Aerobic or anaerobic training?  

It depends on the goal you set for yourself
December 6, 2018

When I meet with potential clients, we first have a conversation about how I can help them reach their goals. Most of the time, their overall goal is to improve performance levels.

For me to get a better idea of how I can help, I’ll have them tell me what type of training they have been doing for the past few months.  

The most common problem I’ve found athletes have in improving their performance is that they train at only one speed: They bang out mileage at the same speed, or they have the mentality that faster is better and do only high-intensity workouts.  

Individuals should first consider their goals. Is there an event they want to do well in? Do they want to lose weight? If there is an event goal, is it an endurance event or more of a sprint?

An endurance event is normally considered 90 minutes or longer, and a sprint event can be seen as 30 minutes or shorter.  

With longer events, athletes should put more focus on aerobic capacity. During longer events, there will be no point at which an athlete needs to produce a 95 percent-to-maximum-effort burst.  

Yet I actually see endurance athletes whose training is primarily higher-intensity workouts for the majority of their training. I believe misleading research, athletes who try to coach themselves, and the emergence of high-intensity group workouts like CrossFit have all contributed to this problem.

A Danish study in 2009 at Odense University tried to identify the benefits of high-intensity, or V02 max workouts for endurance athletes.  

Eight cyclists rode for 30-minute sessions at 80 percent to 90 percent VO2 max workload, while eight other cyclists rode the same 30-minute session at 88 percent to 95 percent VO2 max workload.

The groups did three sessions a week for five weeks. After the five-week study, athletes who rode at higher intensity were able to produce more wattage or power on the bike for short durations compared to the group that rode at a much lower intensity.  

However, there was no improvement to the aerobic capacity of the high-intensity group compared to the tempo group.  

Athletes read studies like this and believe if they train at maximum levels all year long they will improve. These athletes do not calculate the variables of periodization, the importance of aerobic capacity for a specific event, or the recovery time needed between workouts.  

This is where a coach is so beneficial. A coach can take a high-intensity workout and incorporate it into an athlete’s training at the correct time. Sports performance training is a scientifically based process that requires a well-educated professional to implement and monitor. Many athletes try to be their own coach, but they lack the knowledge and experience to be successful.

Here is the confusing part: endurance athletes need high-intensity workouts, and short, power-movement athletes need aerobic workouts. How both workouts are incorporated into a training plan will vary from athlete to athlete.

A general guideline can be 80 percent primarily active level, meaning endurance athletes train aerobic 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent antagonist training (high intensity of endurance athlete) and vice versa for power athletes. Again, let me emphasize this is just a guideline; the distribution of aerobic and antagonist training for each athlete will be different based on ability levels, activities and goals.

Power athletes who improve their aerobic capacity will be able to handle high workloads for long periods of time. In order to do that, there has to be some type of aerobic training.

Same can be said for endurance athletes. If a runner wants to get from point A to point B in a faster time, the runner will have to train at a faster pace than they race. This would be high-intensity workouts or anaerobic efforts.   

Individuals who understand their goals and the type of events they participate in should determine the balance for the type of training they do. Having a good balance between high-intensity and aerobic training will also reduce the likelihood of overtraining or hitting the plateau state that many athletes suffer from because they train at only one level of intensity.  

  • Kevin started Tricoach in 2007 after racing professionally for eight years. An endurance coach and personal trainer with a master's degree in exercise science and coaching, Kevin works with athletes of all ability levels, novice to professional. Contact Kevin at

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter