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Aerobic Conditioning - The Fundamentals

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

By Non Stanford.

More often than not we’re all looking for that quick fix; the shortcut to the top. But as with most things in life, there are no worthwhile shortcuts in triathlon; well not many anyway.

One of the most important things that people often overlook and underestimate is aerobic conditioning. It’s the not-so-glamorous sidekick of anaerobic conditioning. It’s the long miles on the bike, the church of the Sunday long run and those swim sessions that never seem to end. In fact, anaerobic conditioning is the sidekick; aerobic conditioning is the real superhero. Let me explain.

Simply put, aerobic conditioning is a process whereby the heart and lungs are trained to pump blood more efficiently, allowing more oxygen to be delivered to muscles and organs. Sounds pretty important for this triathlon thing right?!

It’s often referred to as base training. Traditionally you do the biggest blocks of it during the winter months when you’re not racing. It’s the building block of any endurance programme and provides your body with the framework for the training phases that follow. Aerobic conditioning occurs during low to moderate-intensity training, around 60-70% of your maximum heart rate, and as an endurance athlete it should be a constant feature throughout the year. It might surprise you that most elite endurance athletes will do 80% of their training at these low to moderate intensities; harder isn’t always better!

Like any block or phase of training, aerobic conditioning should be progressive; with a gradual increase in weekly or monthly volume. As you get closer to the season it's likely this overall volume will reduce as you gradually introduce and increase the amount of intensity in your programme, but it should never disappear altogether. Aerobic conditioning is like the foundations of a house; if you take them away the house will gradually crumble and fall apart.

One of the biggest benefits of aerobic conditioning is the lower level of physiological stress that accompanies it. Fundamentally this means a lower risk of injury coupled with quicker recovery time between sessions. And all of this adds up to consistency; which is the absolute HOLY GRAIL of training. Period.

And if you need any more convincing, and like me enjoy the science, high-volume aerobic training is essential in developing and pushing up your lactate threshold, improving exercise economy (the volume of oxygen needed to perform at a given level), beefing up your mitochondria, and improving your resistance to fatigue. Plus it improves the efficiency of fat metabolism. Bring on the cake!

So next time you’re thinking of “skipping to the good part”, think again. At least it’s a good excuse to take things slow.

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