Mention boxing to someone and they might think of a sweatsuit clad boxer doing early morning runs.
Roadwork is the term used by boxers to describe the time spent pounding the pavement (running).
More and more frequently we are seeing articles reporting that running is more harmful than beneficial. Some medical studies are suggesting that people running long distances or exercising vigorously over a number of years develop signs of cardiovascular disease. They may have increased calcium deposits in the arteries (plaque buildup) and experience changes to the heart that are not conducive to living longer.1
I'm not going to get into the debate of whether cardio damages your heart. It's pretty clear cardio causes changes but nobody can really agree on whether those changes are ultimately good or bad or how they are handled by different people of different athletic backgrounds.
That said, we know that aerobic exercise like running causes beneficial physical adaptations that can make us better boxers. With enough of the right kind of training, those adaptations include:
- a more efficient heart
- better ability to regulate heat
- increased energy production
- increased ability to handle oxidative stress (even though exercise causes oxidative stress)
- increased ability to use fat as fuel.
UNDERSTAND HOW YOUR BODY PRODUCES ENERGY
Your body has three energy systems that supply the energy you need to be active:
- ATP-PCr System - first to kick in. It releases energy by breaking the chemical bonds of phosophocreatine (PCr) molecules. Breaking those suckers releases phosphate and energy into your cells that are used to regenerate ATP which is used to supply energy for higher demand activities. You get about a 10 second burst of intense activity out of this energy system before it can't keep up anymore. If you try sprinting or hitting the heavy bag all out - you'll notice that after 8-12 seconds you need to slow down - that's when this system quits and your body turns towards a new source of energy.
- Glycolytic Pathway - is the second system to kick in. This system actually gets turned on at the same time as the ATP-PCr system, but it takes longer to start producing energy, so there is a lag before it can be used. It produces energy by breaking glucose down to be used in a much more complex reaction than system 1, but the end result is energy that will support an additional 80 seconds of intense physical activity. If you're keeping track, that takes us about halfway through a boxing round. This system produces lactic acid and after 80 seconds there is too much buildup for the muscles to continue contracting properly. Again your body looks for a new source.
- Oxidative Phosphorylative Pathway - is the third system. If you continue to push yourself beyond 90 seconds of physical activity, you'll be forced to slow down again until this system can fully take over energy production requirements. It will not allow you to sustain the same level of physical activity that the previous two systems gave you - but it can supply energy for much, much longer periods of time. It will be the system that takes you to the end of the round, helps you recover between rounds, and gets you to the end of the fight.
HOW WILL TRAINING IMPROVE THESE ENERGY SYSTEMS?
System 1 depends on phosphocreatine molecules to be present. The more of them there are, the longer this system can run. There is not much you can do to train your body to produce more phosphocreatine, but it is the reason creatine supplementation is successful at giving an extra 1-2 seconds of intense burst activity. Saturating your muscles with creatine provides the raw ingredients for this reaction.
System 2 ends when you reach your anaerobic threshold. You can raise your anaerobic limit with proper training by working at and beyond that threshold for periods of time. As your body adapts to the training intensity - it will learn to need less energy allowing you to either ratchet up the intensity again or last a little longer in this range.
System 3 can be trained to kick in and run more efficiently. Among other things, aerobic training will increase your body's ability to generate energy using this system.
SO HOW DOES ROADWORK MAKE US BETTER BOXERS?
If we go back to running now - you might be getting a glimpse of how running helps us become better boxers. For instance:
- High tempo interval runs and wind sprints - will help raise your anaerobic threshold allowing system 2 to last longer or for you to use it more intensely. Interval training means pushing your heart rate high and long enough to outstrip System 1's capabilities and pushes the limits of system 2 before you slow down and let those systems regenerate the ability to supply another burst of energy. You'll know if you're in the right training range because you'll experience two drops in energy - the first after 10 seconds (an all out sprint), the second after about 80 seconds - something like a 3-400m pace. Train these systems with a series of 5-10 x 100m wind sprints (resting between sprints) and a series of 5-10 x 400m or 800m runs (again, resting between runs to return your heart rate to a more normal range allowing the systems to recover.)
Tempo runs and Fartleks - To take care of the ends of rounds, your ability to recover between rounds, and to take you into the further rounds of a fight, doing some moderately intense distance runs where you push yourself for 45-60min will actually increase the number of little energy factories (mitochondria) in your cells. Tempo runs are runs where you pick a challenging pace and keep it for the duration of the run. Fartleks resemble interval training in that you go out on a long run, but you vary the speed throughout - push yourself when you feel good, slow down as required.
Notice that this is more about time than distance. If you ask a bunch of boxers how much roadwork they do - you'll get a variety of answers. Some only do two miles, some boxers end up running 10 miles a day. Given two equally motivated boxers, the difference is simply because one has improved his or her level of conditioning to the point where they can cover more distance in that hour at the same perceived intensity as the boxer only covering two miles in an hour.
SHOULD YOU RUN LONG SLOW DISTANCES (LSD)?
Unless you're training for a marathon, then LSD has limited utility in the ring. Your time is better spent on boxing skills or shorter, higher intensity training lasting up to about an hour - 5-9 hours a week. Anything over that starts to produce diminishing returns.
DO YOU HAVE TO RUN?
Nope. You can achieve the same improvements with other types of training. Some may not be as quick as running at forcing the adaptations, but there is nothing saying you can't do other activities that suit your lifestyle more. Swimming, rowing, cycling, different intensity bag work, skipping, shadowboxing, etc... In fact, you will probably stick to a training plan longer if you do mix it up and introduce something new every once in a while to prevent boredom and injuries that might result from the same types of repetitive motions day in and day out.
Personally, I do a lot of running because it's cheap, effective, and I like it. I've done marathons and ultra marathons and I'm monitoring the studies that come out saying I'm going to die earlier because of it. However, right now - I'm not convinced that I'm at risk of dying because of running. Any risk of exercising like I do far outweighs an alternative more sedentary lifestyle. I'll still be doing my roadwork - I'll just make sure I get the most out of my time on the road. Boxon.
1. O'Keefe, James H. et al. Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise. Mayo Clinic Proceedings , Volume 87 , Issue 6 , 587 - 595.