial in terms of maintaining performance throughout games and competition. Because of this, it’s imperative that we train our athletes in these aerobic zones to increase their efficiency at using oxygen for energy production, which will increase their vOBLA and vVO2max.


Bertuzzi, R., Nascimeto, E.M.F., Uro, R., Damasceno, M., Lima-Silva, A., (2013) Energy System Contributions During Incremental Exercise Test. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 12, 454-460.

Da Silva, J.F., Guglielmo, L.G.A., & Bishop, D., (2010). Relationship Between Different Measures of Aerobic Fitness and Repeated-Sprint Ability in Elite Soccer Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (8), 2115-2121.

Gastin, P. (2001) Energy System Interaction and Relative Contribution During Maximal Exercise. Sports Medicine, 31, 725-741.

Kindermann, W., Simon, G., & Keul, J. (1979). The Significance of Aerobic-Anaerobic Transition for the Determinants of Work Load Intensities During Endurance Training. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 42, 25-34.

Maffetone, P., (2016, June 22) MAF Exercise Heart Rate – How it can help improve health and sports performance. Retrieved from https://philmaffetone.com/white-paper-maf-exercise-heart-rate-can-help-improve-health-sports-performance/

Maffetone, P., (2016, June 22) An Introduction to MAF – Maximum Aerobic Function. Retrieved from https://philmaffetone.com/white-paper-introduction-maf-maximum-aerobic-function/

McGawley, K., Bishop, D., (2015). Oxygen Uptake During Repeated-Sprint Exercise. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18, 214-218.