Aerobic Base Training: A Dying Concept?

Which provides the better path to fitness: Aerobic base training or interval training? In the competitive sports world, that's a loaded topic with strong opinions on either side of the question. For the average fitness buff, however, the answer might be both. 

Aerobic base training comes from old school fitness common sense. If you want to perform at maximum capacity in any sport, you have to start with a strong foundation. That's what your aerobic base is. Aerobic-base advocates say, the bigger your aerobic base, the better. 

Building a better aerobic base requires a basic training program of long distances over a six- to eight- week period at a slow-to-moderate pace. As you pile on the miles and hours, you build muscles and develop your aerobic capacity. Then, when you really need to power it out for a big competition, you have a wide aerobic base to work from.

Exercise is broken down into aerobic and anaerobic activity. Aerobic exercise includes long distance running, swimming, biking, walking (or any sport) performed at a moderate intensity, for an extended period of time. It uses oxygen to break food stores (glycogen) into usable energy (glucose). Anaerobic exercise includes sprinting, speed racing, competitive swimming and other activities that require relatively short bursts of high energy. It skips the oxygen step and converts glycogen directly into energy in a less efficient process.

Aerobic base training improves the body's aerobic capacity by boosting capillary strength surrounding muscle fibers.  Capillaries ship blood, oxygen and energy to muscles and carry carbon dioxide and waste products away. It also increases the muscle fiber's cellular ability to use oxygen for energy production. Muscles use mitochondria cells to produce energy. Aerobic training improves mitochondrial efficiency and reduces lactic acid buildup, which causes achy muscles. 

How do you train your aerobic base?  By approaching your workout like a tortoise, not a hare. Spend your off-peak or non-competitive sport season devoted to long, easy runs or bike rides.  Knock out the miles, lap after lap in the pool instead of training for your best time. Cross train on the treadmill, elliptical trainer, rowing machine or stair climber.  Don't push too hard.  You're working for duration, not speed or power.  Experts say it takes weeks to months to build a strong aerobic base. 

What about interval training?  Some exercise physiologists and fitness experts say aerobic base training is a dead concept. They say interval training is the only way to improve anaerobic fitness. With interval training, short bursts of high-intensity activity are interspersed with low-to-moderate intensity exercise in every workout.  Experts say this builds muscle fiber, lung capacity, cardiovascular fitness and energy conversion capabilities more efficiently than base training.  They recommend adding speed-work, sprints, and hills to every run or ride and alternating between slow laps and fast ones in the pool.   

What's your best method for getting fit? It depends on your fitness goals and current fitness level. If you're new to exercise, aerobic base training is the place to start. Spend the first month or two of regular workouts getting your muscles used to exercise. Then, gradually add time, distance and duration. When you feel like you're ready for more, add interval training.  More experienced athletes and those working toward specific goals or events should consult an expert in their field about the best training program for them.