Top 5: Why Endurance/Aerobic training is vital for power and strength athletes  

Top 5: Why Endurance/Aerobic Training is Vital for Power and Strength Athletes  

Before we get into this, I need to make two things clear:

1) You are a power athlete. You predominantly use what is called an anaerobic energy system. …capable of short explosive bursts but requires a lot of recovery between efforts. The average high school football player, for example, is approximately 5.3 seconds with 25s rest between plays. The majority of your training should mimic that work to rest ratio and is vital to you being faster and more explosive.

2) I am not talking about long slow jogs. Doing slow distance runs of 10k, for example, are counterproductive to power and strength. We are not training you to be a marathon runner.

But what we are training you is to be a better athlete. To recover quicker, have greater resistance to fatigue, and more staying power. To be able to punish your competition in the 4th quarter or 9th inning ….by being able to maintain your power, strength, speed and agility, and focus while your competition is crumbling.

So let’s look at what I deem to be the top 5 reasons why endurance/aerobic training is important, even for power and strength athletes….

5. Higher levels of endurance / stamina is associated with larger blood volumes

I know I know, you are likely thinking “who cares?” If I were you, I’d be thinking the same! I mean, how does that make you faster? The answer lies in recovery. Larger blood volume means you can carry nutrients more efficiently.  Nutrients are carried via the blood to your working muscles and tissues that need it. Better nourishment means better recovery.

Larger blood volume also means you rid of wastes more efficiently. Through intensive training, your body makes metabolic by-products when replenishing energy for intense bursts of speed and power. Getting rid of waste products faster = better recovery = you can handle more training in a healthy manner. Even if that means two more sessions per month, those two sessions add up over time and can be the difference in gaining that extra edge over your competition.

If you only remember thing for having a large blood volume, remember this:

Good stuff in. Yuck stuff out = Faster Recovery.

Examples: Hockey players often ride a stationary bike at a low intensity following games to clear lactate (a waste product after intense exercise) in 45min vs 3+hrs[5.8], an important factor when having to recover for the next game with their intensive travel and game schedule.

To accelerate healing, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was performing aerobic based swim running both before and after ACL surgery. This stimulated blood flow and increased his range of motion. He led the NFL in rushing yards only one season after an ACL tear.

4. Because NO SPORT utilizes one energy system exclusively.

Not even American football.

There are 3 main energy systems:

  1. Phosphagen (ATP – Phosphocreatine System): This is the predominant energy system used in short term, very intense activities…like sprinting…up to 6sec. ATP – Phosphocreatine (PCr) is the most important energy system for you football players, baseball players, and all other power athletes.
  2. Glycolytic – for intense activities (predominant energy system in 200m sprint, for example)
  3. Oxidative (aerobic) – the predominant energy system that is used 2+minutes into exercise

During the 40y dash, for example, the ATP-PCr system is the predominant energy system, but both the glycolytic and oxidative systems provide a small portion of the energy[1,7,8]. The baseball energy system, for example, is reportedly approximately 90% anaerobic and 10% aerobic[7].

Of course, we place high emphasis and spend the majority of the time training the system you predominantly use. That is the only way you will get faster and more explosive. But, just like your muscles during sport movements, nothing is isolated. Everything works together.  At no time during exercise does any single energy system provide the complete energy supply [1,8].

Key Point is this:

Although your sport may predominantly rely on one energy system, it still uses ALL energy systems.


Although baseball pitching is considered an anaerobic sport, they typically include one day of aerobic conditioning between their game rotation sets to increase overall conditioning, thereby increasing the rate of recovery and reducing fatigue[7,8].

3. Pain Tolerance.

It is often said “where the brain goes, the body follows.” The brain – body connection is a fascinating area of research, and we are learning more and more about the importance of training the brain for sport performance. The brain tries to protect the body and if the training or competition is deemed too hard, you are more likely to give up. We need to train the brain to accept the pain.

You just don’t get into the pain and suffering zone with a 10 or 20sec burst. The duration has to be long enough to get into and be forced to push through the wall of suffering – and that involves entering the ‘aerobic zone.’

In my amateur boxing days, we had a running route that ended with a really tough, steep hill. We did the route for time. The coach had us running hard leading up to the steep hill. The first time, all of us rookies cracked and ended up walking the last 50 metres or so.  One of the guys told me ‘once you make it up the hill running, you will never walk it again.’ He was right. Once I beat the hill, I never walked it again. I wasn’t really that much more conditioned in one week, but my brain accepted a newer pain threshold and tolerance.

I had the pleasure of partaking sessions with Juan Carlos Santana (a renowned MMA strength and conditioning coach), who incorporates ‘gauntlets.’ These gauntlets are so intense – usually lasting 4-5min – many of his professional athletes ‘fail’ by having to take rest breaks the first time. But guess what happened when the athletes did the same gauntlet again a few days later? They made it through. Did the athletes gain that much fitness in a few days? He says no. The brain can now accept the ‘break through workout,’ higher pain threshold and tolerance.

Used appropriately, aerobic/endurance conditioning builds pain tolerance.

Pain tolerance is the ‘X’ factor.

Yet another Example:

Jerry Rice, wide receiver hall of famer and regarded by some as the best wide receiver of all time, was not the strongest or fastest player. But his work ethic is unsurpassable. He attributed much of his success to ‘the hill:’ a ~2.5km/1.5 mile hill that took ~15 minutes of effort. The first time he did ‘the hill,’ it kicked his butt. It beat him. But he went back and got some more. Rice attributes ‘the hill’ to much of his success – increasing his pain tolerance and ability to keep going, especially in the 4th quarter when everyone was tired.

2. Faster ability to re-synthesize Phosphocreatine (commonly called Creatine).

For power athletes, the ATP – PCr is the predominant energy system and can be the main limiting factor for sports performance.  Creatine is “the stuff”, so to speak.

A decrease in Creatine contributes to fatigue. If Creatine is not replenished before your next burst of speed or power, it will be lacking. An essential requirement when you have to repeat this burst-type of activity repeatedly during a game[7].

Resynthesis of PCr is largely accomplished through aerobic metabolism [3,8]. Team sport athletes with a higher level of aerobic fitness can re-synthesize PCr faster[4], and generate and maintain power output better during repeated high-intensity efforts[6]. Aerobic training also increases resting PCr concentrations and decrease rate of depletion[8].

Take-home message:

Creatine is the Fireworks. The Aerobic System provides the Fuel for the Fireworks.

If you have enough fuel, you can put on a great show. But if you run out of fuel, your fireworks will simply be sparklers.


Testing demonstrated time and time again that both reaction time and repeated 40y time trials in low level football players was significantly worse than in high-level players, and was attributed to differences in endurance. Excelling at a reaction time test only once does not correlate to game performance if a player lacks the endurance or the ability to recover and thus maintain reaction time, agility, and speed play after play[2].

1. Fatigue Resistance

Fatigue hinders performance. Muscle strength is decreased, reaction and movement times are prolonged, neuromuscular coordination are reduced, and speed and agility is slower[7].  When you are physically fatigued, you also get mentally fatigued. Mentally fatigued athletes have reduced concentration and alertness. This impedes performance and increases your likelihood of injury[8].

What good are you if you only have 1-2 sprints or 1-2 pitches, and then fade? Better recovery means you can maintain your speed and power, whether it is the 4th quarter, 9th inning, or final round. Having the ability to recover between anaerobic sets can be the limiting factor[3].

The one with the greater endurance (yes, aerobic) level can maintain the quality of each burst activity throughout the game and still be relatively “fresh” during the latter parts of the game.[6,7]

Better Endurance → Less Fatigue → Better Performance


Baseball players with greater aerobic conditioning/endurance can complete a double header with little or no leg fatigue (common complaint in baseball), and are able to maintain concentration – a necessary requirement in a game of inches.[3]

Sergio Martinez, amongst the top ‘pound for pound’ boxers in the world, has defied the odds by hitting his prime at 37 years old. For you boxing fans, you know this is something pretty much unheard of! Martinez was a professional cyclist before turning to boxing at age 20. The stamina (and ability to withstand pain) he gained from cycling is attributed to his success: his ability to maintain his incredible power, stamina, and focus in the later rounds, while his opponent fades.


There is a time and place and type of aerobic/stamina conditioning and it should NOT replace your speed and explosiveness work. The majority of your training should be explosive efforts with appropriate work to rest ratios. It is extremely important that endurance training is used appropriately to make you faster, not slower. When training the Belmont high school football team, for example, we used endurance conditioning as a finisher or with players for some extra training who severely lacked stamina. One example was a hill that took ~10-15s to sprint up, with 30s active recovery down, repeated for 6 reps building to 10 reps. Before and after this training block, using the hill and a stairs session 1 x per week, the players both improved their 40-y and pro-agility shuttle times by an average of 0.35s, as well as the ability to repeat their times over and over again. In fact, many would improve for the 3rd and 4th trials. The year before, they did not enjoy the results. This addition also significantly improved times with college-age players, who had previously plateaued.

Used appropriately, aerobic/endurance conditioning is often the missing link with power and strength athletes…and is the difference between being good and great!


  1. Baechle, T. R. & Earle, R. W. 2000. Essentials of strength and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Junge, A., Dvorak, J., Rosch, D., Graf-Baumann, T., Chomiak, J., & Peterson, L. (2000). Psychological and sport-specific characteristics of football players American Journal of Sports Medicine, 28, S-22-S-28.
  3. Kritz, M., Mamula, R., Messey, K., and Hobbs, M. (2008). In-season strength and conditioning programming for collegiate baseball pitchers: A unified approach. National Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30 (4), 59-65.
  4. Marcus, C., Elliott, W., Wagner, P., and Chiu, L. (2007). Power athletes and distance training. SportsMedicine,27(1), 47-57
  5. Monedero, J., and Effect, D. (2000). Effect of recovery interventions on lactate removal and subsequent performance. International Journal of SportsMedicine, 21¸593-597.
  6. Stone,N., Kilding, and Andrew, E. (2009). Aerobic conditioning for team sport athletes. Sports Medicine, 39 (8), 615-642.
  7. Szymanski, D. (2009). Physiology of baseball pitching dictates specific exercise intensity for conditioning. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 31(2), 41-47.
  8. Wilmore, J. J., Costill, D. L., & Kennedy, W.  L. (2008). Physiology of sport and exercise (4thed.).  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Tammy Kovaluk, MSc, CSCS, is the owner of RISE Sport Performance Training (Tucson, Arizona). Originally from Canada, she has over 15 years of experience working with athletes in a wide range of sports. She specializes in high school and collegiate