What is Anaerobic Performance? How Do I Start?

In lieu of my last article around aerobic performance, I felt it was only necessary to discuss the more intense side of training which is also known as anaerobic performance. Before jumping into the content, let’s take a loot at the definition…

What is anaerobic?
“pertaining to or caused by the absence of oxygen.”

Let’s kick things off by putting the definition into context as it relates to fitness by focusing on the “absence of oxygen” piece. When performing in the anaerobic zones, it can be difficult to breathe as your heart is pumping fast and your body is gasping for more oxygen. As an ultra obstacle course athlete, I look at anything above the maximum aerobic heart rate (for me this is 147 BPMs) as entering the anaerobic zone. Now there’s a few questions that come to mind that I hope I can clarify throughout this article.

Questions I’ll Answer:
How much time of my overall training should be spent in the anaerobic zone?
How do I figure out my heart rate zones?
From an anaerobic performance standpoint, what is too low?
From an anaerobic performance standpoint, what is too high?

Prior to answering the questions above, I want to share my heart rate zones to give you context around what I will be discussing.

My HR Zones

In the image above, you’ll notice that it looks similar to an RPM gauge in a car which is a great way to think about your heart. Our heart pumps everyday and will fluctuate throughout the day depending on what we’re doing. In black text, you’ll see a number followed by BPMs which is my heart rate ranges that correlate with intensity zones.

Light Intensity = 100 – 139 BPMs (50 – 69% of Max HR)
Moderate Intensity = 140 – 159 BPMs (70 – 79% of Max HR)
Vigorous Intensity = 160 – 179 BPMs (80 – 89% of Max HR)

I purposely didn’t include the percentages of the resting or max heart zone as I stay away from them when it comes to training. As it pertains to the resting heart rate zone (grey), you typically will not see much benefit from a performance standpoint as you are not adding enough stressors to the body. Regarding the max heart rate zone (red), I believe working in this zone will do more harm than good (especially as we age). Let’s go back to the car analogy and think about driving it at it’s highest RPM (red zone). If you do this once in a while, you may not see any damage at first but if it’s brought to this level many times over the course of it’s lifetime you could see the lifetime window shorten. Another way to think of it is if every time you drive you’re always taking it this high, you will see issues come up from parts wearing out and/or the engine overheating leading to failure. Let’s think of our bodies like a car and our heart is the engine, if we’re consistently driving it at it’s highest RPM, we could see issues come up from adrenal fatigue (that lead to hormone imbalances) to acute/chronic injuries. Here’s how I look at it, I know I can run until my heart hits 200 BPMs but why would I want to do that to my battery of life?

I feel like I can write an entire article about why we shouldn’t be redlining in our workouts but let’s stop while we’re ahead and get to the solution. I want to pivot back to the four questions above…

How much time of my overall training should be spent in the anaerobic zones?
As a certified personal trainer, I believe that you should only spend 20% to 30% max of your overall programming in an anaerobic state. For example, if you run 10 miles a week, 2 to 3 of those miles can be spent in the anaerobic zones (sprints/hills). If you’re pushing to 30% of anaerobic work in a week it may be best to add additional recovery (that week) or reduce the time spent in the anaerobic zone the following week.

You might be asking yourself, “How do I get faster if I’m only spending 20% to 30% of my runs at higher intensities?” which is a valid question. You get faster by increasing your aerobic performance and building your body to become more efficient. For more information around aerobic performance, please refer back to my original article titled “What is Aerobic Performance? How Do I Start?

How do I figure out my heart rate zones?
The first step is to calculate your max heart rate and the best way to do this is by trial. There are formulas online but the problem with them is that they don’t take into consideration an individuals current health state, nutrition, hydration, and many other factors. For trial, you can measure your max heart rate by performing an all out activity (running is the most effective) for 3 to 4 minutes. You’ll need a heart rate monitor strapped across your chest to get the more accurate reading as it’s closest to your heart. I’m a big fan of the Garmin HRM Pro chest strap where you can easily order from Amazon. You would perform the activity while wearing the device then note your highest heart rate during the activity.

The second step is to calculate your max aerobic heart rate by using the MAF formula. The MAF formula is easy to calculate as it takes your age (33 in my case) and subtracting that from 180. This will provide you your max aerobic heart rate (mine is 147 BPMs).

Now you have your max heart rate and max aerobic heart rate so now what? From here, you can build out parameters by starting with the max aerobic heart rate. If I know that 147 BPMs is my max aerobic heart rate and 140 BPMs is 70% of my max heart (200 BPMs) then that window of 140 to 147 BPMs would be my sweet spot for working on my aerobic performance. Moving onto anaerobic performance, I prefer to work within the 80% to 90% window so that would be 160 to 179 BPMs. This allows me to bump up the intensity but not too high or low.

To summarize my heart rate zones:
If I want to increase my aerobic performance (endurance), I want to work within the 140 to 147 BPM window.
If I want to increase my anaerobic performance (speed/hills), I want to work within the 160 to 179 BPM window.

From an anaerobic performance standpoint, what is too low?
If you’re looking to increase your anaerobic performance, it’s best to work within the anaerobic zones by leveraging percentages based off of your max heart rate (80% to 90% window). Anything between the aerobic zone and anaerobic zone would be considered the dead zone. Using my heart zones, my dead zone would be between 148 to 159 BPMs.

From an anaerobic performance standpoint, what is too high?
In my opinion, anything above your anaerobic performance window would be considered too high. Yes, you can go above the 90% threshold but I recommend playing the long game and allow your body to become more efficient. Overtime, you will see your speed increase while staying within your anaerobic window. I also want to reiterate that only 20% to 30% of your overall training should be spent in this window to ensure recovery and longevity.

Final Thoughts…
I look at fitness as a way to increase longevity and quality of life. I will admit that I used to be that guy that would go so hard every workout which led to many injuries, adrenal fatigue, and plateaus. As I made my transition into an ultra obstacle course athlete, I’ve learned that the long game truly is the best path forward. I don’t workout so I can show my six pack in the summer. I workout so I can keep up with my future children when they say they want to hike up a mountain. Fitness should be viewed as a celebration of what your body can do not a punishment for what you ate. My hope is that you found this article valuable and can build out parameters that are customized to you. Health and wellness is extremely personalized and wish you nothing but the best as you pursue your next challenge or begin your fitness journey.

Please feel free to drop me an email at omarromeroinfo@gmail.com or DM on Instagram @theomarromero with any questions.

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