Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Training
Learning the difference between anaerobic and aerobic training is the key to improving your personal best in any race. Training and racing at the appropriate levels is the single most important change in your training that you can make. Understanding what each of these terms mean is the first step in that transformation.
At the heart of aerobic and anaerobic training is the scientific fact that to exercise, your body needs to break down sugar and convert it to glycogen so it can be used as energy or fuel. When the body has an adequate supply of oxygen for this process, we call it aerobic respiration. When there is not enough oxygen, like when you are running hard at the end of a 5k, this is called anaerobic respiration.
What is aerobic running
Aerobic running or respiration occurs when your body has sufficient oxygen – like when you run easy miles with you friends. You breathe in, the body efficiently uses all the oxygen it needs to power the muscles, and you exhale. Basically, when you are “running aerobically”, your muscles have enough oxygen to produce all the energy they need to perform.
The waste products of aerobic respiration are carbon dioxide and water. These byproducts are easily expelled through the simple act of breathing. This is why your breath is carbon dioxide rich and moist.
What is anaerobic running
Anaerobic respiration happens when there is NOT sufficient oxygen present.
In this instance, the muscles do not have enough oxygen to create the energy you are demanding from them (like in an all-out sprint at the finish). When this happens the muscles begin to break down sugar, but instead of producing CO2 and water, it produces lactic acid (that burning feeling in your muscles at the end of a race). Unfortunately, lactic acid is harder to clear than water and CO2. Thus, lactic acid accumulates in your system, causing extreme fatigue.
Why knowing the difference between aerobic and anaerobic is crucial for runners
The importance of understanding these definitions is clear. If you begin to run too hard in the middle of a workout or the start of a race, your body goes into an anaerobic state, producing lactic acid. If you “go anaerobic” early in a race, you will begin to feel fatigued sooner and become increasingly tired as the race progresses. The accumulation of lactic acid pools in your muscles and you have to slow dramatically to get back to an aerobic state. Your PR is out the window and finished before that race is half way over.
For those running the marathon, learning the difference between aerobic running and anaerobic running is even more critical. The faster you run the more energy you burn – just like a car burning fuel on a highway. During the marathon, you need to conserve as much fuel as possible, so if you run faster than your aerobic threshold (the point at which you go from running 100% aerobically to producing lactic acid) you will burn through your fuel stores faster and more than likely bonk before you finish.
How to learn to run aerobically when you need to
Learning to establish and feel your anaerobic and aerobic pace is a really important skill if you want to start racing faster. Here are the stats on the importance of aerobic running.
The easiest way to test whether you’re running aerobically is to perform what is called the “talk test”. While running, try to speak to someone (or yourself if alone) out-loud. If you can get out a short paragraph without too much trouble (i.e. you can convey a detailed thought, but you’re not quoting Shakespeare) you’re running aerobically. If you can only get out one sentence before you start grasping for breath, you’re running too hard – slow down.
For a more scientific assessment, you can use a heart rate monitor to determine your effort level. We’ve made it easy to determine your aerobic heart rate training zone with our heart rate training calculator. Simply input your age and resting heart rate and you can see exactly what numbers you should target.
If you have questions about what your “aerobic” and “anaerobic” pace is, or how to practice feeling it, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment, I respond to all questions.