Aerobic vs Anaerobic Training: Why You Need Both in Your Running Plan

As many runners begin to train for races, they came across information about aerobic vs anaerobic training.

In this post by Adam Rabo, he gets into the weeds of the two terms – and why you need both types of training in any good training plan.

Many runners don’t think too much about the type of running they do – they just go for a run – but in knowing a little bit about the different types of running and their effects, we can train much more effectively.

In this article we will examine:

  • What is aerobic running
  • The benefits of aerobic running
  • Examples of aerobic training workouts
  • What is anaerobic running
  • The benefits of anaerobic running
  • Examples of anaerobic training workouts
  • Why you need aerobic and anaerobic training in your running plan
  • An example week including aerobic and anaerobic workouts

Ready?

Let’s jump in!

Aerobic vs anaerobic training

What is aerobic running?

Aerobic literally means “with oxygen”.

Aerobic runs are runs where our body uses oxygen as its primary source of energy.

Aerobic running is a very important component for distance runners – races are largely an aerobic endeavor.

The marathon is 97-99% aerobic.

Even an 800m race is 60-70% aerobic!

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Energy Contribution

Distance% Aerobic% Anaerobic
Marathon97.52.5
Half Marathon97.52.5
10k9010
5k8416
1 Mile8020

Since distance running is primarily aerobic, we want to make sure the majority of our runs are working our aerobic system.

You might see some training plans refer to this as “building the base”. This refers to staying aerobic while on your training runs so you are developing your aerobic capacity.

Doing these runs consistently will prepare your body for the anaerobic sessions you will add to your training when you are getting closer to your race.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training

The Benefits of Aerobic Running

There are plenty of benefits to aerobic running.

  • Increase in capillaries: Capillaries supply blood to the muscles. The more capillaries you have, the more blood you can get to your muscles when exercising or running.

    Distance running is one of the only physical activities that will cause this increase!
  • Boost mitochondria: Mitochondria convert fat and carbs into fuel. 
  • Improve aerobic capacity: Aerobic capacity is how much oxygen your body can use efficiently.

    An increased aerobic capacity will allow you to run faster paces while still staying aerobic.
  • Burn fat instead of carbohydrates: When your body burns fat your blood sugar and energy levels stay more constant.Your body has much more fat stored than carbohydrates, which means you will have more energy to burn.
  • Low stress on body: Aerobic runs are less stressful on the body than anaerobic runs. This allows your body time to recover from hard workouts.

Examples of Aerobic Training Workouts

The good news is that the bulk of your training should be aerobic runs. About 80% of your weekly mileage should be done aerobically.

Aerobic runs are easy runs done at a casual pace. These runs can be short or long. The key is to make sure the pace is easy so that your body is able to burn oxygen.

Some examples could include:

  • An easy 3 mile run to recover from a workout,
  • A long run of 18-20 miles to prepare for the marathon,
  • A moderate run of 6-10 miles.
Aerobic vs anaerobic training

So how do I know if I’m running aerobically?

There are a couple of different ways to tell if you are running aerobically. The easiest is the conversation test.

If you are running aerobically, you should be able to have a conversation with a running partner without gasping between sentences.

How about runners who are running by themselves?

Try to talk outloud to yourself. You could quote song lyrics or your favorite passage from a book. You should be able to get through 3-4 sentences without gasping for air.

A more exact method to know if you are running aerobically or not is to use your heart rate. You can track this with a watch or by monitoring your pulse and counting.

The general rule is to subtract your age from 180. So a 30 year old runner would want to keep their heart rate at or below 150 beats per minute.

This will ensure that you are keeping your runs aerobic.

What Is Anaerobic Running?

Aerobic vs anaerobic training

Anaerobic means “without oxygen” and is the opposite of aerobic training. 

When our runs cross the threshold from aerobic to anaerobic, we begin to burn carbohydrates as opposed to oxygen. Our body also starts producing a byproduct called lactate, or lactic acid.

If we think of aerobic running as training for a marathon, anaerobic running is the 100m dash.

It’s fast, explosive, and burns glycogen instead of oxygen.

While distance races are mostly aerobic endeavors, this does not mean that anaerobic training is not important.

Benefits of Anaerobic Running

There are several benefits to anaerobic runs. These include:

  • Increased lactate threshold: Doing anaerobic runs improves your body’s ability to handle lactic acid. As you improve your lactate threshold you will be able to run faster before lactic acid begins to form in your muscles and your body will be able to process it better.
  • Improved running form and economy: Anaerobic runs will improve your running form which will allow you to run more efficiently. It can improve your foot speed and lead to less ground contact time.
  • Help reduce injuries: Anaerobic runs can strengthen muscles and joints which can make you less injury prone. An added benefit of an improved running economy is you are less likely to become injured.
Aerobic vs anaerobic training

Examples of Anaerobic Training Workouts

Anaerobic workouts should be tailored to fit a specific race distance.

For instance, it would not do a marathoner much good to do an anaerobic workout designed for an 800m runner, and an 800m runner would not get the necessary stimulus from a marathon workout.

Let’s take a look at some examples for different race distances.

Two quick notes:

A lot of these workouts can/will be done on a 400m track. 

All anaerobic workouts should be accompanied by a proper warmup and cool down in order to reduce the likelihood of injury.

Mile:

Warmup

8-10x200m with 200m walk recovery. The reps should be run 800m-1600m pace (a 6 minute miler would run these around 42-45 seconds).

Cooldown

5k:

Warmup

5-6x1000m with a 200m walk recovery. The reps should be done around 5k pace (a 20 minute 5k runner would run 4 minutes per 1000m).

Cooldown

10k:

Warmup

6xmile with a 400m walk recovery. The reps should be done around 10k pace (a 45 min 10k runner would run 7:15 for each mile).

Cooldown

Half-Marathon or Marathon:

Warmup

10xmile with 1-2 min recovery. The reps should be done around half-marathon pace (a 1:45 half-marathoner would run 8 minutes for each mile).

Cooldown

Aerobic vs anaerobic training

Strides

You can also do anaerobic training when in your base phase. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate strides 2-3 times a week after some of your runs.

Strides are controlled sprints done at 70-80% of your top speed. These can be anywhere from 50-100 yards. You should take a few minutes rest between each. A less experienced runner should start with 4 and build to 8-10 per session.

Strides will give you an anaerobic boost without taxing your legs so much that you have to recover the next day.

They are also a great thing to add to your warmup before harder workouts like the ones mentioned above.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training: why you need both in your plan

So why do you need both aerobic and anaerobic workouts in your training?

Aerobic training is designed to help you improve your endurance.

This will help you run longer and your body will become more efficient at burning fuel.

Anaerobic training is designed to help you
run faster.

In addition to this, it will improve your strength, improve your mechanics, and increase your body’s ability to process lactate.

If you were to look at the training of a professional 800m runner, you would find a base phase with plenty of aerobic runs in between the hard anaerobic workouts they need to run half a mile as fast as possible.

On the other side of the coin, if you look at the training of a professional marathoner you will find that once or twice a week, they perform anaerobic workouts in order to improve their speed and strength.

Even though their specialties are on opposite sides of the distance spectrum, their training week will look very similar. Only the workouts themselves and total volume will be different.

A good training plan will follow the 80/20 principle.

The idea is that 80% of your runs should be easy, or aerobic, and 20% should be hard, or anaerobic.

Following this breakdown, a 40 mile a week plan would feature 8 miles of anaerobic running and 32 miles of aerobic running.

Following this 80/20 split will help ensure you aren’t over-training. Anaerobic workouts are hard on the body and you need time to recover after them. A day or two of aerobic runs between anaerobic workouts allows the body to recover and prepare itself for the next anaerobic workout.

There will be times when this principle isn’t necessary, for instance you may not run any anaerobic workouts in the weeks after a big race or at the beginning of your base phase. Otherwise, it is a wise principle to follow to ensure you are getting the most out of your training.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training

Example training week showing a blend of aerobic and anaerobic training.

Here is an example of a training week for a marathoner running about 50 miles a week:

Sunday – 12 mile long run (aerobic)
Monday – 4 miles easy

Tuesday – Warmup, 2x3mile tempo at half-marathon pace with 1 mile easy jog between reps, cooldown (~10 miles, 6 anaerobic)

Wednesday – 4 miles easy

Thursday – Warmup, 16x400m at 5k pace with 200m jog recovery, cooldown (~10 miles, 4 anaerobic)

Friday – 4 miles easy

Saturday – 6 miles easy

Total mileage – 50 miles
Total anaerobic – 10 miles
Total aerobic – 40
Percent anaerobic – 20%

Aerobic vs anaerobic training is important for runners to understand and implement if they want to get the most out of their training and become a faster, stronger runner.

How do you implement aerobic vs. anaerobic runs into your training?

Let us know below!

Adam Rabo

Adam Rabo

Adam Rabo has been running since junior high. He is a high school math teacher and has coached high school and college distance runners. He is currently training for a marathon, the R2R2R, and a 100-mile ultra. He lives in Colorado Springs, CO.

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