The nature of martial arts training is inherently physical. Even those seeking some form of mental, emotional or spiritual enlightenment through the martial arts do so through physical training. For the competitive martial artist, this aspect is even more important: without a solid fitness base, competition success is highly unlikely. Training for fitness can be classified as either aerobic or anaerobic, depending on the intensity of the exercise.
Aerobic exercise generally operates below the lactate threshold (in simple terms, the level at which lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood). Exercising at an aerobic level means that the amount of lactic acid produced is generally small enough that the body can process and dispose of it on the go. Oxygen is one of the elements that is used primarily for energy production during aerobic training.
Anaerobic exercise occurs above the lactate threshold and trains the body to work with and recover from lactic acid build-up. Oxygen is not utilised in the breakdown of glycogen during anaerobic fitness. Due to the nature of martial arts (short, high-intensity bursts of activity), the anaerobic system is of more importance than the aerobic one. Nevertheless, aerobic training should not be wholly removed from the equation.
As mentioned, aerobic training occurs below the lactate threshold. It is useful for building a fitness base and trains the body to work harder and longer before reaching the lactate threshold. Before moving on to anaerobic training, a decent aerobic base should be built. The most efficient way of improving aerobic fitness is through interval training, rather than through a steady slog; by splitting a 30 minute session into, for instance, 3×10 minutes with a 5 minute break between intervals, the body is able to cope at a higher intensity for the same 30 minute period.
In order to implement intervals, take the intended length of time to be spent exercising and split it down into a number of intervals of between 5 and 15 minutes, or so. Add rest periods that are approximately half the length of the training periods. As time goes on, of course, the length of intervals may be increased, though realistically a high end of fifteen minute intervals is more than enough and it may be beneficial to do a greater number of 10 minute intervals than fewer 15 minute ones.
Suitable exercises for the aerobic period are swimming, running, cycling and other such activities. At this stage, variety is ‘the spice of life’ and using a range of exercises will benefit the body not only in terms of fitness, but also in training and strengthening a range of muscles throughout the body. One final point: aerobic training is intended to be done under the lactate threshold. To ensure this is so, use the ‘talk test’; that is, if you are able to converse reasonably comfortable, then you are probably working below the lactate threshold. Of course, this test is not an exact measurement, but it is a good indicator and significantly easier than carrying a sports testing lab along on the training session.
Once a solid aerobic fitness base is built, the emphasis should be shifted to anaerobic training: this really should be the main focus for martial artists seeking to improve fight fitness, as it trains the body to deal with increasing levels of lactic acid build up. As with the aerobic fitness base, intervals are the most efficient way to train anaerobic fitness: anaerobic intervals should last between 1 and 3 minutes (and certainly nearer to 1 than 3 when starting out), with rest periods that are longer than those with aerobic intervals. Generally speaking, in the early stages of anaerobic training, 1 minute intervals with rests of approximately 3 minutes are a good starting point, with an increase in interval lengths and a decrease in the length of rest periods as the martial artist becomes more anaerobically fit.
In the anaerobic phase (and with a focus on martial artists), specificity is desirable. Suitable exercises would be skipping, sprints, sparring and pad-work (and for the competitive martial artist, these latter two are much more important).
Staley, Charles I. (1999). The Science of Martial Arts Training. CA: Unique Publications.
Talanian, Jason L. et al. (2006). ‘Two Weeks of High-intensity Aerobic Interval Training Increases the Capacity for Fat Oxidation During Exercise in Women’. In Journal of Applied Physiology 102, pp.1439-1447.