SPORTS SCIENCE: The science behind why overtraining has real consequences – why to train smart first, hard second

By Adam Tindal, MMATorch contributor


Overwhelming is one way to describe the ever evolving world of strength and conditioning. On a daily basis there are constantly new ideas and training modalities being birthed and pegged as revolutionary to fitness. Many of these are highly effective when it comes to building muscle or improving your rate of force production. However, pertaining to endurance and overall conditioning, there are specifically three zones that our bodies work within.

Two anaerobic zones that produce energy through the conversion of creatine phosphate (1) and muscle glycogen (2), with the final zone aerobically (3) producing energy through muscle glycogen and fatty acids. This topic, like many others in relation to sports physiology, has a mind-boggling amount of science behind it to help us understand. With that being said, text books have been written on this subject alone so I will try to keep it as simple and as readily applicable as possible.

Our bodies accumulate a currency of energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that can be spent on fuel production to complete the work we find ourselves faced with. ATP can be utilized both with (aerobic) and without (anaerobic) oxygen. However, of these two methods, we are much more efficient working within the aerobic system.

Training within this system causes our hearts to adapt by growing larger and stronger throughout so it can supply the always increasing demand for oxygen to fatiguing muscles. These adaptations allow the heart to become a more efficient pump transporting more blood per beat, resulting in fewer beats to supply the same amount of oxygen. Fighters will live and die by the intensity in which they conduct their aerobic training. MMA calls for the combatants to compete anywhere from 15-25 minutes with the inclusion of brief but frequent bursts of extreme intensity.

At no point during a fight is one system working independently. All three are constantly supplying energy. The duration of work and its intensity will determine which system is more prominent. When working within 1-45 seconds, our bodies are purely anaerobic, producing fuel directly from ATP stored in the muscles and the conversion of creatine phosphate and muscle glycogen.

After 45 seconds, the body starts burning lactic acid priming the aerobic system to take over. Lactic acid will continuously be produced and removed even after the body is at rest. The thing with a fight is that often times there comes a point where the fighters body is producing lactic acid faster than it can remove it. When this happens, it spills out into the blood and fatigue becomes evident. A main priority in training for fighters should be to minimize the production of lactic acid while enhancing its removal during exercise. A great way to accomplish this is high intensity interval training or prolonged submaximal training.

The use of high intensity intervals will optimize the cardiorespiratory adaptations and increases the bodies oxygen utilization. For example, the Tabata protocol is one of the most popular interval training methodologies. It calls for the athlete to work for :20 seconds of max effort while resting for only :10 seconds for a total of 8 rounds. Another effective interval would be :30 on and :30 off for 5 rounds.

Thinking in terms of work and rest ratios, I have found it most effective for fighters to stay between a 2:1 or 1:1 split. 2:1 being spot on with the Tabata protocol and 1:1 being identical to :30/:30. You either work and rest for identical times or work twice as much as you rest. Try starting at a 1:2 work:rest ratio and progress to 1:1 and finally 2:1. Creativity can shine within these protocols and technically specific drills can be applied. 

Contrarily, submax training can encourage the body to induce an increase in mitochondrial structure and function. The mitochondria are the powerhouses of our muscle cells, solely responsible for the production of ATP and other specialized tasks. These adaptations reduce the production of lactic acid by increasing the bodies reliance on fatty acids as fuel sources instead of carbohydrates. Additionally, we are upping the proficiency of lactic acid removal, meaning faster recovery times which are critical in between rounds. Submax training can easily be defined as steady state cardio like jumping rope or going for a long run, bike, or swim.

There are many traditional methods of endurance training that today’s fighters typically call upon without knowing that potentially irreparable damage is being done. Crossfit style workouts should be avoided in my opinion due to the complex nature of many of the required movements. Fighters have enough techniques to master as it is.

Despite what Eddie Alvarez thinks, over training is a real thing. Going into the gym and thinking you are just going to push it to the limits until the body gives out is a primitive mindset that we must eradicate from our mentalities. Do this enough and you won’t just be puking after your workout, the sickness will carry out over many days until you realize that your body must rest. At this point you will be forced out of practice and days that are vital to preparation will be missed. Worst case scenario you get injured and are forced out of the fight entirely. In conclusion, listen to your body, people. Train smart first, hard second.

(Adam Tindal of Orlando, Fla. is new MMATorch Specialist columnist focused on the sports science of exercise. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Performance Enhancing Specialist, and has USA Weightlifting certification . He studied exercise science at UCF and current works for a sports performance company in Orlando. He has practiced Muay Thai for nearly ten years and is a passionate follower of MMA.)

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