When you discuss running as a form of fight conditioning with many modern athletes and trainers you will get a broad spectrum of opinions. The traditionalists tend to stick with the old tried and true recipe: run because that’s what all of the champions did before you. But also there is a more “modern” view that long runs do little to improve the explosiveness necessary for the intensity of fighting in the ring. Because Muay Thai fights last 5 rounds at the most, many think that the old school boxing paradigm of running for hours everyday in order to prepare for a 12-15 round fight is simply not necessary, and that shorter and more anaerobic methods of conditioning are a better way to train.
But if you were to go to Thailand, even in the most modern gyms, you would find that daily running is a mandatory part of your training. No one questions it. It’s just simply the way it is. So I’d like to share some thoughts about how important long slow runs are for athletes training for fights and why the “old school” way may be the most scientifically appropriate.
Without trying to be overly detailed in the physiology and science of the matter, I would like to give my opinion on a couple common misconceptions.
1- “The harder you work the better”
While hard work is clearly an unavoidable part of fight training there is something called “over training.” If not done properly the amount of work you put into your preparation can actually work against you. I have seen so many fighters just push through extreme exhaustion all the way through their fight camps and still find themselves gassed out in round 2. If you find your performance suffering during your training the problem is not usually that you are not working hard enough. It may actually be that you are not resting enough. It should be common knowledge that heavy training does not make you stronger or give you more endurance. The training stimulates the body to change ONCE THE TRAINING IS OVER. And without proper rest and recovery that change simply won’t happen. The training itself is actually a stress on your system, and if you are stressing the system when it is trying to recover, once fight time comes you will not have received the proper metabolic compensations you needed. And as it turns out long SLOW runs can contribute to your overall conditioning without destroying your precious recovery.
2- “Long runs won’t improve my anaerobic performance”
I can understand why someone would come to this conclusion. Going for an easy jog is an Aerobic endeavor. By definition it does not require your anaerobic system to perform. So put simply aerobic activity can be sustained for long periods, while anaerobic activity can only be performed for a short time and leaves you exhausted. And because Muay Thai fights are relatively short, filled with anaerobic bursts, and typically end with both fighters exhausted many assume that focusing on anaerobic training would be a better use of their time. But what most people do not understand is that the anaerobic system REQUIRES a strong aerobic system to function. While doing short, intense, explosive training can improve the intensity and duration of your anaerobic bursts, a strong aerobic base actually serves to clean up and refuel once the anaerobic system is exhausted. The stronger your aerobic base is the quicker and more fully you can recover from your anaerobic bursts. So it stands to reason that those long slow runs do actually improve your anaerobic performance.
3- “Training at higher heart rates is healthy”
Nope. Sorry, but there is a difference between being “fit” and being healthy. As I mentioned before, your training is a stress on your system and as with any form of stress it can break down the mechanism. There is no evidence that athletes who train consistently at a heart rate of 170 or higher actually live longer. In fact some research indicates the opposite. So the question should not be “how hard can I work?” The question should be “how hard do I have to work to get the desired result?” Anything more than that is a waste of your time…and body. I have found that with the fighters on my team who do their prescribed low intensity running religiously are consistently performing better on the pads and in the ring while working at a significantly lower heart rate than the ones who are not. They spend more time in the aerobic state where they can think clearly, work more consistently, and undergo fewer injuries and burnout.
I want to be clear. I am NOT saying that intense anaerobic training is not necessary in fighter training. It clearly is. But I am saying that if that is the majority of the work you are doing it is a mistake. Easy jogs may not seem intense enough to improve your performance in something as ferocious as a Muay Thai fight. But there is more than enough evidence that it truly does. So here is what I ask of my team: If you want to fight then 3-6 months before your fight start running 5-6 days a week, 30 minutes to an hour of slow easy running. If you feel at the end of your run that you couldn’t do it again just as easily then YOU ARE GOING TO HARD. The metabolic adaptations that occur in your aerobic system are not always noticeable in the beginning. Many people feel that they are just not working hard enough. But the long term effects will show up in your training and of course in your next fight. So it’s time to lace up those running shoes, get out there and take it slow. There will plenty of time to work hard once you put your gloves on.
Ben Brown is the founder and Head Coach at PHAS3 Martial Arts, a Muay Thai focused martial arts school in Santa Rosa, California. PHAS3 offers a family atmosphere that welcomes students of all skill levels from beginners to the most competitive fighters. PHAS3 is a Woodenman Certified Muay Thai training school.