Though it involves no actual punching, roadwork remains one of boxing’s most iconic and important training methods. As Muhammad Ali famously said, fights are “won or lost… out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
In today’s special guest post, the Warrior Punch team breaks down all you need to know about how to run for boxing training. Read on to learn about roadwork’s evolution, the distinct benefits of aerobic and anaerobic training, and how to incorporate both into a kick-ass conditioning routine.
The Evolution of Roadwork in Combat Sports
While most boxers accept roadwork as a staple for fight conditioning, few agree on what style of training is best. The roadwork debate pits old-school versus new-school, with the truth lying somewhere in between. Let’s take a look at each as we track the evolution of fight conditioning.
Old-school Roadwork Roots: the “Aerobic” 5-mile Slog
Up until very recently, roadwork was simple. If you wanted to get in fight shape, you woke up at the crack of dawn, laced up your track shoes, and hit the road every morning for a slow-and-steady 5-mile run.
Progress was easy to measure: you run longer, or you run faster. Legendary heavyweight grinder Rocky Marciano used to run a minimum of seven miles each morning (even on Christmas day, according to his uncle Charlie Piccento). Getting in shape was about outworking your opponent, not outthinking them.
That’s really all there was to it!
Basic as it was, this old-school formula took countless champions to the top and is still used by high-level pros today:
“Roadwork, dedication!” is not quite the Money Team mantra, but it might as well be.
New-school Roadwork Emerges: the “Anaerobic” Approach
And yet, despite its long history of success, old-school roadwork fell into disfavor around the early 2000s. Some have linked this wave of criticism to the MMA boom, which attracted the attention of strength and conditioning coaches with limited fight experience, but plenty of wacky “cave-man,” Crossfit, and HIIT training protocols to play with.
As sports science continued to advance in other fields, these “new-school” trainers believed that boxing roadwork was due for an upgrade. Their answer was high-intensity “anaerobic” work, which they thought would better prepare boxers for the energy demands of a fight.
Long-time boxing coach and conditioning king Ross Enamait reinforced this idea in The Boxer’s Guide to Performance Enhancement (2002), comparing the anaerobic requirements of a fight to that of a 200-meter sprint. Putting the final nail in the coffin, Enamait also noted that excessive aerobic work reduced his athletes’ power output, which is exactly opposite what you’d want before a fistfight.
Looking for any edge they could get, fighters around the world embraced the new-school approach. Along with the usual hill sprints, shuttle runs, and 400-meter efforts, a bevy of off-road anaerobic conditioning options found their way into fight training programs: burpees, barbell complexes, Metcon workouts, and Tabata-anything.
But something strange happened; though fighters were working harder than ever, they weren’t getting in better shape. Speed and explosive power were on the rise, but so was the number of combative athletes gassing out (and getting injured) at the highest level.
Clearly, anaerobic training was not all it was cracked up to be, but the new-school’s criticisms of excessive aerobic training were valid, too. What’s a young fighter supposed to do?
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. Aerobic and anaerobic training are equally important. For best results, we must combine these training protocols, which requires knowledge of each, as well as an understanding of the interplay between energy systems.
The Value of Old-school Aerobic Training
Let’s briefly review how the aerobic system works, and explain why so many fighters had success with what is generally viewed as a suboptimal approach to boxing conditioning.
The aerobic system works as the body’s mitochondria use oxygen to burn away fat, restore phosphocreatine (PCr) and delay the buildup of glycolytic byproducts (Pollock, 1973). These three effects have tangible benefits for boxers: burning fat means fitting into optimal weight classes; restoring PCr means fueling power punches into the championship rounds; and fewer glycolytic byproducts make us more resistant to tired shoulders, lead legs, and fatigue.
As you know, the aerobic system is trained most commonly with long, slow runs. The devil is in the details, of course; fighters should strive to keep their heart rate between 130-150bpm, or between 50-70% of their max HR, for 30-90 minute sessions.
Old-school roadwork isn’t perfect on its own, but it does some things anaerobic training cannot. For instance, daily 5-mile slogs greatly increase a fighter’s cardiac stroke volume (SV), allowing their heart to pump more blood with each beat. Increased SV translates to improve recovery between rounds, or even between combinations. This adaptation only occurs with aerobic training where the heart rate is kept between 130-150 beats per minute (bpm); high-intensity work makes the heart beat too fast, which doesn’t allow for the ventricles to fill up and expand over time (Little et al, 2010).
Another obvious but overlooked advantage to old-school roadwork is that it keeps fighters on their feet for longer periods. Any experienced fighter will tell you that there’s no worse feeling than being in the ring with “no legs,” and that’s exactly what long-distance runs help you avoid. Logging 10+ miles each week will do wonders for your lower body and calf endurance, which will help you circle the ring, create angles, and outlast your opponent.
Finally, a quick word on the psychological value of old-school roadwork. There is perhaps no better exercise for mental toughness and clarity than a long, slow run. Don’t take my word for it, though – Sugar Ray Leonard says it all:
To review, old-school aerobic roadwork helps us:
- Burn fat to make weight (especially “fasted” early-morning runs on an empty stomach)
- Restore phosphocreatine to sustain punching power
- Delay the buildup of glycolytic byproducts to keep our muscles working longer
- Improve cardiac stroke volume to speed our recovery between bouts of activity
- Increase lower-body muscular endurance
- Build mental toughness
Keep these 6 points in mind as we move into our programming section later on.
The Value of New-school Anaerobic Training
Contrary to what you may have read about aerobic versus anaerobic, energy systems are non-binary. In reality, the anaerobic system breaks down into two subsystems, each of which must be trained separately:
- The ATP/PCr system (very high power, short duration). This system uses ATP in muscle cells, and relies on phosphocreatine to replenish it. We use this system when going “all-out,” whether that means a 50m sprint or a fight-ending flurry. The ATP/PCr system only stores enough energy to sustain 8-10 seconds of output, and requires 3-5 minutes of rest to recover. You can train the ATP/PCr system with short, max-intensity sprints (hills, stairs, or flat fields), or with max-effort punch-out drills, so long as you reach the “red line zone” at 90-100% of your max HR.
- The Glycolytic system (high power, limited duration). This system uses glycogen to create fast energy, and lasts slightly longer than the ATP/PCr system. The body’s conversion of glycogen to ATP creates glycolytic byproducts that make us tired, something we once blamed on lactic acid buildup. The glycolytic system is commonly trained with 200m interval runs, or any exercise that pushes you to 80-90% of your max HR.
Training anaerobic systems has a number of important benefits for fighters, including:
- Improved training efficiency – “intensive stimuli” involved in anaerobic training also triggers certain aerobic system adaptations, which can be beneficial for fighters with time constraints (Tabata et al, 1996)
- Increased speed and power – many anaerobic training protocols involve explosive lower-body work, which has been shown to improve vertical jump power and associated lower-body force production rates that carry over to punching (Luebbers et al, 2003)
- Increased ability to sustain “sprints” and punch-outs – VO2 max and anaerobic capacity can only be trained with new-school protocols (Tabata et al, 1996)
- Increased fat loss – high-intensity intermittent exercise (HIIE) is superior for reductions in total body fat, subcutaneous leg and trunk fat, and insulin resistance (Trapp et al, 2008; Boutcher, 2010, p. 1)
- Increased mental toughness – any conditioning work is going to increase your mental fortitude, but gut-checking anaerobic drills and sprint training are particularly awful (and, therefore, effective)
Proper roadwork planning must acknowledge the mental and physical cost of anaerobic training. Aerobic training is not without its risks, but boxers need to pay particular attention to how they incorporate anaerobic work into their overall program. Too much will result in injury or mental burnout that will detract from your development as a fighter; too little will leave you a beat behind your opponent.
Putting It All Together – Roadwork Recommendations
Fighters work their aerobic and anaerobic systems simultaneously while skill training and sparring in the gym, but dedicating roadwork time to each pays dividends on fight night. Neither approach is perfect on its own, but there’s no reason why we can’t combine the best of both to create a well-rounded routine.
Before we continue, let me say this: if you’re looking for a complete, one-size-fits-all running plan here, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s impractical and irresponsible to recommend a plan without knowing your background, goals, and fight experience. That said, we can offer some general advice, best practices, and routine recommendations.
SAMPLE ROADWORK ROUTINE (BEGINNER)
Beginners should start by developing their aerobic base. Jumping into anaerobic training too quickly will lead to injury.
Most coaches recommend the basic “3×30” template, which boils down to three thirty-minute runs per week.
- Day 1 (Monday): 30-minute run @ 130-150bpm or 50-70% of max HR.
- Day 2 (Wednesday): 30-minute run @ 130-150bpm or 50-70% of max HR.
- Day 3 (Friday): 30-minute run @ 130-150bpm or 50-70% of max HR.
You don’t need to adhere to these days of the week, but try to space out your runs to give your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments a chance to recover between sessions. Do not run on sparring days as a beginner.
SAMPLE ROADWORK ROUTINE (INTERMEDIATE/ADVANCED)
Once you have developed your aerobic base, you’re ready for more intense training. This sample week balances aerobic work with ATP/PCr and glycolytic training sessions.
- Day 1: 30-60-minute trail run @ 130-150bpm or 50-70% of max HR. Mix in backwards and sideways running often.
- Day 2: 8x200m @ 80-90% of your max HR. Walk slowly back to the starting line to recover between efforts.
- Day 3: Repeat day 1 @ 30-minutes.
- Day 4: Rest.
- Day 5: 12x50m hill sprints @ 90-100% of max HR. Rest 30 seconds at the top of the hill and walk back to the starting point between efforts.
- Day 6: Repeat day 1.
- Day 7: Active rest.
Avoid anaerobic training sessions on sparring days.
Roadwork is an integral part of boxing training, but it’s only worth doing when done right. Make sure that your roadwork program balances old and new-school philosophies to force adaptations in all energy systems without running your body into the ground.