Tennis anyone? How about team sports and car-racing? We all need aerobic fitness to prevent injuries, get healthy, and burn off more fat.

Endurance athletes know the importance of building the best-possible aerobic systems. A high percentage of the total energy used to participate in activities such as distance running, triathlon, cycling and cross-country skiing is generated through the aerobic system.

Training slow to get fast is an often heard comment in the MAF camp. It appears counter-intuitive, but building endurance involves optimal development of our slow-twitch muscles, also called aerobic. For example, 99 percent of the energy needs in a marathon comes from the aerobic system. For an Ironman triathlon it’s more than that, and in relatively shorter races such as a 10k run, it’s still 95 percent. Even for events such as the mile, 65 percent of the required energy depends on the aerobic system.

Aerobic fitness also has important benefits for those who participate in power sports, including team competition, as well as sports like track and field. Developing the aerobic system helps support explosive activities like lifting and sprinting. In addition, aerobic function is a key to optimal well-being, especially for all athletes who want to avoid injuries, ill health and overtraining while lengthening their careers.

Other improvements for all types of athletes include added movement and cross-training benefits.

While the no-pain, no-gain trend has dominated the fitness boom for several decades, its success is highly questionable if not a complete failure. Injury rates are soaring, athletes are equally susceptible to disease as sedentary people, rates of obesity have tripled, and even a high percentage of athletes are now part of the worldwide overfat epidemic.

One clear problem is that most exercise and athletic training programs completely ignore the value of the aerobic system, and most also do not establish an adequate aerobic base before adding anaerobic workouts.

Minimalist workouts for maximum performance

I developed the the 180 Formula to help professional and amateur endurance athletes, as well as everyday health enthusiasts, achieve their fitness goals. I’ve also used these same principles to help others in a wide variety of athletic endeavors, including, football, baseball, tennis, swimming, car-racing, sailing and even hot-air ballooning. The same principle always applies — a well-developed aerobic system is the basis for optimal performance.

This system involves a high volume of low-intensity exercise. Not only does this have an effect on muscles at the cellular level, it also increases the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel — yes, even for sprinters — while improving the immune system and reducing the risk of injuries.

A frequently asked question is whether different heart rates should be used for different sports. For example, should the maximum aerobic heart rate, as determined by the 180 Formula, while swimming be different when the same athlete is cycling or running? How about walking, or tennis? The short answer is no. The 180-Formula holds true for all aerobic training activities.

At the same heart rate, all sports require essentially the same levels of metabolic activities. However, other aspects are quite different when comparing swimming to running, for example. One significant difference is perceived exertion. One objective factor that makes perceived exertion so different is gravity stress. The difference in this stress between swimming and running is dramatic; there is very little gravity influence in the water, but that same force is maximally affecting the body during running. A great deal of energy may not have to go into countering gravity stress in the pool, but just the opposite is true during a run. And, partly related to gravity stress is the increased volume of muscle activity during running compared to swimming.

Of course, the time to start aerobic training for all athletes is long before competition begins — soon after the conclusion of the previous season is ideal. Measuring progress during this period with a heart monitor is important not only for the athlete, but for the coach, trainer, healthcare professional, and others involved in the overall conditioning process. Once more sport-specific training begins, the heart-rate monitor can still be used to ensure proper warm-up and cool-down, interval-type workouts and overall recovery.

Because I’ve worked with athletes in virtually all sports, my approach to overall conditioning — improving fitness and health and building aerobic function — is very similar. Below are examples of the use of heart monitors in different sports. But all sports are not listed: Once the general idea is clear, applying these methods in any sport or exercise will be relatively easy.

Tennis

Endurance is a significant component in tennis. Consider the length of time — from the start of a warm-up to the conclusion of the final round, especially if it’s a long and difficult match. In these events a significant amount of energy (perhaps 50–60 percent or more) comes from the aerobic system. So a tennis player relies heavily on aerobic function to get through an event. And, the more aerobically trained (the more readily a player can access fat-burning for energy), the more glycogen will be conserved. As the player gets to the later games and sets, there will be more anaerobic function for speed and power instead of significant fatigue. We all know that a long tennis match can be won or lost in later sets, and we can recall some of the great matches of tennis legends such as Bjøn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Venus and Serena Williams, and Billie Jean King that taxed the bodies of these competitors to the very end. It often comes down to who has the most energy left rather than mere talent.

By training the aerobic system, tennis players can ensure more than adequate reserves at the end of their matches, and nearly unlimited energy overall, reductions in injuries, and the many other benefits the aerobic system provides.

Using a heart monitor will not only help develop the aerobic system but will provide important feedback regarding aerobic progress. For example, a player starting out may play a one-hour match with an average heart rate of 150, with heart rate peaks hitting 185. After developing a good aerobic system, this same player may now be able to compete in the same match with an average heart rate of 130 and the heart rate never going over 155. This is a dramatic difference, and shows the power of good aerobic function. Conserved glycogen, maintained muscle balance (to prevent fatigue and optimize the swing), improved neurological function (eye-hand coordination), improved hydration, and many other benefits follow.

During the aerobic training period (before the competitive season), a heart-rate monitor should be worn during play and the maximum aerobic heart rate not exceeded. As time goes on, the player will be able to perform much harder without the heart rate going up as much. This reflects increased energy, which allows the rest of the body — especially the brain and muscles — to function at much higher levels. If a tennis player regularly uses a stationary bike or runs to help train the aerobic system, that player will improve in these activities as well (i.e., biking or running faster at the same heart rate).

Basketball

During the off-season, common in virtually all team sports, an athlete can develop a great aerobic base through running, biking, swimming, or any endurance workout. During this period, getting on the court also can include wearing a heart-rate monitor, as long as the athlete does not exceed the maximum aerobic heart rate. As the weeks go by, more and more intensity can be gained on the basketball court at the same heart rate, so that as the preseason approaches, a high-level practice game may not bring the heart rate nearly as high as during the start of aerobic training. Players who develop an aerobic base have much more energy, better eye-hand coordination, and overall better function, especially in the latter part of a game.

Motor Sports

Among the more interesting sports in which I’ve introduced athletes to the use of heart-rate monitors is race-car driving. I’ve worked with Mario and Michael Andretti, Derek Bell, Al Holbert, and others. Like with many traditional sports, including baseball and football, bringing new ideas into motor sports was not easy. My entry was helped originally after  working with a young, unknown driver named Chip Robinson. I trained him like an endurance athlete so his brain and body functioned better behind the wheel going at triple digit speeds in heavy traffic. He wore a heart monitor during all his preseason endurance training, which included mostly running and walking. He even entered some running races for fun.

However, behind the wheel during practice sessions the stress of driving was evident. So I had him wear a heart monitor during these driving sessions (and even during races). I discovered that his heart rate, which I later confirmed in other drivers, nearly paralleled his driving speed in miles per hour. Chip’s, however, was more over-reactive than the other drivers’, demonstrating his need to build a bigger aerobic base.

A race-car driver may be running the car at relatively slow warm-up speeds of 90–100 miles per hour, for example, and the heart rate will often be at that level too. Driving poses a certain amount of inherent risk, and a high level of alertness is necessary to perform well and avoid crashes. This all translates into stress, which raises the heart rate — the faster the speed the higher the heart rate. I’ve seen 180 mph equate to heart-rate peaks of 180.

For a race-car driver, this information is very important, especially for those who overreact while driving fast, which was one of Chip’s problems. If a better aerobic system is developed, the heart rate will not overreact, although it will still rise to “normal” race levels. An appropriate heart rate, considering the stress of driving at very high speeds, improves a driver’s ability and makes him or her a better competitor. It also improves eye-hand coordination and adrenal function.

A feature common to all sports and physical activities is that a highly developed aerobic system translates into greater efficiency — allowing an athlete to run, walk, play, ride and drive faster at the same lower heart rate. This also is reflected in increased burning of stored fat for energy, reducing the body’s storage of fat, an added benefit to this type of training.

Join the discussion 29 Comments

  • James Ammon says:

    For weight lifting – would you do one less rep or less weight so you don’t go over your heart rate?

  • Dan says:

    Very nice! I would like to see an article that addresses injuries and recovering methods; something that orthopedic Drs don’t get into. In my case severe tress fractures after fast paced running with minimalist sandals, even though I took things slowly up to that point, in terms of speed and and mid foot striking adaptation. Thanks

  • Richardrkibbey says:

    Have you used. MAF with boxers?

  • John Campise says:

    Thank you. Makes so much sense.

    Does it matter for a race car driver if the MAF is developed using running, swimming, biking, or other?

  • JPW says:

    Would be very interested to see a similar article dealing with benefits of MAF for martial arts, MMA, sports jujitsu, karate, judo etc. and how much is the right amount of MAF style training- minimal effective dose, or at least a method for calculating your individual MAF volume.

    • JPW:

      I’ve noticed that Conor McGregor uses a very low-intensity training system as his method. Even though it’s not exactly “MAF,” most of us in the MAF team look at his training and see MAF training by another name. You should check it out.

    • Dimitri says:

      Agreed. Perhaps an article in the near-future regarding MAF training, as it pertains specifically to combat sports/arts (boxing, wrestling, judo, mma, etc.) based on Dr. Phil’s prior experience with such athletes. I’m positive a lot of readers of this site would find it helpful and useful.

  • Ingrid says:

    My daughter is interested in using this method for high school cross country training. Is this applicable in training for a 1600 meter competition? Hopefully she can convince her coach to read your material.

    • Ingrid:

      The principles surely are. It will probably end up being the case that the coach modifies this from the specific numbers we suggest. But for just about every sport, a majority of the training should be aerobic. How much is enough depends on the specific sport.

  • Joshua says:

    Hi there, I am a professional squash player. My sport regularly includes big spikes in heart rate. Rallies average 30 seconds and can last as long as 2 minutes at high intensity with only a short rest, maybe 20 seconds, in between. I often do a lot of interval training but still find I am fatiguing in matches. I’ve read much of your research and articles. Can you recommend the optimal way to avoid fatigue in this kind of sport?

    Please let me know your articles have been very enlightening and completely changed my perspective on training.

    Best, Josh

    • Joshua says:

      Also. Matches last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

      Best, Josh

    • Joshua: Avoidance of fatigue in all sports is primarily the domain of Type I “slow twitch” muscle fibers, which are trained through prolonged low-intensity training that does not culminate in fatigue. Fast-twitch muscle fibers (which are developed preferentially by interval training) are not fatigue resistant by nature, so interval training does little to further increase fatigue resistance of an already relatively fit body. Training to fatigue, while increasing psychological habituation to fatigue, actually decreases physiological tolerance of fatigue over the long-term.

      Put another way, the best way to develop the systems that protect against fatigue is to (perhaps counterintuitively) train the body to remain in a prolonged state of easy activity that does not increase fatigue. This is what we refer to as “aerobic training.”

      My specific suggestion to you is to take your off-season and break it down into 2 parts: an aerobic base training block (2-3 months, ideally) and a sports-specific training block that you have ascertained is enough to regain your competitive edge.

      As far as your regular, in-season training, I would recommend that you replace the interval training sessions that were intended to build fatigue resistance with low-intensity aerobic training.

      • Joshua says:

        Awesome! Thanks for the response. My off season has just started and I will definitely do this!

        I have another question. Will the low intensity aerobic training during the regular competitive season suffice as to keep my heart and lungs in optimal condition? I.e. My muscles will be fatigue resistant, but will my heart and lungs suffer? (When those 20 odd seconds of rest come inbetween rallies I have to make the most of them to recover).

        Also. Is it okay to continue to build muscle through weight training while building an aerobic base?

        Please let me know you guys have helped me very much!

        • Joshua:

          Thanks for your answer, sorry I couldn’t answer earlier. I’m very busy, and it’s only me answering comments and e-mails in order to keep up the quality!

          The answer is that your heart and lungs won’t “suffer” or get atrophied by low-intensity aerobic training during the competitive season. To the contrary—aerobic training actually occurs in the optimum range of operation for the heart and lungs: the intensity where you’re getting the most oxygen and pumping the most blood for the organs’ efforts. So in a very literal way, aerobic training optimizes the heart and lung functioning. However, there are other reasons to maintain some interval training, such as maintaining your neuromuscular edge.

          So keep doing intervals. What I meant is that if you were doing additional interval sessions, not for the purpose of neuromuscular or cardiovascular training, but to improve fatigue resistance, remove the fatigue resistance ones and only do the ones you were doing for neuromuscular training. Typically, very few kinds of athletes whose sports have a significant aerobic component need more than 20-25% anaerobic/high intensity activity (of their total athletic activity including events) during the competitive season.

          While you are building an aerobic base, you cannot build more muscle through weight training. It is 2 very different things. This is why the most elite athletes will religiously devote themselves to their off-season and their base-training season, and do little else than appropriate aerobic training. Whenever you see an athlete deviating from this, expect to see an article about how overtraining ended their career a few years down the line.

          • Joshua says:

            Thank you again for the response! I really appreciate you taking the time.

            Last question. I think..

            When you say do interval sessions for the sake of neuromuscular training are you referring to interval training such as ladder drills and sports specific court movements?(Exercises like with quick movements and long rest) Or intervals such as bike sprints and anaerobic exercises for neuromuscular training?(Intervals on the bike or track usually consist of 60 seconds – 100 seconds on with 60 seconds rest).

            And, last one for sure now.. when is the best time to integrate weight training?

            Thank you again for your insight

          • Joshua:

            While both of those training types classify as high-intensity from a metabolic perspective, ladder-drills and sports-specific court movements are all about explosive power development within the specific skill paradigm of your sport—these are much more characterizable as “neuromuscular training”. In contrast, interval training is high-end metabolic training that hones the body’s energy utilization and metabolic recovery. In other words, both kinds of training are neuromuscular and high-end metabolic, but sports-specific stuff explicitly hones the neuromuscular aspect and intervals explicitly hones the high-end aspect of the metabolism.

            Both are important, and should form part of your routine.

            If by weight training you mean hypertrophy training, then that is best included immediately after a period of base-building. During the core training season I like doing a mixture of aerobic to weight to intervals to sports-specific (something like 70-10-10-10) but if we were to blow this up over the course of the year, I would do: 2-3 month aerobic base building with a bit of low-intensity skill training, 1 month skill (with a bit of hypertrophy), 1 month hypertrophy (with a bit of skill), and then 1 month focusing more on high-end metabolic training (30 anaerobic 70 aerobic).

            This what I would do in a very general sense. The demands of a stacked competitive season, or the characteristics of specific athletes might warrant considerable modification to this model.

            The reason I like doing it this way is because I like building skill as early as possible (without it getting in the way of aerobic base building), then adding in strength once I know that my skill is good enough, and then adding in high-end metabolic (which is the likeliest to injure) once the body is strong and skillful enough to resist that kind of demand.

      • Joshua says:

        Also, training usually consists of intervals in the morning followed by an on court session and a weight session/yoga in the afternoons. Do you recommend building the aerobic base before the on court/ weights or at the end of the day for optimal recovery and results?

        • James says:

          Hi Ivan
          When you say ‘muscle building’ do you specifically mean hypertrophy specific training and not strength training? As Mark Allen strongly recommends strength training whilst also training aerobically -in this article https://www.markallencoaching.com/time-crunched-training/

          • James:

            Yes, I mean hypertrophy-specific training.

            Notice that the article title is “time-crunched training”—meaning that it’s not for aerobic base-building. Hypertrophy-specific training is important and awesome to do while also doing aerobic training, but this type of training is known as polarized training, and constitutes the nucleus of a typical athlete’s training season. While crucial, it does not satisfy the requirements for “building an aerobic base.” (It does, however, satisfy the requirements for other stuff, which is why it’s important and Mark Allen recommends it).

            Effectively, “doing aerobic training” and “building an aerobic base” are 2 different things: the first is one is including a type of training in your workout routine (which may also include any of a number of other exercise types in significant proportions). The second is creating the environment conducive to the development of an aerobic base (especially one which has been stressed or degraded by a racing season, lifestyle stresses, hasn’t been built in the first place, or must be taken to greater heights of competence).

            And (supposing you don’t live in a pastoral or hunter-gatherer context where you are obligated to walk for tens of miles every day) this can only be done with a chunk of time set aside for it every year. In other words, to create or maintain an aerobic base, you need a sizable chunk of time every year where you purposefully “un-crunch” your training and dedicate yourself to building one.

            Hope this helps.

      • James says:

        Hi Ivan,
        Great comment as usual conveyed in an easy to understand way. Most of the (amateur) team sports competitors I know (soccer, rugby etc) do virtually no ‘true’ (as MAF would define it) aerobic training. Yet they wonder why they fatigue so much towards the end of a match and don’t recover quickly from hard plays. Most of those in team sports culture (as well as general fitness enthusiasts who go to the gym etc) still believe that ‘slow’ aerobic training ‘slows you down’.

        • Thanks!

          I fully agree, but let me temper that with a caveat: if you want to fold more steel into a knife and make it stronger, it has to lose its edge in the process (but not its quality). Aerobic training is like re-forging a knife, and anaerobic training is like sharpening its edge. Hope this metaphor makes sense.

          Sometimes, when a knife is constantly losing its edge, you have to upgrade it, and then, after it’s upgraded, you can put the edge back on (and expect the knife to hold it better).

  • Jasen borshoff says:

    I’m a Division 1 wrestling coach and I have recently had two different people in two different countries tell me to read about this type of training. Without asking many questions at first, can you link me Connor McGregor training regime (the most precise you have found)? I’d like to delve into that and more of your content before I ask any questions!

    Thank you

    • Jasen:

      Thanks for your comment.

      At the moment I don’t have a good in-depth source. My best suggestion at the moment is to use “Conor Mcgregor Slow Sparring” as search terms. McGregor doesn’t use slow training expressly for its metabolic advantages (he uses it for their neuromuscular training advantages). However, we at MAF believe that McGregor has been reaping both metabolic and neuromuscular advantages from this kind of training—which we believe his dominance in the sport is partly attributable to.

      Some neuromuscular advantages:
      – Low accumulated fatigue (means maintenance of voluntary contractile power)
      – Lower speed allows a higher ability to troubleshoot and perfect skills, and to train higher-level skills

      Some metabolic advantages:
      – Training slow implies low intensity, which means low homeostatic disturbance
      – Low intensity means increased fat oxidation and therefore greater development of endurance

      A caveat, of course, is that a significant portion of McGregor’s training is the classical high-intensity stuff that helps development of power. But we believe that his sophisticated approach of including a large volume of low-intensity exercise is key to his success.

  • Ray says:

    The difficult question is always, how much aerobic training do you need? I totally get the need for all athletes to have some aerobic base, but do you have any guidelines with regards to different sports.

    For example a defensive lineman in the NFL, probably needs some aerobic training but you don’t want to spend too much time developing that system at the detriment of their power development.

    • James says:

      Ray – Ivan will no doubted give a more in depth response than myself but I think its fairly straightforward to analyse different sports and look at how much aerobic training is required. At a basic level the longer the event the more aerobic training will dominate – for example long distance running, triathlons, mountaineering. Then at the opposite end of the scale sports like NFL and powerlifting. Sports such as tennis, soccer, rugby, squash are somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. I’d say you have to look at the individual to determine how much aerobic training they need. If they perform poorly at the end of matches compared to the start (relative to their competition) then I’d say they need more aerobic training. With better endurance you can actually express a higher percentage of max power at the end of a match.

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