The Metabolic Demands of MMA: Part 3 – Anaerobic Glycolysis

We’ve been exploring the metabolic demands of mixed martial arts in this article. Understanding this is critical because it influences how you design and carry out your training plan. Get it right and you’ll optimize your endurance, strength and power on fight day. Get it wrong and you risk gassing-out in front of your opponent.

In Part 1 you learned about the basics of energy transfer. These concepts will serve as the foundation on which the remainder of the article is built. Part 2 focused on the ATP-PCr system, which supports maximal effort in the 0 s to 30 s range. Part 2 also showed you how to target the ATP-PCr system by manipulating the work interval length, rest interval length and the work-to-rest ratio of your training sessions. Part 3 will focus on anaerobic glycolysis, which is responsible for supporting prolonged high intensity efforts in the cage like prolonged take-downs, and extended combinations and grappling. Many fighters and coaches spend a lot of training time training this system; I’ll teach you why it’s important, but not as important as you might think. The main objectives of this article are to, 1) teach you how this system works; 2) show you how to target it with exercise; 3) list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that may occur when you train it. Let’s get on with it.

How the system works

Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity effort lasting 30 s to 90 s, like the take-down attempts that you need to keep fighting for, or prolonged wrestling and dirty boxing. Remember, all of your energy systems work together to power your activity in the cage. To illustrate this, Fig 6 shows the % contribution to the total ATP supply coming from the energy systems you’ve learned about so far.


Fig 6. The ATP-PCr system supports maximal activity in the 0 s to 30 s rang. Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity efforts lasting 30 s to 90 s.

Note how the contribution from each energy system shown in Fig 6 changes over just 5 minutes, and imagine what would happen if we plotted this figure over 15 minutes, or the length of a typical MMA bout. This figure emphasises that your anaerobic energy systems are not the dominant energy systems that support your effort in the cage.

Anaerobic glycolysis is sometimes called the lactic acid system or fast glycolysis. Glycolysis is just the process of converting carbohydrates, like glucose or glycogen, into potential energy i.e. adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). This is achieved by 10 chemical reactions that do not require oxygen; that’s why it’s called ‘anaerobic’. Glycolysis produces some energy and a few electron carriers, but for the purpose of this article, the most important thing it produces is an intermediary called pyruvate. When there is no oxygen present at the end of the 10 chemical reactions that we call glycolysis, pyruvate is converted into lactic acid. This is why anaerobic glycolysis is sometimes called the lactic acid system.

The important thing to remember about anaerobic glycolysis is that it really supports your ability to perform single prolonged efforts in the cage, but it doesn’t really help out much during repeated efforts. This is really important to remember, because MMA is all about performing high intensity efforts, over and over again.  Let’s look at an example. You’ve already see part of this example in the second part of this article. In it, you learned that a single 6 s maximal effort, like a take-down attempt, receives about 44 % of its ATP from anaerobic glycolysis. What do you think would happen to this percentage if you were to repeat this maximal 6 s effort ten times over, taking 30 s of rest between each maximal effort? This example is shown below in Fig 7.

Fig. 7. The amount of energy coming from anaerobic glycolysis falls 8 fold over 10 repeated efforts, from around 44 % during the first effort, to about 5.5 % during the last effort. For this reason, targeting anaerobic glycolysis with exercise will not improve your ability to perform repeated efforts in the cage.

In this example, scientists showed that over 10 efforts, the contribution to total ATP coming from anaerobic glycolysis falls about eight-fold, from 44 % to around 5.5 % on the 10th effort (1). You should take two important points from this. First, workouts targeting anaerobic glycolysis will likely improve your ability to perform prolonged efforts in the cage (which is important if you want to be powerful), but they will not improve your ability to repeatedly perform at a high intensity over and over again. Second, the aerobic energy systems are largely responsible for picking up the slack in energy supply during repeated high intensity efforts (1). This means that you should spend the bulk of your training time targeting the aerobic energy systems because they support your ability to perform repeated high intensity efforts.

Targeting anaerobic glycolysis with exercise

The ability to perform single, but prolonged high intensity efforts in the cage offers a distinct advantage in MMA, so fighters and coaches should dedicate a small amount of their training time to targeting anaerobic glycolysis.

When your goal is to target this system, a typical workout might use work-to-rest ratios of 1:5 to 1:6, and work intervals in the 30 s to 90 s range (3, 5). Note that lactic acid is produced in large amounts during this type exercise and it will take about 15 to 25 minutes to clear half of this lactate, and almost an hour to clear all of it, so it’s not practical to wait until it is cleared to do the next interval (3, 5). Instead, the rest periods are used to replace the oxygen in the muscle (called myoglobin) and resupply the pool of PCr, both of which enable you to perform at a high intensity during the next interval. A typical workout that targets anaerobic glycolysis might look like this: 6 x (60 s on, 4 min off, 1 min build-up). Remember, this is just one example of many possible workouts that can be used to target the anaerobic glycolytic system, so if you’re looking for support designing a fully periodized training plan, consider enrolling in our training courses.

Training adaptations

Typical adaptations that result from training anaerobic glycolysis include increasing the availability of muscle glycogen and increasing the activity of glycolytic enzymes (3, 5). Both of these adaptations have the effect of increasing ATP production and your power output during short high intensity efforts in the cage in the 30 s to 90 s range. Your body’s ability to buffer hydrogen ions and lactate from your muscles may also improve (3, 5).

Myths and misconceptions

A lot of people believe that lactic acid impairs your performance because it increases the acidity of your blood and muscles, but it is not clear whether the lactic acid is responsible for this. Whenever ATP is converted to ADP, hydrogen ions are released and increase the acidity of the muscle and blood. Anaerobic glycolysis produces ATP very fast. This means that you will use a lot of ATP and build up a lot of hydrogen ions in your muscles, which makes your muscles and blood very acidic. Some researchers have suggested that your performance is impaired in this way (6); but there is some debate, because other scientists have shown that you can generate high power outputs even when your blood is very acidic. Also, when you ingest sodium bicarbonate, which can lower blood acidity, it has little effect on your performance (2, 4). Your muscles inability to contract during intense exercise is probably more related to a build-up of phosphate (7), but increases in hydrogen ions and lactic acid probably contribute to the reduction in your performance in some way.

Take-home messages

  1. Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity efforts lasting 30 s to 90 s, like prolonged take-downs and extended combinations and grappling.
  2. Anaerobic glycolysis results in the production of lactic acid.
  3. When your goal is to target this system a typical workout might use work-to-rest ratios of 1:5 to 1:6, and intervals in the 30 s to 90 s range; see specific examples in Fig 2.
  4. Workouts targeting anaerobic glycolysis will likely improve your prolonged efforts in the cage (which is important if you want to be powerful), but it will not improve your ability to repeatedly perform at a high intensity over the whole fight.
  5. Typical adaptations that result from training anaerobic glycolysis have the effect of increasing ATP production and your power output in the 30 s to 90 s range.
  6. Myths & misconceptions: Lactic acid is not entirely responsible for your fatigue; rather, fatigue is more likely due to a build-up of hydrogen ions and phosphate inside the muscle.

Part 3 References

  1. Gaitanos et al., J Appl Physiol 75:712-9 (1993)
  2. Gaitanos et al., J Sports Sci 9:355-70 (1991)
  3. Kreamer WJ, Fleck SJ, Deschenes MR. (2012). Exercise Physiology: Integrating Theory and Application. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin: China.
  4. Matsuura et al., Eur J Appl Physiol 101:409-17 (2007)
  5. Plowman SA, Smith DL. (2011). Exercise Physiology: For Health, Fitness, and Performance (3rd ed.). China: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  6. Spriet et al., J Appl Physiol 66:8-13 (1989)
  7. Westerbalad et al., News Physiol Sci 17:17-21 (2002)

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