What is aerobic vs anaerobic training

Phil Goulding Phil Goulding Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer
Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer Phil Goulding explains the difference between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and their associated training types.

'Aerobic' and 'anaerobic' are terms used to describe how cells within the body produce energy and refer to energy systems. But what is the difference?

Every movement we make requires energy to be created and there are three main ways that this is done, one with oxygen and two without oxygen.

Aerobic means ‘with air’ and refers to the body producing energy with the use of oxygen. This typically involves any exercise that lasts longer than two minutes in duration. Continuous ‘steady state’ exercise is performed aerobically.

Anaerobic means ‘without air’ and refers to the body producing energy without oxygen. This is typically exercise that is performed at a higher intensity. There are two ways that the body can produce energy anaerobically.

Energy bursts and slow release

One anaerobic energy system is known as the ATP-CP system and provides immediate energy for instantaneous burst of exercise such as for a throw, sprint or jump and can last from 0 - 10 seconds.

The other anaerobic system, known as the lactic acid system, provides energy for very hard efforts lasting roughly 10 - 120 seconds and is associated with the feeling of burning in your muscles due to the build-up of lactate and other metabolites within your muscles.

Whilst it is convenient to look at these energy systems in isolation, when you are exercising energy will be derived from all three systems, but the emphasis will change depending on the intensity of the exercise relative to your fitness levels.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training refers to which energy system you are trying to improve during your training session and it’s structure and intensity will be very different depending on which one you are trying to improve.

Aerobic training will typically fall in the range of 60 - 80% of your estimated maximum heart rate and can be done continuously for prolonged periods of time, anaerobic training will fall between 80 - 90% of your estimated maximum heart rate. But once you push so hard that you cannot continue to exercise at the same intensity, you will have to drop back into the mainly aerobic energy production system.

What are the two training types good for?

Aerobic training is good for building endurance and improving your cardiovascular and respiratory function. This means that your heart and lungs become stronger and more efficient, enabling you to train harder and longer as your fitness levels improve.

Anaerobic training is performed at a harder intensity than aerobic exercise, typically between 80 - 90% of your maximum heart rate and is a fantastic way of improving your fitness levels once a baseline aerobic level of fitness is achieved.

Last updated Monday 4 April 2016

First published on Wednesday 17 February 2016