The Science Behind Thailand’s Running Obsession

Don’t Run? Don’t Fight! – The Science Behind Thailand’s Running Obsession

Thais have always considered running as an essential part of their muay Thai conditioning training. In the gyms of Bangkok, it’s not unusual for fighters to run 10km every morning and run another 4-6km in the afternoon. This “roadwork” is performed in addition to their two daily muay Thai sessions. The fact that these professional fighters spend 5-6 hours a day in the gym AND feel it’s necessary to put in all those extra miles on top of that just goes to show how highly they regard this type of training.

Literally, any time you’re training and you look tired, the first thing the trainer will say to is “have you been running?”. They attribute almost all your conditioning problems to a lack of running in your program.

During my first trip to Thailand in 2011, I was a rather large boy (93kg) and hadn’t done much running since my days as a Paratrooper in the British Army. In order to fight for the gym I was at, I was running 12km per day – 6km in the morning and 6km in the evening. My knees were killing me and I hadn’t got to the bottom of the problem at the time to due financial reasons. I was foolishly taking NSAIDs like they were going out of fashion just to mask the pain to get me through the runs.

When I returned to Thailand the year after, I was determined NOT to run. I (again, foolishly) figured I could get in fighting-shape by doing other types of training.

You don’t run, you don’t fight!

 

When I made that next trip, I turned up for morning training at my new gym and the Thai trainer told me to go running. I politely explained to him that I wouldn’t be running anymore because I wanted to save my knees. The reply I got was “You don’t run, you don’t fight!”.

“Oh… looks like I’m running then…”

But even after that when I trained at different gyms and I had the opportunity to pay for my training (and got to do what I wanted), I still neglected the running aspect of my conditioning. After about 4 months of doing so, gassing out after 30 seconds of pad work and noticing barely any progress since the day I landed in Thailand, I realised why I felt like a slug in training.

I had been neglecting one of the most fundamental energy system conditioning methods for muay Thai athletes – aerobic training.

Bridging Muay Thai With Sports Science

Running isn’t just a leisurely pastime in Thailand – although you do see tons of Thais running for fitness purposes in Thailand – it serves a very fundamental and important purpose in the sport of muay Thai, despite what some western literature states.

Many western trainers and fighters have ditched slow aerobic training like running and replaced it with high-intensity interval training with an understanding that they can achieve similar physiological adaptations in a shorter amount of time.

Thailand’s muay Thai practices are heavily embedded in tradition, but many (not all) of them also have significant scientific data to back them up too. Aerobic system development, of which running is one training method, certainly has the literature to validate such training. As if hundreds of thousands of successful Thai fighters wasn’t enough evidence.

So, what makes running such an integral part of the Thais muay Thai conditioning program, and how does it work exactly?

Let’s take a look at how energy is produced and what the pros and cons of each energy pathway are to gain a clearer understanding.

Energy Systems

So we know that we use ATP as fuel to contract our muscles, but it’s how that ATP is produced which is important. This article focuses on the aerobic system, but here’s a quick definition of the three systems we use.

Aerobic (oxidative system) – Utilises oxygen to provide a slow, but sustained supply of energy.

Anaerobic lactic (glycolytic) – Uses stored glycogen to provide a fairly quick supply of energy.

Anaerobic alactic (ATP-PC) – A rapid production of energy via the breakdown of creatine phosphate

The oxidative (aerobic) system has the lowest power capabilities out of the three energy systems due to the many complex chemical reactions which take place to produce ATP (the body’s energy currency), and the fact it requires oxygen to achieve it. However, its capacity is huge and so it is able to provide you with energy for long periods without fatigue.

The glycolytic (anaerobic) energy pathway is more powerful than the oxidative system which means it is able to produce energy quickly, but its supply is limited. This system is the second fastest way to resynthesise ATP, and can be viewed as the intermediate energy source when it comes to power and capacity.

The ATP-PC (anaerobic) system is the most powerful system, providing energy to our muscles at a rapid rate. The huge amount of power that this energy system is capable of producing, however, comes at a price – it fatigues extremely quickly i.e. it has a very small capacity.

As you can see, the two anaerobic systems are capable of extremely powerful energy production due to the fact that they don’t require oxygen to supply energy and use fewer chemical reactions to produce ATP, but they fatigue quicker.

Running Theory – The Requirement For Aerobic Efficiency

The running (or jogging) performed by fighters in Thai gyms and by westerners in many other countries around the world is very slow-paced and predominantly utilizes the aerobic pathway to provide energy. The requirement for power during these runs is very low, but the requirement for capacity is high.

This type of training has been termed the “cardiac output” method by Joel Jamieson and several other strength and conditioning coaches.

The aerobic system also provides a very large portion of the energy needed during a muay Thai fight. All three energy systems work simultaneously in an attempt to meet your energy requirements, but ultimately, the majority of this energy will be delivered through the aerobic pathway.

The aerobic system has the most potential for improvement Tweet

 

Unlike the anaerobic systems, the aerobic system is extremely trainable i.e. there is good potential for improvement whereas, although the anaerobic systems can certainly be improved through training, they are much more genetically-defined and don’t respond to training stress as well as the aerobic system.

The more efficient our aerobic system, the higher the aerobic contribution to the total energy expended throughout the fight/training session, and the less we tax the anaerobic systems, reducing fatigue by sparing muscle glycogen and preventing the decrease of muscle pH (4).

The more energy we can produce aerobically, the better conditioning we will have Tweet

 

As if that weren’t incentive enough to include aerobic training in your muay Thai conditioning program, the aerobic system also contributes to regenerating the two anaerobic systems so they can produce energy again (3) and is essential for phosphocreatine resynthesis during recovery from high-intensity exercise (5) such as in between strikes/combinations in a fight or between rounds.

Low-intensity endurance training has been shown to enhance phosphocreatine resynthesis during high-intensity sprints (13), and that athletes with a higher V02max have a smaller sprint decrement during repeated sprint tests (14).

An inability to quickly resynthesise creatine phosphate means temporarily reducing power output

 

Therefore, Thai boxers with elevated aerobic fitness levels are able to more rapidly resynthesize phosphocreatine (6) during a muay Thai fight, and have a superior ability to resist fatigue, particularly in the latter stages of a fight (14).

Once fatigue does set in, we rely on aerobic processes to remove the metabolic byproducts associated with anaerobic energy and regenerate the mechanisms of anaerobic metabolism. This means that if our aerobic system is under-developed then this process takes much longer, and thus the two anaerobic systems cannot perform optimally either (5).

Training Adaptations

When we train aerobically, we are targeting central adaptations i.e. the efficiency of cardiovascular supply (heart) rather than than the peripheral adaptations which are more concerned with oxygen utilisation of the muscles i.e. the muscle and vascular structure which the heart delivers the oxygen through and to.

One argument is that long, slow aerobic training like running causes unwanted peripheral adaptations which make a fighter “slow” due to the changes in tissue such as enzymic activity, myoglobin, mitochondria density, capillary number and recruitment etc.

Studies that have been done in this field have generally concentrated on out-and-out runners who didn’t perform any other types of high-intensity training such as strength or muay Thai, and fail to recognise the large genetic component of such characteristics.

Slow endurance work doesn’t automatically turn you into a slug in the ring Tweet

 

The fact is, we aren’t just running, we are (or should be) strength training and performing high-intensity sprints and muay Thai-specific work too, so a little unwanted peripheral adaptations are counter-acted by all of the other work we do anyway, we just get all of the added benefits of the central adaptations that come with running.

Yodsanklai runs – does he lack speed and power? No, he strength trains and kicks holes in pads every day too. Adaptations are created from all of the training elements combined, not just running alone.

Aerobic training, such as running, triggers several important cardiovascular adaptations which increase oxygen delivery to the active muscle.

The mass and volume of the heart is increased as a result of long-term aerobic training

 

The increased workload which is placed on the heart muscle in the form of increased plasma volumes, decreased cardiac stiffness and a decreased heart rate causes the left ventricle cavity to stretch like a balloon when it is filled with water.

This adaptation increases dystolic filling time, which in turn increases stroke volume (the volume of blood which is pumped out of the heart in a single beat), which in turn increases cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped out in one minute), hence the name “cardiac output” method.

Put simply, the more blood this cavity can hold, the more blood can be pumped out in a single beat, and the more oxygen will be sent to our muscles. The more oxygen that is supplied to our muscles, the more work we can do.

Low-Intensity Long Duration vs High-Intensity Interval Training

So, why don’t we just train our aerobic system in muay Thai sessions by hitting pads and sparring, and what about high-intensity intervals, don’t they do the same job?

Different training methods means different adaptations

 

These two training methods bring about two very different adaptations which occur when two different stresses are placed on the heart.

Running is an example of long continuous training, and high-intensity interval training may take the form of the “tabata” protocol, for example.

By performing long continuous aerobic work such as running, you are essentially forcing a maximal amount of blood into the heart, thus stretching the left ventricle and making it bigger. The long length of time we are able to maintain the moderate pace of the exercise means we can continue to fill the heart with blood for long enough to stretch the heart walls.

This increase in left ventricle volume is called “eccentric hypertrophy “, while the thickening of its walls is known as “concentric hypertrophy”. These are not permanent adaptations, and will return to pre-training levels if aerobic conditioning is not maintained (2).

The volume of blood entering and exiting the heart during short high-intensity intervals is too small to increase left ventricle volume

 

It should be noted that an increase in the left ventricle cavity volume tends not to occur during high-intensity training, instead, the walls get thicker (concentric hypertrophy).

During HIIT training, the heart is trying to pump the blood in and out as fast as possible to supply you with oxygen, and isn’t able to hold the high volume of blood needed for left ventricle stretching to occur. This generally happens when the heart rate of an individual reaches around 150bpm.

This reinforces the requirement of aerobic training outside of muay Thai sessions.

The Aerobic Window

Due to the fact that a well-trained heart can pump more blood per beat (increased stroke volume), it doesn’t need to pump as often as an untrained heart, this results in a decreased heart rate during exercise, and to a lesser extent, at rest. The less heart beats that are needed to supply our body with oxygenated blood, the less energy the heart expends in the process.

The longer we can remain in a state of physical activity where the aerobic system dominates energy supply – the better

 

The other benefit of having a lower resting heart rate is that it will take you longer to reach your anaerobic threshold – the point you switch from producing the majority of your energy aerobically to anaerobically.

As Mike Robertson puts it, athletes need to increase the gap between their resting heart rate and anaerobic threshold – the aerobic window.

The aerobic window is worked out like this;

Anaerobic threshold – resting heart rate = aerobic window

For example, if Thai boxer “A” has a resting heart rate of 70bpm and his anaerobic threshold is 150bpm, then his aerobic window is 80bpm.

Thai boxer “B” has a resting heart rate of 55bpm and his anaerobic threshold is 180bpm, giving him an aerobic window of 125bpm.

Clearly, Thai boxer “B” has the largest window in which to primarily utilise aerobic energy and won’t tax the fatiguing anaerobic systems as quickly as Thai boxer “A”.

The cardiac output method is very efficient in reducing our resting and working heart rate and improving one side of the aerobic window spectrum. With regards to raising the anaerobic threshold, there are more specific methods we can use, such as threshold training.

If we fail to adequately train the aerobic system, the sooner we will cross over to anaerobic-dominant energy supply where things begin to feel harder, and the harder it will be to get back into aerobic-dominant supply.

I’m not saying you should deliberately perform less work in a fight or in training to avoid reaching your threshold – you will inevitably begin to produce more energy anaerobically than aerobically eventually if you fight (or train) for long enough. But the longer it takes you to get there, the longer you are able to put in quality work before you begin to feel signs of fatigue.

Utilising the energy which is supplied to your muscles efficiently is another subject altogether, you can read about energy economy for muay Thai in the article below;

Muay Thai Conditioning: Less is More (Sometimes)

Running Intensity

Training-induced physiologic adaptations depend primarily on the intensity of overload. Things that affect running intensity, for example, would be the pace at which it is run, the relative incline or decline in the road surface, as well as running economy and environmental factors.

In order to ascertain the intensity level of the exercise in relation to the individual, it is important that we measure relative stress, rather than absolute stress. An example of absolute training intensity would be when a group of Thai boxers go for a run together, running a the same pace, on the same route on the same day etc.

The problem with this is that the exercise may stress one boxer’s physiologic systems sufficiently, while another, more conditioned boxer may fall short of the training threshold.

Heart rate monitors greatly improve the quality of your training sessions

 

While establishing ideal training intensities via direct measurement of VO2max is impractical and largely inaccessible to most Thai boxers, heart rate is an effective alternative for measuring relative intensity.

A heart rate of around 70% maximum heart rate should be around the correct range to achieve the desired training adaptations associated with this type of training. This means that a 20-year old would need to maintain a heart rate of around 140bpm which is figured out by finding your age-predicted maximum heart rate (below) and then finding 70% of that number.

HRmax=220-age (y)

Of course, athletes possess varying HRmax values, so a deviation of plus or minus 10 beats per minute can be applied to the score, and has little influence in establishing effective training. This is in accordance with the work of Joel Jamieson and Eric Oetter who recommend working at a constant heart rate of 120-150bpm when training for increased cardiac output.

Muay Thai Conditioning Considerations

An efficient muay Thai conditioning training program allocates a proportionate commitment to training of the specific energy and physiologic systems activated in a fight.

That is to say, running should not be the only conditioning method you use! It’s not logical to just go for a run every day and expect to be “firing off of all cylinders”. Muay Thai conditioning programming is far more complex than that, and shouldn’t be looked upon as something which is optional, or something you do only when you fancy it.

Furthermore, running isn’t even the only aerobic work fighters should be doing – there are several methods of training the aerobic system, and several different types of aerobic training which can be beneficial to Thai boxers.

Another important thing to consider is how to use your conditioning effectively in a fight. Again, you need to read my article on muay Thai energy economy to catch up on that, but let’s just say that some fighters use their energy more intelligently than others, and therefore appear to have better conditioning than their opponent.

Summary

Why are Thais so obsessed with running? Hopefully this post has helped clarify a few things where that is concerned.

One thing I have learnt in the last 6 years of studying sports science and training the sport of muay Thai in its place of origin is that science plays a vital role in athlete performance, and that every fighter in the world should strive to become as knowledgeable as possible in all the areas of athletic enhancement to become the best version of themselves. Knowledge is power.

However, I’ve also learnt that shunning a particular training method which has been implemented by hundreds of thousands of fighters that has served them extremely well over decades of practice because of a few misinterpreted studies is arrogant. Not only is it arrogant, but it is detrimental to the growth of the sport, not to mention the potential counter-productivity its affects will have on fighters.

Sometimes, and I mean sometimes, trial and error is enough to get you through.

The fighters in Thailand may not know why running works for them, they just know it works.

Key Points

  • The majority of the energy produced during a muay Thai fight comes via the aerobic system
  • The aerobic system has the most potential for improvement out of the three energy systems
  • Aerobic training produces additional adaptations to muay Thai/interval training
  • Widening the aerobic window allows more aerobic work and less anaerobic work
  • Keep your heart rate between 120 and 150bpm while running
  • Running/aerobic training is NOT the only conditioning method required for muay Thai

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.

10 comments

  1. Really great article ! thanks for sharing !

  2. Great article and site Aaron.

    I was curious to hear what happened with using using NSAIDs after you started running 10k every day? Did you have to use more/less/none? I want to start running, so just want to know what to expect.

    Thank you very much.

    • Thanks mate. NSAIDS are extremely harmful to the human body. The key to staying injury-free when running is to optimise running gait, and perform other strength & conditioning work like building maximum strength, flexibility and some other specific injury-prevention techniques. It is certainly not carrying on regardless and covering the symptoms with NSAIDS like I was! There are also lots of natural anti-inflammatories and natural remedies that have much the same affect as things like Ibuprofen, but without the nasty side-effects. I will definitely be writing more on injury-prevention methods for running soon.

  3. This article is very well written and broken down to the finest points. As a personal trainer who works with a few thai fighters you do get caught up trying to change programs because you want them to stay interested. You soon realise the foundation is still the same.

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