(This is a multiple part article regarding Long Slow Distance training for the combat athlete. I first published this article on a private message board in the summer of 2009. Parts of this post have been edited from the original).
You need to do LSD…not that kind of LSD, the long boring kind of LSD. Long Slow Distance training!
YOUR CONDITIONING PROBABLY SUCKS
One of the most common comments we hear after a first time student completes a force on force evolution of training is: “I need to get in shape”. Working against a fully resisting human being, with the free will to do anything to win the battle, is an exhausting endeavor.
Vince Lombardi (or possibly George Patton) is credited with the quote “fatigue makes cowards of us all”. Spend one evening watching UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) and you will observe what happens when an athlete crosses over his or her anaerobic threshold, for too long, and gasses. It looks like they are fighting in molasses, they dramatically slow down and cannot mount an offence, their defense crumbles. They “gas”.
Gassing is a colloquial term for the failure of aerobic and anaerobic systems to keep up with the muscles demand for energy. When an athlete “gasses” their body essentially quits.
For the purposes of this blog post we’ll look at blood as the delivery system for oxygen. Oxygen is used by the muscles to produce energy. When we outwork our muscles ability to reproduce energy, we gas.
If the blood is an oxygen carrier, the heart is the pump which gets the blood to our muscles. The heart is a muscle with four chambers. The stronger the muscle and the bigger the chambers, the better…to a point.
LONG SLOW DISTANCE TRAINING
There is a training method which enhances our bodies ability to pump more blood, extract more oxygen, and use that oxygen more effectively to produce energy.
This method of training has been vilified by trainers worldwide and has been blamed for muscle wasting and making athletes slow.
Since the 90s, interval training has been heralded as the be all end all conditioning modality. Interval training has its place within a training year but it must be layered on a large, efficient aerobic engine.
The method to get that engine is:
Long Slow Distance or LSD training.
There has been a resurgence of Western fighters doing roadwork (LSD) or longer bouts of aerobic exercise. I say Western fighters because Thai Boxers never stopped doing roadwork. It is a staple of their morning training. Thai Boxers don’t gas.
We are going to dig into what changes occur during LSD training and why these changes enhance enhance athletic performance for athletes who relay heavily on their aerobic systems (this includes self defense enthusiasts who train to fight).
SOME SIMPLE DEFINITIONS
The maximum volume of oxygen a person could use. Sometimes called maximal oxygen uptake. VO2 MAX is measured in ml/kg/min. VO2 MAX is genetically limited so thank or curse your ancestors. As a side because VO2 MAX is measured in ml/KG/min, if you lower the kg (that’s body weight, ideally body fat) you will increase MAX VO2.
Anaerobic Threshold / Lactate Threshold:
The point during exercise of increasing intensity at which blood lactate begins to accumulate above resting levels, where lactate clearance is no longer able to keep up with lactate production. During low intensity exercise, blood lactate remains at or near to resting levels. As exercise intensity increases there comes a break point where blood lactate levels rise sharply. Researchers in the past have suggested that this signifies a significant shift from predominantly aerobic metabolism to predominantly anaerobic energy production. (1)
For our purpose, aerobic energy production could go on for a very long time at lower level intensities. As intensity of the exercise increases, we cross a threshold where we exceed our ability to reproduce energy. Once we cross this threshold (anaerobic or lactate threshold) we have about 20 or so seconds until we cannot function effectively and have to slow down to recharge.
According to Wikipedia:
“Stroke volume (SV) is the volume of blood pumped from one ventricle of the heart with each beat. It is calculated by subtracting the volume of blood in the ventricle at the end of a beat (called end-systolic volume) from the volume of blood just prior to the beat (called end-diastolic volume). The term stroke volume applies equally to both left and right ventricles of the heart. These two stroke volumes are generally equal, both approximately 70 ml in a healthy 70-kg man.
Stroke volume is an important determinant of cardiac output, which is the product of stroke volume and heart rate. Because stroke volume decreases in certain conditions and disease states, stroke volume itself correlates with cardiac function“.
Slow rhythmic cardiovascular training increases the chamber size of the heart and increases the heart muscles ability to contract. This leads to an increase in stroke volume.
Stroke volume and cardiac muscle hypertrophy are importantly linked. Dilation of the heart chambers without the increase in muscle size leads to heart failure.
The muscle is physiologically set to produce “x” amount of contraction per cubic mm. Functional dilation of chamber size is always accompanied by a corresponding increase in muscle size in the healthy, enlarged heart.
To review, LSD training makes the heart chamber size bigger and the heart muscle stronger so the athlete could pump more oxygen rich blood to the working muscles.
The cardiovascular training effect is best elicited through LSD-type training. The physiological adaptations take several months, so you have to do the work to get the benefits.
The increase in stroke volume, due to training, is one of the hallmarks of this cardiovascular training effect. LSD training has the following effects on the cardiovascular system:
- Increase in ventricular stroke volume: being able to do the same work at a lower heart rate is more efficient and leaves extra headroom for higher workloads
- Dilation of coronary arteries: larger conduits to supply blood to the heart muscle also provide higher capacity for work
- Increase in pulmonary diffusion coefficient: the lungs become more permeable to gases, meaning that respiratory exchange allows more oxygen to enter the bloodstream per breath, and more CO2 to be removed. Increases in vital capacity (size limit of the lung) can also contribute to more gas exchange.
Another factor in stroke volume is the contractile ability of the heart muscle. If your heart can more fully empty the ventricle during a single ejection phase, your stroke volume will be proportionately higher. Larger ventricles (heart chambers) need more muscle to empty efficiently; it’s simply a law of physics.
The competence of heart valves is an important factor in the ability to pump more blood per beat. Many people have subclinical leakage in one or more valves, leading to less potential development of extreme athletic cardiac performance.
If we could increase stroke volume, we could increase the amount of oxygen the tissues could access, faster. Bigger heart ventricles (chambers) equal more blood pumped per beat, equals more O2 to the muscles, faster.
Muscle tissue in the legs, arms, and torso, also adapt to aerobic training. On the physiological side, trained muscle tissue is able to extract more oxygen from the blood supply and, combined with changes in the control of energy metabolism, has increased capacity for work.
This is one of the reasons we can’t just run/jog but need use all the muscles we use for our endeavors. We could do this by using rowers, Versaclimbers, Airdynes, or any other machine or modality which incorporates the arms.
My personal observation is running is the most efficient and effective way to enhance conditioning. So, running/jogging, should at least be a part of your LSD session unless your injury history precludes it.
To expand on specificity of cardiovascular training a tad. Having the big engine is fantastic and necessary. We can use general training to get the big engine. But, specific training is king; you need to convert the general adaptations to your sport.
We could work harder under our anaerobic threshold and not gas so fast. We also recover a hell of a lot quicker because we are getting more oxygen to the muscles.
But doesn’t all this endurance training turn all of our muscles into slow twitch fibers? Well, yeah, sort of, if all you do is endurance work. This is really an oversimplification, but it is adequate for our purposes.
You still need to train anaerobically and lift weights. We are trying to get a specific result here, which changes the size of the heart and the ability of the muscles to uptake oxygen.
Once we get that result, we don’t have to put in the same volume to keep the changes and could shift our training to address other weaknesses.
Can we estimate if our stroke volume is good enough for our fitness/martial arts endeavors? We could roughly estimate where our stroke volume is by taking our resting heart rate. The slower the resting heart rate, the better the stroke volume (in most cases, of course there are a hell of a lot of qualifiers here, but in general…waking resting heart rate, prior to caffeine, is a decent guideline). Go ahead and take your resting heart rate. For a fighter, it should be in the:
LOW 50s Beats Per Minute
Yep, in the low 50s. If you are higher than that, you need to work on this and here’s the bad news: LSD training, for 60 to 90 minutes, in a heart rate range of approximately 120 – 150 BPM, is the way to increase SV which will slow resting heart rate. These physiological changes are not going to happen with HIIT, sprints, Crossfit, etc.
Because you are keeping the heart rate slow in LSD training, you are increasing the filling time of the ventricles (heart chambers). The increase in filling time allows for an increase in blood volume and this actually stretches the chamber size, giving you bigger ventricles which pump more blood per beat.
Good news is that as long as the HR is above 120 and below 150 the method of exercise doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s good to emulate your sport.
“But” you retort “fighting is an anaerobic sport!” Really, it’s all out effort all the time? Nope, it is not. Footwork, punching and kicking, holding a position on the ground, for 3 to 5 minutes is pretty aerobic. Plus, the aerobic system does not just shut off during high intensity bouts. Aerobic metabolism contributes to energy production even at high intensity. Fighting is mostly aerobic/alactic. Long periods of lighter activity with bursts of intense activity. Where fighting falls on a spectrum of purely aerobic to purely anaerobic (think marathon vs. olympic Weightlifting) depends on the type of fight and the rule set. Folkstyle wrestling is different from boxing and both are different from MMA and BJJ.
We need to develop the anaerobic system with high intensity intervals but that comes after we are maintaining a superior aerobic system. Anaerobic adaptations pretty much peak in THREE WEEKS! Go ahead and ask Dr. Tabata about that one.
SO LET’S DO INTERVALS, ALL THE TIME!
So why not just do intervals?
The heart is a muscle, intervals increase the size of that muscle but don’t necessarily increase the actual size of the heart chambers. During interval training, the heart rate is so high, the chambers do not fully fill.
LSD training allows for full filling of the ventricles and like a balloon, the filling will stretch the chamber, increasing the volume of blood the ventricles could hold. This is why we need to do LSD for a long time, we are actually stretching the chamber size!
There is a time for interval training after a solid base of aerobic fitness is achieved.
Interval training is useful throughout the year and depending upon the demands of your chosen endeavor.
You will see maximal anaerobic adaptations through high intensity interval training (HIIT) within a month, so there is really no reason to pummel yourself with HIIT when you are not specifically training for an event.
Turns out, doing road work is not antiquated or stupid…possibly the great champions of the past, and the current Thai’s, were on to something. Sorry for the bad news.
The next article in this series will detail an exact eight week program to enhance aerobic function.
(1) Wilmore JH and Costill DL. (2005) Physiology of Sport and Exercise: 3rd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
This post was an amalgamation of a blog post and several hundred responses and answers. Dr. Lee Aldridge was a valuable contributor to the post and some of his thoughts and statements are contained within the body of the post.