Throughout my career, I have recommended many types of anaerobic training. This includes intervals on the track, hill training on the bike, hard 100s in the pool, and various types of weight workouts.
I’ve also performed all these and others myself at different times. Even though I no longer compete, I still perform both anaerobic training and strength workouts at various points throughout the year.
As most people know, my recommendation is also to start and stop anaerobic training at the appropriate times during a yearly schedule in an organized way so it does not interfere with endurance, health or performance.
While building a huge aerobic base is a key goal for optimal endurance, strength is vital too. The option of anaerobic training can help round out a balanced program, although many athletes use racing as their anaerobic training, and with great success. (Of course, without a healthy diet and proper regulation of stress, even the perfect training program will fall short.)
Through the years, these two types of workouts have been most consistent in bringing great results to competitive athletes, and they are also the ones I perform.
The Ultimate Anaerobic Workout
It’s simple, ask your brain to guide your workout and you usually won’t go wrong. After all, that’s just what happens during a race, whether you’re aware of it or not. In addition to the physical body, you’re also training your brain and learning to develop better intuition and instincts. My favorite way to do this is with fartlek workouts, which can be done running, biking, swimming or with any other endurance activity.
Fartlek is a Swedish word for speed-play. Following a good warm-up, the athlete speeds up, typically at or near race pace, then slows down as he or she intuitively feels the body needing a brief rest of slower activity. This allows the brain to participate in the workout, so to speak, feeling the body’s response to the workout and knowing when to ease up. It’s like a natural interval workout.
For example, following your warm-up, bike above your MAF heart rate until your brain tells you to slows you down; then ease up from the higher intensity. When ready, gradually speeding up again when you feel ready. Likewise for running, or any other activity.
For many, the fartlek workout is a relief from the burden of the track and clock, or some predetermined workout that seemed interesting at the time but that may not match your body’s specific needs during the workout on that particular day. Fartlek is a great way to individualize the workout your brain can handle on a particular day.
The Ultimate Strength Workout
It’s not just about muscles—bones must be strong too. For endurance athletes, an important factor is to strengthen both muscles and bone, while avoiding added bulk, which reduces economy slowing your race pace. It’s not necessary to bulk up muscles to make them stronger. There are three different approaches to accomplish this with any single one—or combinations of approaches—working equally well.
Unfortunately, too many people, endurance athletes and everyone else, are too weak. This problem typically starts to develop in our mid- to late-20s, long before our endurance abilities peak, and can become serious by age 50. And, of course, improving bone strength is vital too.
Despite the hype, weight training does not guarantee improvements in bone strength. In fact, it can sometimes reduce it. In addition, fatigue, overtraining and injury are too common.
Strength is not always associated with muscle size. It’s the brain, and entire neuromuscular system, that dictates power. Simply put, the brain stimulates nerves that control individual muscle fibers to contract. The more fibers stimulated and contracted, the more strength. Just having a large mass of muscle does not ensure more fibers will be stimulated to generate power. That’s why a skinny kid who can contract a lot of muscle fibers can be stronger than a big bulky athlete who can’t contract large numbers of fibers. (Strength, power and speed all play an important role.)
Instead of images of bulky bodybuilder muscles, let’s take a lesson from Olympic weightlifters. They want the most strength from their bodies without too much additional muscle weight gain, which can put them into a higher weight category where competition may be more difficult. Apart from the heavyweight and super heavyweight categories, these athletes generally are not bulky, but have very strong muscles and bones—more so than bodybuilders.
Lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions can increase muscle strength and bone density better than lifting lighter weights with higher repetitions. This does not mean more weight is better. Use this guide: an appropriate weight is about 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum weight. This is also the weight you can lift about six times before fatigue develops—you don’t want to fatigue your muscles at each workout, so build up slowly to learn your limits.
This approach also means a shorter workout is necessary. In fact, you may be spending more time resting between reps than lifting! Even more significant is that in the time it takes the average person to travel to a gym and back, he or she could have completed the same workout at home.
You really only need to perform a couple of full body routines to build muscle and bone strength, and without interfering with your endurance. The two easiest and most effective ones include the dead lift and squat (front, overhead and or back):
- Reps: 1-6 reps in each set.
- Sets: 4 (more if time and energy permit).
- Lifting should be done relatively fast not slow.
- Recovery between sets should be three minutes (timed), more if desired.
- All movements should be smooth and natural.
- As you get stronger, slowly increase the amount of weight rather than repetitions.
- Three times per week, more if time permits.
- Warm-up: 15 minutes (walk, easy run or other easy aerobic activity)
- Dead lift: 5 reps
- Recovery: 3 minutes
- Squat: 5 reps
- Recovery: 3 minutes
- Repeat above lifts three more times
- Cool-down (same as warm up)
Don’t try these workouts at home or at the gym if you’re injured, have frequent colds, flu, asthma and allergies, or other indications of diminished health. Likewise if you don’t have a good functioning aerobic system, which helps the power muscle fibers function and prevents injury. Developing the aerobic system should be accomplished first (for at least three months) before implementing a strength program (see The Balance Game).
In addition consider these recommendations:
- When starting a strength program, even if you’re familiar with it, begin conservatively with less weight and reps. Take several weeks to gradually build up. In many cases, use a barbell without added weight so you get used to the movements, then slowly add small amounts of weight every couple of weeks.
- If you’re new to lifting weights, get some professional one-on-one guidance.
My favorite strength training involves working outdoors—chopping wood, lifting logs and stones and other natural activities. When I’m not doing this, I perform slow weights—a method I developed whereby one performs a single set of about six reps at various times throughout the day in between phone calls, email, meals and other activities: see Slow Weights.
So say goodbye to isolation exercises—those that attempt six-pack abs and bulging biceps, and weight gain that too often gives the illusion of great strength. In addition to muscles, bones should be strengthened too. A simple, safe and short routine will accomplish both in a healthy way.
After 1 month of training:
Once you’ve spent a full month successfully incorporating a small amount of anaerobic training into your routine, it’s now a good moment to analyze how your body has reacted to this level of training. We recommend that you re-do the MAF Test and re-take the Overtraining Survey in order to figure out whether the following month of training should include an anaerobic component.
We also recommend that each month, you re-do the MAF Test and take inventory of your body’s function in a manner similar to the Overtraining Survey.
Now that you’ve spent a month training, you’ve gotten the hang of how to incorporate the MAF exercise principles into your life. It’s time to move on to the following step of the MAF Online Program. If you haven’t started the online program and would like to read more about it, click here. Click the button below to go to Survey 6, which will help you begin to understand how the major stresses in your lifestyle are impacting your health and fitness: