Building Your Tank: A Guide to Aerobic Training Methods
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
It's that all too familiar situation. The first session back of a new pre-season and without fail the coach has scheduled a gut busting 5km run or 2km time trial to gauge everyones fitness levels.
In your head you knew this moment was coming, but like the last 5 off-seasons another day at the races or session on the beers got in the way of that weekly off-season run you promised yourself you would do.
Despite your lack of preparation you manage to finish middle of the pack and not too far off your average time – but are you happy with good enough? Would you like to come back fitter than ever and turn that average result into a new PB instead of having to find the nearest bin afterwards?
If your answer to this question is YES, then the team at TRIAX performance are here to help you.
This article is going to unravel and explain the different aerobic training methods you can use during the off-season and pre-season to build your "tank" (aerobic capacity) and set your next season alight.
"Building the tank" is a term you have probably heard a thousand times at your grassroots training what does this actually mean? Well, before I explain the different aerobic training methods I will first unravel what your coach actually means when they say we are doing this to build your tank.
Building your tank or engine are terms often used to refer to training that is used to develop your aerobic capacity. So what is your aerobic capacity?
Aerobic capacity is defined as the amount of oxygen you are able to consume and utilise to metabolise (break down) carbohydrates and smaller amounts of fat and protein to create energy to fuel your body during exercise (1-4).
An analogy I like to use to explain this process is that your body is like a car.
Your muscles are the engine, the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in your body are your fuel and the oxygen you consume helps to burn the fuel to keep your engine running.
The faster you go, the more fuel and oxygen you need to keep your engine running at that speed. However, every car and person has a point where their engine can't go any faster and they reach their top speed. So, are you a Ferrari or a Hyundai Excel?
In exercise, your aerobic capacity is like reaching 100% of a car's top speed (capacity). This is the point at which your body can no longer consume the additional oxygen required to maintain or increase that intensity of exercise (1-4). This is known as your VO2max.
TRIAX Bonus Bit: Does reaching your VO2max mean you can no longer exercise?
The answer is NO. Testing has shown that after reaching your VO2max there is a short window of time (~10-120s) where you can continue at this capacity before having to reduce your intensity or stop completely (1). This period of exercise, however, is primarily fuelled using "anaerobic" (without oxygen - ATP-PC and Lactic Acid systems) not aerobic (oxygen based) metabolic pathways (1).
We will cover the topics of anaerobic metabolism and training methods in more detail in another article.
VO2max is a term you may have seen on your fitness apps or watches (disclaimer – these are not 100% accurate) but what exactly does this number represent? VO2max is defined as the maximum amount of oxygen you are able to consume and utilise during exercise and is measured in millilitres of oxygen consumed per minute, per kilogram of bodyweight (mL/kg/min).
VO2max is most accurately measured by completing a laboratory based VO2max test as shown in the below video (4).
OTHER VO2max TESTS
Laboratory based VO2max test are the most accurate method of obtaining a VO2max score. They are expensive and difficult to administer for multiple athletes. There are, however, a number of affordable, field-based tests that can be completed to estimate your VO2max score (4).
Beep/SHUTTLE RUN Test
This test is one of the older and more commonly used aerobic endurance tests, which many of you would have likely done before. This test involves continuously running between two cones 20m apart when prompted by the audio recording. Each shuttle starts with a "beep" and participants must reach the other end before the second "beep" as the test gradually increases in intensity each minute.
A participants result is determined by the stage at which they can no longer continue or if they fail to reach the end before the second beep for two shuttles in a row. This score is then entered into a formula to estimate their VO2max.
Yo-YO Intermittent TEST
This test is very similar to the above beep/shuttle run test. The key difference is that at one end of the 20m shuttle there is an extra 5m space in which the athlete must complete an active recovery (jog/walk) before the commencement of the next shuttle.
Results for this test are determined using the same rules at the beep/shuttle run test, with a similar formula used to estimate their VO2max.
SET DISTANCE TEST
This tests involves running a set distance (ie. 1 mile/1.6km or 2km time trial) as quickly as possible. The time to complete the test in seconds is then entered into a formula to estimate their VO2max.
Maximal aerobic Speed (MAS) Test
This test involves running at a set speed (km/h) for 2 minute intervals. After each 2 minute interval the running speed increases by 1km/h. The test runs until the participant can no longer complete a full 2 minute interval, with their last completed interval speed recorded as their result. The participants final running speed (km/h) is then entered into a formula to estimate their VO2max.
Untrained athletes starting pace - 8 to 10km/h
Trained athletes starting pace - 10 to 12km/h
Interested in running one of these tests at your local club? Get in touch for further information.
interpreting a VO2max score
I have just completed my VO2max test but what does this number actually tell me about my aerobic capacity and fitness?
Your VO2max score can be used to compare yourself against the normative values for your age and gender to determine your overall fitness levels against your demographic group.
Check out the tables below and see how you match up (5).
ACSM Female VO2max Normative Values (mL/kg/min)
ACSM Male VO2max Normative Values (mL/kg/min)
AEROBIC TRAINING METHODS
Now that you understand what aerobic capacity is, it's time to explore the different training methods you can use to improve your aerobic capacity and VO2max.
The is type of training involves completing low to moderate intensity exercise at a consistent pace without rest. There are two sub-categories of continuous training; slow and fast.
Slow Continuous Training
This type of continuous training involves longer, low intensity exercise and is normally a starting point for pre-season training or an athlete returning from injury. The main focus of this type of training is to "get K's in the legs" and prepare your body for a return to more intense exercise (4).
"The main focus of this type of training is to 'get K's in the legs'"
Intensity: <75% Maximal Aerobic Speed (MAS)
Duration: 20-60 minutes total (4, 5)
TRIAX Bonus Bit: What is Maximal Aerobic Speed (MAS)?
MAS = the lowest speed at which VO2max occurs, sometimes referred to as the velocity at VO2max (vVO2max). This metric is commonly used to prescribe training intensity and will be touched on further in the Interval training section below.
Fast Continuous Training
This type of continuous training involves shorter, higher intensity exercise and is the transitional point for switching from continuous to intermittent training. The main focus of fast continuous training is to increase the intensity of training in preparation for the introduction of intermittent training methods at intensities closer to VO2max (4).
Intensity: 75-90% MAS
Duration: 20-30 minutes total
Sets & Reps: >85% MAS you may wish to use 2-3, 10 minute reps (4, 5).
Originating from the Swedish word fartlek, meaning speed play, this method of interval training combines periods of high intensity effort with low intensity effort, rather than complete rest. This type of training is most commonly prescribed early in the pre-season/rehab phase to assist in transitioning from lower intensity continuous, to higher intensity interval training.
So how does fartlek work? Fartlek training is designed to target and develop your Lactate Threshold (LT) (6, 7).
Before I explain what LT is you first need to understand what lactate is. Lactate is like kryptonite for your muscles. Lactate, hydrogen ions (H+), magnesium (Mg2+) and several other substances are the by-products of aerobic energy production in the body. When not removed these by-products begin to impair your aerobic energy production and fatigue your muscles performance (6). While lactate is not the sole driver of fatigue during exercise, it is widely used and referred to as a measure of fatigue as it can easily be collected via a simple blood test.
LT on the other hand is the point of exercise or intensity at which lactate and other by-products are produced more rapidly than they can be removed. We can continue to exercise past our LT for a short period of time utilising anaerobic energy production. However, the increasing lactate levels will quickly fatigue your muscles and cause you to slow down or stop exercising completely (6, 7).
"Lactate is like kryptonite for your muscles ... it impairs and fatigues your muscles performance"
Therefore, the focus of fartlek training is train at or as close to your LT during the high-intensity efforts (sprints/fast jog). While, using the lower-intensity (light jog/fast walk) periods to recover and remove lactate in preparation for the next high-intensity burst. The benefits of adding fartlek training to your program is that it helps to develop greater resistance to the fatiguing effects of lactate and perform at higher intensities for longer (6,7).
Intensity: High intensity periods = 80-90% MAS / Low intensity periods = 60-70% MAS
Duration: 20-30 minutes total
Sets: 3-5 sets
Reps: 5-8 minute reps including both high & low intensity periods
Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets (6, 7)
High intensity interval Training (HIIT)
This type of training involves, short, high-intensity (100-120% MAS) efforts followed by equal or shortened periods of rest. The main focus of this training is to work at or above MAS to increase your ability to work at high intensities for longer, to increase your aerobic capacity and VO2max (5-7).
This type of training is a popular method for developing VO2max in team sports as it is extremely time-efficient. Using HIIT, athletes are able to complete a large volume of high intensity work to develop their VO2max, in under 20 minutes (5-7).
Whereas, to achieve similar benefits from continuous or fartlek training, you would need to train for 30-60 minutes and complete a much greater total volume of work (i.e. run a shit tonne further). Using HIIT is also beneficial for team sport athletes and coaches as it allows for more time to be spent on skill-specific training (5-7).
Intensity: 100-120% MAS
Duration: <20 minutes total
Sets: 1-3 sets
Reps: 2-5 reps, 30-120s in duration
Rest: 30-60s rest between reps and 1-2 mins rest between sets (5-7)
TRIAX Bonus Bit: You can break up your HIIT sets and complete them in between drills to maximise your skill based training but also build your tank.
Short HiIT (SHIIT)
YES, you read correctly. SHIIT training. But don't be alarmed, this is good SHIIT for targeting the improvement of both your VO2max and anaerobic capacity.
This type of training follows the same principles as HIIT and is also popular amongst team sports that require repeated high speed efforts with limited rest (ie. basketball, soccer and rugby league). The key differences between SHIIT and HIIT are the use of shorter, higher intensity intervals which place an additional emphasis on training anaerobic capacity (5-7).
Intensity: 110-130%+ MAS
Duration: 10-20 minutes total
Sets: 3-5 sets
Reps: 10-16 reps, 10-20s in duration
Rest: 10-20s rest between reps and 2-3 mins rest between sets (5-7)
Interested in implementing these training methods in your upcoming pre-season? Contact us!
aerobic training considerations
Before you begin choosing aerobic training methods this pre-season or during isolation there are some factors you need to take into consideration (4). Understanding these considerations will ensure that your training program is specific to you, and produces the most effective improvements in your aerobic capacity.
What level of athlete are you? A couch to 5km athlete, weekend warrior or olympian? The type and intensity of training you prescribe will be dependent on the initial capacity of your athlete/s.
For example, a sedentary athlete will have large improvements in VO2max with most aerobic training methods as they have little to no level of fitness. (4)
Whereas, an elite athlete will require a combination of training methods and higher training intensities to exhibit even small changes due to their existing level of fitness. (4)
What intensity should I train at for the best improvements in aerobic capacity?
It was long believed that long, slow continuous training at a minimum of 65% of maximum heart rate was effective in developing VO2max. However, the weight of recent research indicates that to obtain the greatest improvements in VO2max, training should be conducted at intensities between 90-100% of VO2max (4).
How many session per week do I need to complete to improve my VO2max?
For sedentary, low level trained athletes (VO2max <50) a minimum of two aerobic training sessions is required to improve VO2max. While, for well-trained athletes (VO2max >50) a minimum of at least 3 aerobic training sessions is required to improve VO2max (4).
How long do I need to exercise for during a training session to achieve the greatest benefits?
Thankfully, you don't have to run all day to improve your VO2max.
Evidence indicates that aerobic training sessions between 35-45 minutes are optimal for developing VO2max for athletes of all fitness levels (4).
This one is a bit of common sense. If you are training a swimmer would you get them to do all of their training on a bike to improve their VO2max?
NO. You would prescribe the majority of their training in the pool. This does not mean you cannot prescribe the occasional alternate training session (run/cycle) throughout their program to provide some variety. However, the the main focus of your training should be to develop sport specific VO2max improvements.
There you have it. That's TRIAX's guide to building your tank and aerobic training methods.
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about the author
Strength and Conditioning Coach
M.App.Sp.Sci, ESSA L1 Sports Scientist, ASCA L1 Coach
Available for individualised online coaching
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