How To Build Unstoppable Endurance in MMA

The purpose of this article series is to provide you with a blueprint for creating a periodized training plan that will help you develop a level of endurance that will run your opponent into the ground. You’ll be introduced to concepts that if implemented, will allow you to design an evidence-based training program to improve MMA-specific endurance and performance, no matter if you’re fighting in 3, 4, 6, or 12 months, or anything in-between.

This article series will require some heavy lifting on your part, but I promise that if you follow through on everything we talk about, you’ll have the key to designing your very own individualized fight plan, and this will help you reach your full potential as a fighter.

This article series is divided into five parts. In Part 1 you’ll learn about the metabolic demands of MMA, and, how to train an energy system in Part 2. Part 3 will teach you how to avoid overtraining, and Part 4 will cover everything you need to know about periodization. Part five will cover performance testing. Ok, let’s get in to the first part.

Part 1: The Metabolic Demands of MMA

In the human body, energy is stored in chemical form, in high-energy phosphate bonds. When three phosphate molecules bind to one adenosine molecule, adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) is formed and energy is stored. As shown in the figure below, when the third phosphate bond is broken, ATP is converted to ADP (Adenosine di-phosphate) and energy is released; and it is this release of energy that powers muscular contraction.

ATP must be available for muscles to contract and it is always present in the muscle, but in very low concentration i.e. enough to allow for just a few seconds of normal physiological functioning. If the muscles are to continue contracting, ATP must be continuously re-synthesized.

The resynthesis of ATP can occur when a molecule of phosphocreatine (PCr) donates its phosphate to ADP to re-form ATP. But ATP can also be produced with oxygen by aerobic energy systems and without oxygen by anaerobic energy systems. Each of these systems, and their impact on MMA performance, is briefly reviewed below.

The ATP-PCr System

The ATP-PCr system (also called the phosphagen system, or the anaerobic alactic system) is the dominant energy system that maintains ATP generation in short-explosive activities like take-downs and rapid combinations.

It is important to remember that all of the energy systems are always working together, at the same time; there’s no switch that turns one system off, and another one on. For example, during a single 6 s maximal effort, about half of the ATP comes from the ATP-PCr system, a little less than half comes from anaerobic glycolysis, with the remainder comes from aerobic energy systems. As the duration of the maximal effort approaches 30 s, the amount of ATP coming from the ATP-PCr system falls, while the contributions from anaerobic glycolysis and aerobic energy systems increase.

The ATP-PCr system can affect your performance in the cage. This is because PCr is the immediate reserve for the resynthesis of ATP, and performing a single maximal effort like a take-down attempt will probably reduce PCr stores by half, and complete resupply probably requires more than 5 minutes of rest. As recovery time between actions in a bout of MMA does not normally exceed 60 s, even between rounds, the PCr stores in the muscle will only be partially restored before the next effort; this will result in a reduction in power output over repeated efforts, and a drop in your performance. As an aside, this might explain why some fighters start to gas-out after a sustained take-down attempt. On the flip side, all of this research suggests that your performance in the cage can be improved by training interventions that target PCr reshythesis. Knowing this, we’ve included those workouts in our programs. Don’t worry, we’ll get to those shortly!

Just a quick additional note, if you’re really interested in this material, or need to develop a training plan asap, then you might consider enrolling in one of the MMA Training Bible’s online courses, where Dr Gillis will take you through a step-by-step process for designing your very own periodized training plan. Ok, let’s move on to the next energy system.

Anaerobic Glycolysis

If high intensity activity is to continue beyond a few seconds, ATP must be generated another way. When the ATP-PCr system is depleted, anaerobic glycolysis picks up the slack. Just for your information, anaerobic glycolysis is also called lactic acid system, or fast glycolysis. Anaerobic glycolysis dominates energy production in maximal activities lasting up to a minute or so. In MMA, this system supports your ability to perform powerful sustained takedown attempts and combinations.

The important thing to remember about anaerobic glycolysis is that it really helps out during SINGLE sustained efforts, but not so much for repeated efforts. So, workouts targeting anaerobic glycolysis will likely improve single efforts in the cage (which is important for power endurance), but it will not improve your ability to repeatedly perform at a high intensity over the whole round, and over the fight. You’ll need a heavy dose of ATP from the aerobic energy system for this, so that’s what we’ll cover next.

Aerobic Energy Systems Aerobic energy systems generate ATP at a slower rate than anaerobic energy systems, but can sustain efforts for much long periods. High intensity efforts supported by the ATP-PCr system and anaerobic glycolysis cannot be sustained for much longer than around 75 s, as this probably represents the cross-over point when aerobic energy systems begin to dominate ATP production during sustained efforts; this is shown in the figure below. The important thing to note in the figure below is that aerobic energy production is the dominant energy system in any bout that lasts longer than a minute and a half, or so.

Aerobic glycolysis supports activities in the 75 s to three-minute range, after which aerobic oxidative metabolism dominates energy production. The aerobic systems are essential in maintaining high-intensity efforts throughout the fight and for those activities relating to body-position around the cage. The better developed your aerobic system is, the less you’ll have to rely on anaerobic energy systems.

It’s important to note that the contribution of aerobic metabolism to total energy production during a single maximal effort is small, probably less than 10 %, but as maximal efforts are repeated, the contribution increases and you will approach the maximal amount of oxygen that your muscles can use (this is called your VO2max). As an aside, improving your VO2max will be associated with improved ability to perform repeated high intensity efforts, just like those required in MMA.

If you’re interested in learning more about the metabolic demands of MMA, consider reading this article series. If you’re in a bit of a crunch and don’t have time to go through all of our free articles, consider enrolling in our online training courses. Dr. Gillis and The MMA Training Bible will take you through a step-by-step process for building your very own individualized training plan. Otherwise, look out for Part 2 of this article series which focuses on how to train an energy system.


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