Aerobic Energy System 101, and Mistakes to Avoid

By Dave Howington, CSCS

In last week’s blog post, I began to make a case for the aerobic energy system and left off with the analogy of this system being the base of a pyramid. In this post, I want to go more in-depth regarding what the aerobic energy system does, and even mistakes to avoid when training it.

I think the first big clue we get regarding the aerobic energy system is the last two words, it is an energy system, meaning through various ways it provides energy to our body to function. In our body, we have three primary energy systems. The other two manifest themselves most during endeavors, such as competition. However, the aerobic energy system manifests itself even as I am sitting here typing up this post.

To some extent all three energy systems are always functioning, however, at rest is when the aerobic energy system is operating the most out of the three systems. Why is this important? Well, let’s consider a competition where an athlete gets subbed out in the middle of the game to rest. The better their aerobic energy system, the quicker their body will be able to re-establish itself and recover during the game. Such athletes tend to be the ones we admire at the end of the game. On a grander level, let’s say you had a hard day of training at the gym, the better the aerobic energy system, the faster you will be able to recover after the workout and the more consistently you will be ready to go hard in the gym without hindering your recovery.

I hope you are starting to see, the better the aerobic energy system functions, the more capable we will be even in life, and especially as it pertains to performance. However, there are errors we can make when training this energy system.

For athletes, the better the aerobic energy system, the quicker the body will be able to re-establish itself and recover during the game.

For athletes, the better the aerobic energy system, the quicker the body will be able to re-establish itself and recover during the game.

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There is an old school mentality a lot of athletes and coach’s have where they think the only kind of cardio they should do is the kind which pushes your body to the limit, anything less is counterproductive. While there is a time and place to do this, using this as the only means for cardio will not actually fully enhance your aerobic energy system. Instead, by just training in this manner we may sabotage the aerobic energy system’s ability to help us recover when we are at rest.

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Many times we err in thinking if a little bit is a good thing then a lot is a great thing. However, if you are not an endurance athlete, then training your aerobic energy system too often can actually be counterproductive as well, and this is when your training may sabotage your “gains.”

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I used to scoff at cardio machines and even training such as just going for a run. While there are pros and cons to everything, neglecting methods of cardio such as biking, swimming, and running will hinder your ability to build a complete and robust aerobic energy system profile.

These tend to be three of the biggest mistakes I see when it comes to training the aerobic energy system. However, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As I mentioned, there is a time and place to go hard, there is a time and place to use free weights or strongman implements for cardio, and for some athletes, they need a lot of cardio early on in their off-season.

In fact next week, I will discuss how to assess your aerobic energy system and how to train it depending on your goals.