Running is arguable the most basic and conventional form of exercise. Unless your hometown is covered in snow and ice, on the morning of January 1st, newbie runners flock to the street to begin their new goal to “get in shape” or “lose 10 pounds.” Running, or perhaps more appropriately, jogging is the quintessential and arguably the most cliche method that people consider as training.
It is no surprise that many fighters often default to running as their primary form of cross-training. ‘Roadwork’ is as much a part of fighting culture as sauna suits and Monster energy drinks; again, a little cliché, but still useful at times. But, is running the best method for increasing cardiovascular output? In other words, will running make you a better fighter?
Defining Running: In combative sports it is important to have good ‘cardio,’ but running may not be the best option for supplementing mat time. First, let’s define running. Whether running in the park or at a race, most people are definitely jogging and not running. For most fighters I’ve seen, roadwork consists of running 3-5 miles at about 8-10mph. At that rate, most fighters end up trudging through their cross-training rather than retaining the dynamicism needed for combat. Fighters do need to have ‘good cardio’ but running might not be the optimal activity to reach a more optimal VO2 max.
Breathing: Running (or more appropriately, trudging) means keeping a moderate pace with a specific breathing pattern. A fight or match is anything but steady. You have to breathe at inopportune times and frequently throughout a fight, you will not be able to breathe at all. After owning a gym for several years, I’ve had many runners walk through my door who were excellent athletes and in great shape. Put them on a heavy bag or through a round of focus mitts for three minutes and they are doubled-over trying to catch their breath. The reason why…breathing for running is simply not the same as breathing for combat. Consider the basic breathing pattern for MMA: exhale with tenacity at every punch, kick, slip, sprawl, shot and lift. Now think about how you breathe when you run: two short inhales followed by one long exhale (my personal pattern) or something like that. Those two styles simply do not correlate nor do they even combine well.
Impact: Combat sports are very high impact; kicking a bag (or a person), punching, jumping, being thrown to the ground, etc, can take a toll on your joints and overall bone health. The key to maintaining the integrity of your body is a certain amount of moderation, smart training and quality mats. Running, however, is incredibly high impact and for little return. The constant jarring of the knees and pressure on the ankles (not to mention the shins) can exacerbate injured or healing bones and joints.
Weight loss: I’m hesitant to really attack this methodology, but I just do not think that running automatically helps people lose weight. At least, for the amount of time one must put into running, you could burn twice that many calories hitting the heavy bag, doing focus mitts, rolling, jumping rope, etc. I would rather see people fight close to their walking weight and get lean through nutrition rather than running.
All of this does not mean that cardio cross-training can not or should not be an important supplement to skill and technical work. The key is to use your ‘roadwork’ to maintain and improve your dynamic energy and breathing rather than slow it down through distance work.
Other ‘Roadwork’ Options:
Find a hill, run to the top, come back down carefully, wait 10 seconds, then repeat. To make it harder, try running up backwards (fun) or adding in calisthenics at the bottom of each sprint. Even more challenging: focus mitts or sparring rounds at the bottom of each hill sprint. Have you ever tried to sprawl while gasping for air…awesome.
Running 40 yards on the track is a standard test of fitness for many sports, including football and baseball. The great thing about the 40 is that you can go all out and it only takes seconds. Try sprinting 40s, 100s, 200s (my former event in high school), 400s or the dreaded 800. The 800 (twice around a standard track) can take anywhere from 2-4 minutes, depending on your speed, and require a long stride as well as strategically interspersing bursts of speed with a more steady tempo. When you do any type of sprinting, be sure to stay on your toes, lean forward slightly and pump your arms vertically rather than horizontally.
Similar to running hills sprints. Hiking:
This is one of my favorite ways to hit longer forms of cardio. When my husband I hike, we keep a steady pace until one of us yells “Sprint!” We both take off, running as fast as we can through the uneven terrain, jumping over rocks for about 10 seconds. Since we’re at a higher altitude in Colorado both of us are severely out of breath and we allow ourselves a maximum of 30 seconds to try to get our breathing back under control. We repeat this several more times over the course of the hike.
All of these running alternatives are modes of increasing your cardiovascular output while simultaneously training your body to recover faster. Anyone who has done tournament competition or been in the ring knows that the minute break between rounds can feel supernaturally short. Learning to control your breathing as swiftly as possible is a great way to condition yourself to push hard and recover quickly. The ability to recover quickly can give you a strong advantage over an opponent who is still gasping for air when the bell rings for the round to begin.