Part 2: endurance and metabolic demands of mma
In this part of the series, I will give you guys an overview of the body's energy systems, discuss the metabolic needs of an MMA fighter, and then lay out different training methods to improve endurance specific to MMA.
Energy system overview
Strikes, takedowns, grappling, submissions. A wide variety of physical capabilities and a diverse range of martial arts skills are required to excel in the sport of MMA. Don't forget the power and the endurance needed to pull off fight-finishing techniques or to last the whole duration of the fight. We are capable of all these movements thanks to our 3 energy systems: aerobic system, anaerobic system and alactic/phosphogen system. The intensity and duration of our movements is what dictates which energy systems are used, and which substrates are used to fuel that energy system. Each energy system takes a different substrate (fuel) to create energy molecules called ATP (energy currency of our body) that is then used to contract our muscles so we can move. As you can imagine, the energy demands of a sprinter and marathoner have completely different energy demands.
3 energy systems are used in the human body: Aerobic, Anaerobic and Alactic.
The AEROBIC system (also known as the oxidative system) is the slowest acting energy system in our body, yet it is capable of creating the most energy. At rest, around 65-70% of your energy comes from the utilization of fat, 25-30% comes from carbohydrates, while less than 5-10% comes from amino acids (protein). As intensity increases, these percentages shift - carbohydrates become more important because of its quicker availability in the body. That's why you need adequate blood sugar (carb) levels when exercising or doing intensive activity. The aerobic energy system is the predominant system involved in exercise lasting 2-3 minutes, to hours and even days. The aerobic system (aero meaning air) requires oxygen to utilize fat stores (body fat) and carbohydrate stores (in your muscles and liver).
The ANAEROBIC system (aka the glycolytic system), is a faster acting system that can produce ATP even in the absence of oxygen. The downside to this faster ATP-production rate is that it can only breakdown carbohydrates as fuel and it creates a significant amount of lactate (commonly known as lactic acid). Lactate is correlated with exercise and performance fatigue, but the concept is often misinterpreted in the MMA and strength & conditioning world (more on this later). Exercise bouts of moderate to high intensities, lasting upwards to 2-3 minutes are mainly fueled by the anaerobic energy system.
The ALACTIC system (aka the phosphagen or phosphocreatine system) is the energy system capable of producing the most energy within the shortest amount of time. A fight-ending flurry or combination uses this energy system. The alactic system is different to the aerobic and anaerobic system in that it produces energy by directly breaking down the ATP molecule, bypassing the conversion of fats, carbohydrates or protein into ATP. However, our body has limited stores of ATP, therefore the alactic system is the quickest to fatigue and can only produce large bursts of energy for up to 10 seconds. Fully restoring phosphocreatine and ATP stores takes around 5-8 minutes; this restoration time can be influenced by strength & conditioning training, as well as the level of development of the aerobic and anaerobic system.
One misconception about energy systems is that each energy system completely turns on or off during various intensities and durations of exercise. Instead, all three energy systems contribute to energy production during all modalities and intensities of exercise. The relative contributions of each will depend on the velocity and force demands of the exercise bout or sport.
Another misconception is that the aerobic energy system is not used during mixed-type and pure anaerobic sports, when in reality the aerobic system can supply anywhere from 30 to 65% of the energy used in an exercise bout lasting up 2 minutes (800m running event for example).
Endurance and metabolic demands of mma
Professional fights are 3 x 5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest in between rounds and Championship bouts are 5 x 5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest in between rounds. Amateur fights are slightly shorter, generally 3 x 3 minutes or less. A 15 minute or 25 minute fight then, requires a full spectrum of endurance capabilities. A respectable aerobic energy system must be developed to last the whole duration of the fight, while the short, repeated bursts of high-intensity action require a degree of anaerobic capacity and neuromuscular-alactic power.
It's widely known that fights often end before their allotted time limit, either via a knockout (KO) or technical knockout (TKO) by strikes, or by submission (SUB). This differs from other sports such as hockey or basketball where the players are required to play the whole length of the game. In MMA, fighters have the unique ability to control how long the fight lasts. This has huge implications on training strategies as well as damage and concussion mitigation. A fighter could technically never train their conditioning and achieve all their MMA wins by first round knockout... But... we all know that strategy does NOT work against equally-skilled opponents; even the most brutal knockout artists can be taken into deep waters. Professional MMA fighters must have the appropriate amount of conditioning to last at a minimum, 15 minutes. Failing to do so will prevent you from competing at the highest level of the sport.
Let's dive into the details.
MMA consists of intermittent bouts of high-intensity actions, followed by periods of moderate to low-intensity movement or disengagement. By compiling data from other combat sports, Lachlan et al (2016) categorized the metabolic demands based on 2 categories, grappling-based demands and striking-based demands.
Grappling-based sports like judo and wrestling appear to have a work-rest-ratio of approximately 3:1 with work phases lasting an average of 35 seconds, while striking-based sports like kickboxing and Muay Thai have a work-to-rest ratio ranging from 2:3 and 1:2, with work phases lasting around 7 seconds on average. MMA sits in-between these values, with a work-to-rest ratio between 1:2 and 1:4 with work phases lasting 6-14 seconds, which are then separated by low-intensity efforts of 15-36 seconds.
Work-to-rest ratios describe the amount of time exerting energy vs. the amount of the time disengaging and "taking the foot off the gas pedal". The more intense and long the work is, the more rest is needed to restore energy.
It should be noted that the structure of a typical professional MMA bout has a true work-to-complete rest ratio of 5:1 (5 minute rounds, 1 minute breaks), while the work-to-active rest ratio inside each 5 minute round is determined by the tactical strategies and the skill set of the MMA athletes. Fighters described as "grinders" such as Michael Bisping or Nick Diaz will display a much higher work-rest ratio than more "explosive" athletes like Jose Aldo or Tyron Woodley.
There is clearly a tradeoff between power/explosivity (lol Dada 5000) and the ability to perform optimally for the whole duration of the bout.
The best fighters in the world like Demetrious Johnson or GSP are not only in peak physical performance in terms of power and endurance, but have a high enough fight IQ to determine when to engage or disengage during a fight, when to perform a fight finishing flurry, or when to back off.
debunking conditioning myths in mma
"MMA matches only last 15-25 minutes, therefore high intensity interval training is the only way to improve endurance and conditioning"
The most common training mistake amongst fighters. In order to build elite level conditioning, fighters must have a solid aerobic base with a well-developed capacity for anaerobic efforts. As I mentioned earlier, the aerobic energy system is responsible for re-synthesizing ATP after periods of high intensity bursts, therefore influences how fighters recover in-between rounds AND in-between fighting exchanges. Since the aerobic system is developed through low-intensity cardio training, many coaches and fighters overlook this critical piece because it is, incorrectly, seen as inefficient. Oddly, fighters will perform an unnecessary amount of high intensity training along with their MMA training; a recipe for overtraining, sub-optimal recovery and increased risk of injury.
There are multiple contrasting studies on whether the addition of more frequent high intensity endurance training yielded any performance improvements. Some researchers found athletes that don't respond well to high volume low-intensity training showed greater improvements when they increased their frequency and volume of high intensity training. However on the contrary, the benefits of performing more high intensity training in already well-trained athletes, are limited.
What seems to be more important is the sparing use of these high intensity intervals outside of MMA training. By the way of training periodization, and the principle of specificity, the majority of the high intensity intervals should be performed few weeks out before the fight. Performing a high volume of high intensity training year round hinders a fighter's ability to improve their skills and stay injury-free.
Less is more sometimes.
"Being inefficient with your energy in the cage/octagon results in lactic acid build up in your muscles, causing a fighter to gas"
There's definitely some truth to this statement. When fighters "blow their wad" (a la Shane Carwin vs. Brock Lesnar), they're unable to recover, even with the 1 minute break in-between rounds. Why?
During moderate to high intensities, lactic acid and hydrogen ions begin to accumulate as the supply of oxygen does not match the demands of the working muscles - this is the byproduct of the anaerobic energy system. However, another byproduct of this energy system is lactate (mistakenly called lactic acid by the general population). Lactate is closely correlated with fatigue, however: correlation does not imply causation. Lactate is the 4th type of fuel that can be used to restore energy, primarily happening within the mitochondria of cells - the same location aerobic metabolism takes place.
Another common myth is that lactate doesn't form until you perform high-intensity exercises. Lactate actually forms even during lower intensity exercise (because the anaerobic system is still active to a degree). The amount of lactate produced is very minimal; we are able to shuttle this lactate into our mitochondria via the Cori-Cycle and effectively reuse it as energy. During the later round of a intense brawl however, the rate of lactate clearance simply cannot match the rate of which it is produced, this is called the lactate threshold. The figure below shows how lactate is recycled as energy after being produced as a by-product of fast glycoglysis (anaerobic metabolism).
The lactate threshold also represents the switch from using predominantly aerobic metabolism, to anaerobic metabolism. This is where the mental toughness and resilience of a fighter becomes more important. The fighters with the ability to push through the pain while maintaining their martial arts technique, will likely be the winner. In order to effectively delay the onset of muscular and mental fatigue, the goal of every fight should be to increase their lactate threshold.
While a well-developed aerobic base is needed, specifically training around lactate threshold is what will most effectively increase a fighter's ability to perform anaerobic work.
"That fighter has a lot of muscle mass and looks jacked, he will definitely gas out or probably has poor cardio!"
Holding a massive amount of muscle mass can negatively affect endurance, but not always. More often than not, jacked fighters possess poor conditioning due to a combination of poor energy utilization/strategy during fights, and neglecting lower intensity work in the off-season or fight camp. Fighters that put on muscle quickly most likely have focused too much of their time on hypertrophic training methods like heavy squats, deadlifts, presses, etc.
Each muscle is covered by capillaries that provide it blood and energy. Fighters that neglect endurance work crucial for increasing mitochondria density and capillarization of these muscles will have poor conditioning. Muscle mass and elite level conditioning are not mutually exclusive. Fighters who have focused on increasing muscle mass over the long-term while concurrently using training methods to increase capillarization will achieve the best results.
Fun fact: Yoel Romero (despite the blatant cheating) who looks like a Greek god, has 5 third round finishes in the UFC. Fans are quick to point the finger at jacked fighters and call them out for having poor conditioning when it's not always the case.
TRAINING variables & mETHODS FOR IMPROVING ENDURANCE IN MMA
Conditioning work outside the MMA skills training revolves around the principles of intensity, volume and frequency.
Intensity represents how hard or how close to maximal effort one is working. Maximal heart rate, lactate threshold, rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and power output can all be used to gauge endurance training intensity. Prescription of low, moderate and high intensity workouts are based on a percentage of these baseline or max values.
To make things simplier, intensity can be categorized into different training zones. In the chart below, training intensity zones are based off of a percentage of an athlete's maximal heart rate OR a percentage of their lactate threshold. Heart rate is well-known to have a linear relationship with exercise intensity, in that when workload or intensity increases, heart rate will also increase to supply the working muscles with blood.
Since lactate threshold represents the switch from aerobic to anaerobic energy production, using an athlete's lactate threshold is a more accurate method of prescribing conditioning work. For amateur fighters that may not have the access to equipment necessary to measure lactate threshold, heart rate is the next best option.
Volume indicates how much total work is being put into endurance training. In sports like running, cycling and swimming, volume will be represented by the total distance travelled during training. In team sports and sports like MMA, training volume is measured by using the "time in zone" method. How much time per training day or training week are we spending in each training zone? This will give us an idea on how much rest an athlete needs, or whether we need to push them harder to achieve the level of conditioning we're seeking.
Lastly, frequency indicates how often we are performing endurance training. Specifically, how many times a week we use a specific training method.
Breaking Down The Training Zones
Zone 1 is commonly called warm-up or active recovery. This intensity is not hard enough for any surmountable enudrance to be developed, but enough to promote blood flow and therefore recovery to the working muscles. Training in Zone 1 primarily uses fatty acids for energy production.
Zone 2 is called base endurance or extensive endurance training. This represents the lower limits of the aerobic energy system and still uses predominantly fat as fuel. Training in this zone will promote higher cardiac output (heart pumps more blood), as well as the capillizarization of muscle fibres I talked about earlier.
Zone 3 is called tempo training or intensive endurance training. This zone challenges the upper limits of the aerobic system. Lactate production starts to ramp up at this Zone, however, there is no significant accumulation as intensity is still relatively low and clearance levels are still high due to the adequate of supply of oxygen to the muscles.
Zone 4 is called threshold training. As the name implies, this training zone occurs near an athlete's lactate threshold (95-105% of lactate threshold). This intensity cannot be held for long, as hydrogen ions begin to accumulate. For this reason, training in this zone will improve an athlete's tolerance to pain/the burning sensation and will directly increase their ability to produce force and energy during muscle and mental fatigue.
Zone 5 often called anaerobic or VO2 max training, is considered true high intensity training. Training in Zone 5 is responsible for increasing an athlete's ability to produce force in a metabolically acidic environment. Paired with the large amounts of perceived exertion, the duration of which this intensity can be held is severly limited compared to lower and moderate intensity training.
Time In Zone
As alluded to earlier, the time in zone method is used to assess training volume. These are training times specific to improving an MMA fighter's conditioning
Zone 1 (Active Recovery) - Any where from 30-60 minutes to promote blood flow, joint flexilibility, muscle recovery. Multiple times a week, pre or post MMA training.
Zone 2 (Base Endurance) - 45-90+ minutes to improve the lower end of the aerobic energy system, increase muscle capillarization, improve aerobic enzymes, etc. 3-4 times a week.
Zone 3 (Tempo) - 30-60+ minutes to improve the higher end of the aerobic energy system. 2-3 times a week.
Zone 4 (Threshold) - 20-40+ minutes to increase lactate threshold and increase tolerance to muscle and mental fatigue. 1-2 times a week.
Zone 5 (Anaerobic) - 10-20 minutes in the form of high intensity intervals (work rest, work rest, repeat) to improve top end work capacity and power. Work intervals in this zone can last anywhere from 10 seconds to 90 seconds. 1-2 times a week.
PRactical training methods
Example Max Heart Rate: 200 BPM
Example Lactate Threshold: 165 BPM
Because I know my own lactate threshold, I'm basing my training zones off of that number.
Improving The Aerobic Energy System (60 minute workout - Low Intensity)
General Workout - 60 minutes total in Zone 2
- Freestyle Swimming (20 minutes @ 115-140 BPM) *I like to aim for the middle of these ranges
- Versa Climber (20 minutes @ 115-140 BPM)
- Stationary Bike (20 minutes @ 115-140 BPM)
MMA Specific Workout - 60 minutes total in Zone 2 and 3
- Shadow Kickboxing (15 minutes @ Zone 3 (141-150 BPM))
- Skip Rope (15 minutes @ Zone 2 (115-140 BPM))
- Takedown/Sprawl Drills (15 minutes @ Zone 3)
- Rowing Machine (15 minutes @ Zone 2)
In both workouts, I'm using the most underutilized form of low intensity training - low intensity circuits. Instead of picking only 1 modality, let's say running, we're able to change the stimulus and muscles worked by switching exercises every 15-20 minutes. As long as we keep our heart rate in Zone 2, aerobic adaptations will be made. If we to only choose running, the endurance of our shoulders and arms would be neglected - not ideal for an MMA fighter.
The general workout is considered "general" because of it's lack of MMA-specific exercises. However, this is completely acceptable to do in the off-season. The MMA-specific workout can be utilized when a fighter comes closer to fight night. This shift from general to specific training is often seen in a well-designed, periodized training program.
Improving Lactate Threshold (30 minute workout - Moderate Intensity)
General Workout - 30 minutes total in Zone 4
- Airdyne/Assault bike (10 minutes @ Zone 4 (156-173 BPM))
- Active Rest - 2.5-5 minutes @ Zone 1-2
- Versaclimber (10 minutes @ Zone 4)
- Active Rest - 2.5-5 minutes @ Zone 1-2
- Rowing Machine (10 minutes @ Zone 4)
MMA-Specific Workout - 30 minutes total in Zone 4
- Heavybag Stand-up Work (10 minutes @ Zone 4 (156-173BPM))
- Active Rest - 2.5-5 minutes @ Zone 1-2
- Partner Grappling/Clinch Drills (10 minutes @ Zone 4)
- Active Rest - 2.5 - 5 minutes @ Zone 1-2
- Heavybag Ground n Pound (10 minutes @ Zone 4)
Threshold training can be done continuously, but because of the reasons stated above, I like switching it up and using a circuit style of training.
The name of the game here is pacing. It is easy to go a bit too hard on the heavybag or with grappling drills. Have a training partner monitor your heart rate so you stay in Zone 4.
Improving Top End Anaerobic Power (Multiple Intervals @ High Intensity)
- Hill Sprints or Prowler Push (4 x 20 second work: 2 minute complete rest) (1:6 work-rest ratio)
- Active Rest - 5 minutes @ Zone 1-2
- Airdyne/Assault Bike (4 x 60 second work: 2 minute complete rest) (1:2 work-rest ratio)
- Cooldown - 5-10 minutes @ Zone 1
- Heavybag All-Out Combinations (4 x 20 second work: 2 minute complete rest) (1:6 work-rest ratio)
- Active Rest , Footwork - 5 minutes @ Zone 1-2
- Heavybag Takedowns into Ground n Pound (4 x 60 second work: 2 minute complete rest) (1:2 work-rest ratio)
- Cooldown - 5-10 minutes @ Zone 1
A wide variety of exercises could be used here. Get creative with your general and MMA-specific drills. The focus here is to work at 85-100% of maximal effort, and getting in a few minutes of complete rest. Power, explosion and the ability to end fights quickly is built here.
Edit: After speaking to a respected S&C coach that trains elite fighters, he and I both came to the conclusion that I have overstated the importance of lower intensity aerobic development, causing some of my points to be flat out wrong. MMA is no doubt an anaerobic sport - a comprehensive review of the literature on combat sports suggest that anaerobic capacity (lower end, longer bouts of anaerobic efforts) is what distinguishes high level fighters, to lower level competitors. I still believe a solid aerobic base should be possessed and the conditioning work should compliment MMA training. If MMA training lacks anaerobic capacity work, conditioning must address this. If MMA training has sufficient anaerobic capacity work, a S&C coach should preserve these adaptations.
I originally though aerobic power was the driving factor in MMA, it turns out to be anaerobic capacity, a small step up.
To play devil's advocate though, the conditioning of an MMA athlete is based on their specific MMA skillset and in-fight strategy (which is what makes this so interested!).
Please keep this in mind as you apply these principles to your training.
Hope you guys liked Part 2 of this series. If you have any questions, feel free to comment in the Reddit thread, down below, or private message me. I'll be happy to answer any questions regarding the topics I discussed today. In Part 3, I will talk about the strength and power demands of MMA and training methods to develop those attributes. Stay tuned!