Train the Cardio – part 1

Combat Sports clearly have a strong Cardio element.

However, do we really work the Cardio the right way to enhance performance and fight fatigue?

I still see people training slow pace long distance cardio like 40+ years ago. In many Thai camps, you still have fighters running 10K every day, doing more harm than good. Their running training simply does not match the acyclic pace of their fight!

The Energy system

Energy System is what defines our activity and our Training; every sport, action, and movement is based on energy systems and its energy production is crucial for performance; the fitter you are the more efficient in producing and using energy, but also at recovering. Energy is the currency with which our bodies can sustain activity.

There are three main in-built Energy Systems:

1) Alactic Anaerobic (or more precisely Phosphagen System)

2) Lactic Anaerobic (Glycolysis – Fast and Fast+oxidative)

3) Aerobic (Oxidative System)

Also there are 3 players in this game, we need to keep in mind.

  • ATP (adenosine triphosphate – providing energy to many biochemical processes through its own breakdown and whose production and synthesis changes according to the energy system.
  • Lactate (a byproduct of the glycolytic system, which has a bad rap, but in reality can be a great source of energy)
  • Oxygen (no need of presentations here, but essential in many energy processes as we will see)

Let’s now give a quick definition of the 3 systems and see how they can help us build a better performance

1) Phosphagen System: it is the primary energy system for short-term, high-intensity activities such as sprinting, throwing etc. it provides ATP for every movement, regardless of its intensity. Generally, it works great up to 10sec activity… starting its decline around the 30s mark.

Ever done a 10+ kicks blast on pads at the beginning of the round? The energy system used is the Phosphagen one.

2) Exceeding that time, the Glycolytic system comes in help, providing ATP through break down of Carbohydrates (from 30 to 120s) and it will begin with a “Fast” Glycolysis to then shift onto an Aerobic Glycolysis.

3) After the 120s mark, the Oxidative system comes in action, providing energy with a new path for ATP re-synthesis. This is where Oxygen plays a vital role.

It is important we know that also Fat and Protein oxidation can become systems for energy supply, but for time reasons we have to leave these details for future posts.

Systems working together

One of the most important things to remember is that no matter what activity you perform, these systems will always be engaged -in different moments of course – and participate together –  at different ratios – no matter what the activity is.

As Coach, you need to use this basic understanding of energy systems and apply it to the training programs, since fatigue is one of our main enemies and we must find a way to minimize it.

Exercise, nutrition, and conditioning can improve the efficiency of the energy systems as well as the speed of utilization of energy sources.

The beauty of training with method and knowledge is that you can use different ways to reach the same goal.

Interval Training

One of the tools that we have to improve such systems is Interval Training, a series of Stop and Go exercises in which you get to play wisely with the work/rest ratios to determine which energy system will get the most gains.

For example:

  • 90/100% Effort → Phosphagen → 5-10 sec work → 1:12 to 1:20 (work:rest ratio)
  • 75/90% Effort → Fast Glycolysis (FG) → 15-30sec work → 1:3 to 1:5
  • 30/75% Effort → FG and Oxidative → 1-3 minutes work → 1:3 to 1:4
  • 20/30% Effort → Oxidative → 3+minutes → 1:1 to 1:3

How do train the Energy Systems?

We can adopt several methods using either weights, typical cardio (running, cycling, swimming) or other CV machines. If you contemplate using a circuit with weights, I invite you to go and refresh once more the Force Velocity curve we met in the first article.

In the training scenario, I found particularly effective the following two approaches:

1) This one is great for fight camps when the volume work is done and dusted and we can focus on building up the pace for the single round: each set of work covers the round length. The number of sets is dictated by the match length (3 or more rounds), but the rest is instead long enough to recharge to 100%.

For example, fighting on a 3 minutes round, we can start with set 6 stations or simply six sets of the same exercise to be worked for 30sec each time (6*30s = 3min) with short breaks in between and FULL rest at the end of the round, before repeating again.

Repeating the process until completion of fight duration (so 3-5 rounds for example). This interval leads us to focus on the effort of every single round, giving the athlete full rest in order to face the next round with 100% energy back.

Furthermore, the closer you are to the comp the more you can focus on making each one of the 6 stations/sets of acyclic duration: 30/30; 45/15; 15/15 and so on… until the total sums up 3min… or any given round length your athlete will face.

Mind you, if you choose to use weighted exercises too, please choice load wisely, you do not want injury due to fatigue. Always match speed with load.


2) This Scenario is more suitable to the beginning of a fight camp or “pre-season”, where the focus is on building volume and stamina.

Working on the whole fight endurance, so rounds of 2-3 min, fitting 2 or more exercises per round, in order to alternate stresses between body parts( ie. you can use the bag, light resistance exercises, body weight or sprints/runs), respecting the breaks you would have in a fight in between each round.

Here the focus is not much on trying to be acyclic, but rather to build the necessary stamina and mental strength to endure a longer stress.

Regardless of which one you choose to try (as usual there is not right or wrong, it depends on when and how you use it), just make sure you have a plan and an objective.

A Planned work out is always better than a non planned one.

Note:  It is important to remember that – like Strength Training – hormones and inflammation in the body can play a big role in gains or injury. Recovery has to be well modulated as well as a clean nutrition.

So do not forget, good sleep, fluid intake and de-loading weeks, work hard, then give chance to the body to heal.

Thanks for reading me, hope you enjoyed.

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To the next time.