‘Regeneration’ is the term I use to describe long, slow, and EASY training sessions. But before we get into the benefits of aerobic base development for MMA athletes, let's take a look at the demands of the sport.
MMA is a predominantly aerobic-alactic sport. There is a widely-held misconception that MMA is largely anaerobic, but remember, performing high repetitions at sub-maximal effort (not every strike you throw is 100% effort with the intent of a KO). The concept that the “aerobic system doesn't contribute to energy production for the first 1-2 minutes of movement and exercise is false. Even at 100% intensity, in as little as 30 seconds research has shown that the aerobic system is contributing up to 50% of the total ATP being regenerated and after that it goes up to an even higher percentage." (Myths of the Aerobic System, 2009)
Also, keep in mind that when the "lactic system is working it means that the aerobic system is working at 100% of its capacity. It doesn't cease production just because the lactic metabolism is also contributing" to the party.
We now know that the aerobic system contributes the majority of ATP out of the three systems, especially as we get further into the fight. Relying on anaerobic glycolysis for energy production is a guaranteed way to hit the wall (or the canvas) in the first round. We want to regenerate as much ATP (energy) aerobically as possible rather than having to rely upon the lactic and alactic systems.
It's also worth considering that both of the anaerobic systems are largely limited by genetics and so don't have as much capacity for improvement. The aerobic system on the other hand has an incredible ability to adapt and increase the level of power it can generate which is why we focus alot of time here.
Aerobic Base Development For MMA Conditioning
Ok, so we know that the sport requires a high level of aerobic capacity. A great way to develop this, especially for MMA athletes is with regeneration work, so let’s begin by defining exactly what these terms mean.
For regeneration work we want to focus on an easy effort around a 2-3 on the Modified Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. It’s so easy that you should feel like you haven’t worked out, rather that you have thoroughly warmed up. You should almost feel guilty that you haven't done enough by the time you’re finished!
These long and easy aerobic training sessions are not glamorous or flashy, but for MMA conditioning they are the foundation of energy systems training and if overlooked you’d be missing out on a whole host of benefits:
Decreased lactate usage. During high-intensity exertion your muscles begin to produce lactate (this does not cause muscle fatigue contrary to popular belief) which can be processed and used as energy via lactate shuttle but only if you have a well developed aerobic system. Those with an inadequate level of aerobic fitness may accumulate excess lactate in the muscle, forcing them to need breaks – not what we want when you’re mid-fight with your opponent in mount on you! Because of this, they will have to work a lot harder to keep up with a pace that their competitors can manage with ease.
Decreased heart rate and increasing stroke volume. Strengthening the cardiac muscle itself means that at any level of relative intensity your heart isn't having to work as hard to provide oxygenated blood to the muscles.
Restore ATP-CP Faster. Aerobic respiration aids in the generation of ATP via the process of the Kreb’s Cycle. An increased aerobic capacity allows for increased production of ATP, which is a primary fuel source for explosive, high power movements.
Decrease time in oxygen debt. Think of the oxygen debt (sometimes referred to as Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) as an overdraft facility. You can only ‘afford’ to pay it back at a certain rate, so the larger the oxygen debt, the longer it takes. The higher your aerobic capacity the faster this oxygen debt can be repaid, so any recovery you have between bouts, sparring and training sessions can be maximised.
This relatively low intensity work of regeneration increases blood flow and recovery from your more intense training sessions. This also doesn’t even have to be limited to cyclical activities in the gym – a light sparring session, or simply drilling positions/techniques are great examples of low-level aerobic work that is not “planned” but can be extremely successful. It can also be used as an opportunity to address structural or movement-based issues.
In addition, this low intensity aerobic work develops a solid base for us to build upon, allowing more intense training and sparring sessions to be carried out back to back - perfect for the technical demands of MMA training.
Ideally we want regeneration work to be little to no impact based so there are little/no eccentric contractions. This will allow the contractile components of the muscle to bond under load when training with intensity because there is no breakdown of muscle fibres and connective tissue occurring.
Regeneration work is also a prime opportunity for you to ‘unplug’ and focus on your goals, aim, path, fight visualisation, etc. Conversely it also gives you the freedom for your mind to wander and be less focused, all while giving the body the time it needs to increase oxygen/blood flow in the muscles and recover fully.
Although Regeneration work is at a low intensity, it doesn't have to be a single modality:
3:00 Sled Drag
3:00 Assault Air Bike
x 6 sets @ <130BPM
15m Bear Crawl Forward (low hips)
15m Reverse Bear Crawl (low hips)
x 3 sets <130PM
Bike 500m @ easy
Bike 500m @ easy
Bike 500m @ easy
x 35:00-40:00 @ <130BPM
You can also incorporate skills practice into this, so for example light rolling, padwork, drills or sparring (Note: it's important to make sure your partner is aware that this is supposed to be an easy session for you!)
If you're new to this type of training then I'd recommend using a Heart Rate Monitor, especially at first. It will allow you to use the chart above as a rough guideline until you know how this should feel. It's very common for people to go too hard at first; ensure you stay within the parameters set out above to focus on building your aerobic system.
Remember - this is training, not testing.
I'd also recommend using a tool like OmegaWave or a HRV device to measure your levels of preparedness to train and the need to add in recovery modalities or dial back intensity.
There's mounting evidence that indicates easy/moderate ‘active’ recovery work and low intensity training ALONGSIDE increased strength training protocols can have substantial benefits. Unfortunately it’s still common to see athletes within MMA, and in other sports, working on the basis that training more equates to training with more intensity more often.
If you want to get improve skill acquisition concurrently with increase in strength, power AND endurance the simple answer is to train more, just not ALWAYS with intensity and to ensure that you recover sufficiently. These lower intensity aerobic base focused workouts will allow you to do exactly that.
Barnett, A. (2006). Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes. Sports medicine, 36(9), 781-796.
Gastin, P. B. (2001). Energy system interaction and relative contribution during maximal exercise. Sports medicine, 31(10), 725-741.
The Myth of the Aerobic System. (2009). Retrieved from http://forums.sherdog.com/forums/f14/myth-aerobic-system-everyone-has-all-wrong-965299/
Romano, A. H., & Conway, T. (1996). Evolution of carbohydrate metabolic pathways. Research in microbiology, 147(6), 448-455.