by Greg Landry
Your body is able to produce energy in two ways; aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Aerobic metabolism is the energy system used 99% of the time. It’s how you produce energy when you are able to take-in and use enough oxygen to meet your body’s current energy demands. For example, this is what you use when you’re sleeping and going about your normal daily activities.
Anaerobic metabolism is sort of an emergency form of energy production that your body uses when is isn’t able to take-in and utilize sufficient oxygen to meet current demands. You would use this when you’re exercising at a high intensity for a short period of time.
The exercise intensity at which you begin to switch over from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism is called the “anaerobic threshold.” At this point your rate of breathing increases significantly as several physiological parameters change due to a lack of oxygen in the working muscle cells. For example, the lactic acid level in the blood increases along with an increase in the production of carbon dioxide.
This is also the point at which you begin to notice marked fatigue and this marks the beginning of the end. Your muscles will soon lose the ability to maintain that intensity and you will either have to slow down, to an intensity below your anaerobic threshold, or stop.
Runners and other endurance athletes learn to train just below their anaerobic threshold. It’s the fastest pace they can maintain consistently, for more than just a few minutes. You will often gravitate to this point when you are walking or jogging, or doing any type of aerobic exercise.
The point at which you reach the anaerobic threshold varies greatly based upon your body weight and level of fitness. For example, a person who is 75 pounds overweight and has a low fitness level, may reach their anaerobic threshold at only 40% of their maximal capacity. This means that their functional capacity, what they are able to do during the day without significant fatigue, is low. They may be exhausted in the evening because of this. Also, walking at what would be considered a slow speed for others, three miles per hour (20 minute mile), may push them over their anaerobic threshold, because of their low level of fitness and because they have to do considerably more work to carry around an extra 75 pounds.
Conversely, a person who has a high level of fitness and a healthy body weight may reach their anaerobic threshold at 80% of their maximal capacity. They would obviously be able exercise at a much higher intensity with less fatigue and daily activities would be less tiring.
The good news is that you can change the point at which you reach your anaerobic threshold with consistent exercise. This means that you’ll be able to exercise at a higher intensity and for longer periods of time with less fatigue, and that you will be less fatigued by daily activities.
Your anaerobic threshold is improved by any type of aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, cycling, aerobic dance, stair climbing, etc. The more time and intensity you add, the greater the effect on your anaerobic threshold. Another way to “push” your anaerobic threshold is to exercise above it for several short periods of time during your workout. For example, increase your exercise intensity for one minute intervals several times throughout your exercise session.
How do you know if you’re above your threshold for that one minute period? The intensity should be enough to elevate your rate of breathing and to fatigue you to the point that you are very ready to slow down after that minute. Of course, the intensity of your intervals should be decreased if you have not been exercising on a regular basis. As always, be sure to check with your doctor before making any changes in your level of activity.
Elevating the point at which you reach your anaerobic threshold can do wonders for your overall feeling of well-being, and it can significantly increase the amount of “energy” you have during the day and during your exercise sessions.
By Greg Landry, M.S., Exercise Physiologist www.greglandryfitness.com
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