Buakaw - Aerobic Training

Building an Aerobic Engine

Who wants to build an aerobic muay Thai fighting engine? Strike after strike, grapple after grapple – no fatigue… it would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Aerobic base training is an essential element of the muay Thai conditioning puzzle. A well-conditioned aerobic system has a large number of health and performance benefits for muay Thai practitioners and should be trained correctly to ensure proper development (and avoid “gassing out”).

I was going to name this post “Don’t Run? Don’t Fight! – Part 2” because I have addressed a lot of the questions that were raised in the wake of that post.

This post essentially covers two areas:

  1. Aerobic base building strategy
  2. How to apply aerobic training

I advise reading “Don’t Run? Don’t Fight!” if you want to get the most out of the information presented here, although I’ll quickly summarise it anyway.

In that post, we learned the following;

  • The aerobic system produces the majority of the energy required during a muay Thai fight.
  • The aerobic system has the most potential for improvement
  • We rely heavily on the aerobic system during recovery periods
  • Having a wide “aerobic window” means we can tax our anaerobic systems less
  • A training heart rate of 120-150bpm is optimal
  • We don’t have to run, there are other acceptable forms of aerobic training ie. shadow, skipping etc

Let’s take a closer look at what aerobic base training actually is.

Aerobic Base Training

Aerobic base training is when an athlete spends an extended period of time strictly focusing on developing the aerobic system. This normally takes place over a period of 3-6 months where the athlete performs aerobic training exclusively.

The reason many endurance athletes do not include any anaerobic training during this period is because it may interfere with the aerobic base building process.

For example, elevations in blood lactate are much higher when we train anaerobically and may impair aerobic muscle enzymes and reduce the aerobic pathway efficiency. High cortisol levels which are present in overtrained athletes also increases insulin levels which inhibits the fat-burning process that aerobic metabolism requires.

As muay Thai athletes, we can’t afford to ditch all of our anaerobic work during the aerobic base building period, but we can limit the amount of high-intensity training we perform. I recommend removing all high-intensity supplementary work from your program (except strength work) and try to focus on technical work during muay Thai sessions such as shadow, technical sparring, partner drills, rhythmic bag work etc. And perhaps train some heavier sparring rounds and pad work a couple of times per week.

Just remember that the more anaerobic work you do, the less improvements you’ll see in your aerobic base training.

Once the base training period is over we can begin to add in the supplementary anaerobic work and the higher intensity muay Thai work while maintaining our aerobic work.

Take The Guesswork Out Of Aerobic Training

As I stated in the aforementioned article – you need a heart rate monitor to get the most from this type of training. It’s impossible to gauge the correct heart-rate zone without one. Playing a guessing game will not produce optimal results.

We all know that Thais don’t use heart rate monitors to ensure they run at the “correct” heart rates, and some people (including bloggers) will use that as an excuse not to use them. I believe those people are in error, and here’s why;

Thai fighters aerobic systems are super-human!


Thai fighters have a ridiculously high training age – most Thais will have trained for 30,000 hours or more before they retire. This means that their aerobic systems are amazingly efficient.

As you’ll find out later in this post, this enables them to run very quickly or perform fast work in the gym at relatively low heart rates. Therefore, when you take into consideration the slow pace at which they run every day, I actually suspect that the average Thai fighter runs at a heart rate BELOW 130bpm. Running at a slow jogging pace isn’t going to stress their physiological systems to as greater degree as the average westerner.

Their highly efficient aerobic systems have been developed over a great number of years on the road, and that’s something that most westerners just don’t have a history of doing. It’s also something that can’t be fixed unless you have access to a time machine.

The implications of training aerobically at such a low heart rate are that there is a little less potential for aerobic system improvement than there would be at a slightly higher heart rate BUT it also reduces the contribution from the anaerobic systems further which is beneficial for all of the other types of training they have to perform each day.

This would also go a little way to explain how the Thais deal with such a high training load week in week out – their runs don’t tax them nearly as much as we might think. Many-a-westerner will go to Thailand and finish the runs much quicker than the Thais, but if we got the Thai and the westerner in the lab I think we would see a large anaerobic contribution during the westerner’s run and very little energy coming from anaerobic processes during the Thai’s run.

Running above your target heart rate during aerobic training produces sub-optimal results


Working above the specified aerobic training heart rates will only serve to hinder aerobic system development and may very well lead to overtraining. It’s largely unsustainable, and the said westerner will likely take several days off throughout the training month, whereas the Thai is able to sustain his efforts.

Needless to say, running alongside somebody else at the same pace and assuming they’re working at the same heart rate as you is crazy (yes, I read that method on a training blog recently). And you can’t test your heart rate during a run, record the pace, and then try to run at that pace for month after month thinking that you’re working at the heart rate you previously recorded – your working and resting heart rate changes with training, and it also changes on a daily basis due to other types of stress (more on that later).

We aren’t robots!

I think I’ve made my point. A heart rate monitor is essential for maximising results.

Understanding The Aerobic Training Method

The basic protocol is this: Work at 70% of your max heart rate (or between 120-150bpm) when running, swimming, cycling, skipping, shadow boxing, light bag work, rowing etc. Train at this heart rate for 30-60 minutes per session (45-60 minutes is preferable).

I’ve been using Phil Maffetone’s 180 Formula for the last 3 or 4 months and I’ve been having some good results with it. Personally, it doesn’t change my target heart rate much at all (145bpm) but this formula takes health status, training age and biological age into account so some people’s number may differ quite significantly from the 220 formula I’ve already mentioned. Dr. Maffetone created this formula in the 1970’s and has trained several successful endurance athletes using it. I recommend reading his blog and giving his formula a go to find a more specific heart rate range – especially if you have suffered from health problems. I’m not saying either formula is right or wrong at this point, but I’m leaning towards 180 at this point in time because of the wider scope and increased specificity.

When you first start this type of training, especially when running, it may feel like a slow pace, or if you’re doing some other aerobic activity such as shadow boxing or skipping, then it may feel like you’re not able to work as hard as you want to and you’re forced to continually stop and start.

If this happens then it means you have a poorly conditioned aerobic system.

The idea behind this training method is that the aerobic system takes the bulk of the stress, and you don’t utilise the anaerobic systems a huge amount. The anaerobic systems will always be contributing – but it should be minimal. If the anaerobic systems contribute too much energy to these sessions then the aerobic system has an easy time – that’s not what we want!

So, working above your specified heart rate may feel like you’re getting the most out of your time and working as hard as you can during your aerobic sessions, but in actual fact, you’re doing yourself a disservice because your aerobic system is not being stressed as much as it could be if you slowed down. Save urges like that for the muay Thai gym!

Train your body to do more work in the same amount of time by training slower!


By training slower and truly stressing aerobic metabolism, you’re training your body to produce more energy aerobically – even at higher intensities – and therefore producing more aerobic energy during a given time frame, like a muay Thai fight.

Initially, this type of training can feel a little monotonous. When you first start out you’ll be checking your heart rate monitor every 10 seconds to make sure you’re working in the correct zones and you’ll have to adjust your pace accordingly – even stopping at some points. However, with time you’ll start to feel if you’re in the correct HR zone and you’ll know your race pace better.

Remember, when your aerobic system becomes more efficient by training this protocol, you won’t have to go slow anymore. If you’re doing this with running then the pace will get faster and faster every month and shouldn’t feel so tedious.

That being said, sometimes I just like to leave the heart rate monitor at home and go for a self-paced run. It feels natural and it’s more enjoyable for me, but the majority of my runs are done using the heart rate monitor because that’s where the superior results lie.

Assessing Aerobic System Development

As with all types of training we do, we need a way of monitoring our progress. The more work we can perform at lower heart rates where the aerobic system predominates – the better. Therefore, it is important to test our performance every month or so to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.

I’ve used running as the example aerobic training types below, but the tests can easily be applied to most activities. Here’s how we can monitor our aerobic training progress:


Example 1 – You run for 15 minutes at 145bpm and manage to cover 1.2 miles.

On the retest you find that you have covered 1.3 miles in the same time while working at the same heart rate.

You are able to run at the SAME heart rate for the SAME duration and cover MORE distance than before.



Example 2 – You run one mile in 10 minutes while running at 150bpm.

You retest, running at 150bpm, and cover one mile in 8 minutes.

You run at the SAME heart rate and run the SAME distance – but in LESS time.


Either testing method shows your progress, but I prefer method one because we’re in the business of producing more work within a given time, rather than doing the same work in less time.

And THAT is how you test your progress using this method, and it also does a good job of explaining exactly why we’re doing it.

So what just happened? Well, our training adaptations are simply our body’s way of maintaining homeostasis and essentially staying alive. When we create training-induced stress like slow aerobic training, our body responds by making the necessary adaptations to ensure that it is more prepared for this stress next time round.

Training in the correct heart rate zones optimally stresses the aerobic system 


By stressing the aerobic system in this way, the body’s response is to make the aerobic system more efficient.

With consistent training and subsequent adaptation, the body can tolerate the same training routine while experiencing less relative stress OR tolerate more work while experiencing similar physical stress.

It should also be noted at this point that your heart rate isn’t just the product of the work you’re doing there and then – it’s the result of your total training load, and every other physical, mental or chemical stress in your life.

A bad night’s sleep, poor diet, medication, relationship troubles, financial worries, a bad day at work – these will all effect your ability to cope with additional stress that you place on your body such as aerobic training. It is for this reason that your times/durations will fluctuate from day-to-day when using your heart rate monitor. An already elevated heart rate means you have to do less work to remain in the optimal heart rate zones.

Music is also a stressor – especially when you listen to metal (guilty). I’ve personally tested my one mile time with and without music and noticed a one-minute discrepancy. It’s nice to listen to music while we train, but it gets our heart beats racing over-time and that’s not good for aerobic base training.

For this reason, I recommend testing 3 of your training sessions with no music and when you are feeling relatively stress-free and take an average from the three scores.


So there you have it – the basics of applying aerobic training to your program and a plan for aerobic base training for muay Thai.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned a training frequency in the post. The reason being, it’s an extremely difficult question to answer without knowing everybody’s individual training load, nutrition status, stress status, competition fixtures etc etc. That’s a programming job for your strength and conditioning coach.

However, as a general rule for base training, I would reluctantly tell you that 2-5, 45 minute sessions per week would probably suffice if you’re doing all of the other training I assume you’re doing and you’re cutting back on your high-intensity work. These numbers will change throughout the periodised program according to your fight schedule and the integration of other training methods.

When programming aerobic base training or any other aerobic training, be sure to take your whole training load into consideration. Don’t get tunnel vision and run yourself into the ground. Look at the bigger picture.

Key Points

  • Aerobic base training should last at least 3-6 months
  • Anaerobic work should be cut to a minimum
  • Don’t guess – use a heart rate monitor
  • Work at 130-150bpm for 30-60 minutes
  • Monitor your progress by testing every month or two

About Aaron Jahn

Aaron is an active muay Thai fighter and coach from the UK. He holds a BSc (hons) degree in Strength & Conditioning and is currently studying a Sports Therapy Master's degree in Leeds, UK. Aaron has fought over 20 times in Thailand and has spent years training at different muay Thai camps all over the country.
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