We have two systems that provide energy when we exercise: anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen). In really simple terms, we use the anaerobic system during short bouts of exercise. The aerobic system takes over after about 90 seconds. The major difference is what waste product gets produced. They both break down glucose but anaerobic respiration produces lactic acid (the stuff that makes your muscles burn); while aerobic respiration produces carbon dioxide and water.
Training your anaerobic system can help you run for the bus; improves your body’s ability to deal with lactic acid; and forces your heart to become more efficient.
As a dragon boater I am acutely aware that I am an aerobic endurance athlete. But whenever I race (which typically takes less than 2:30) I feel the need to train my anaerobic system. I want to improve what I can do and contribute at the start and middle of the race and make the transition into my aerobic system and the end of the race more efficient, but how?
In one study, researchers compared moderate intensity endurance exercise to high intensity intermittent training (7-8 20 s high intensity with 10 s rest intervals). While the moderate endurance training improved the maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) it did not affect anaerobic capacity. On the other hand, the intermittent high intensity exercise improved VO2 max a bit, but improved anaerobic capacity by approximately 25%.
So, what type of training do you need to do? It depends on how long your race lasts for. In dragon boating both are useful, but the intermittent high intensity may have more potential to improve performance because the majority of a 500 m race relies on the anaerobic system.
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