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At the highest level of the sport, boxers actively compete for 36 minutes (or 47 minutes including between-round breaks). To prepare for this, boxers throughout generations have undertaken long, gruelling hours running through the streets. Tales of Muhamed Ali’s roadwork are legendary among athletes and supporters. But is this necessary? Have the greats been getting it wrong? This article will evaluate the usefulness of running for boxing training and look at the science behind cardiovascular improvements in this high intensity and long duration sport.

To understand the concepts in this article we first need to know the breakdown of the 3 training zones:

Zone 1 is the recovery zone; this involves low intensity, steady state activities at a perceived exertion of 2-4 (55-78% of max heart rate). These activities include walking, swimming, and jogging.

Zone 2 is known as no man’s land; this is a moderate intensity zone often seen in 5-10km runs (at race pace) and is performed at a perceived exertion of 5-7 (78-86% of max heart rate max).

Finally, there’s zone 3. This is known as the red zone; it involves high intensity exercise at a perceived exertion of 8-10 (86-100% of max heart rate). This zone involves activities such as high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Studies show that boxing is predominantly an aerobic exercise, with amateur boxers indicating an aerobic metabolic profile. These studies also highlighted a higher activity rate within rounds and faster recovery rate between rounds in athletes with a higher aerobic capacity. This would suggest that simple steady state zone 2 running would prove to be beneficial – a method used throughout training for many endurance athletes. However, boxing is unique due to the constant and repetitive high intensity movements needed to ‘hit and move’. Because of this, boxers spend the majority of a fight operating in the red zone (zone 3), with data showing that around 65% of the time is spent there. Resultantly, steady state zone 2 running that is recommended by a vast majority of coaches is actually not beneficial for boxers.

Much like the science-based shift away from Muhammad Ali’s army boot runs, a shift from steady state running to higher intensity intervals is required to protect the athletes’ joints and add longevity to their careers. Data shows that a high quantity of long-distance running causes decreased posterior chain strength and higher overall knee joint load; these predispose an athlete to lower back pains and anterior knee pain, respectively. There are also suggestions that the short strides seen in steady state running contributes to movement limitations. This causes slowed and laboured footwork, causing an overreliance on hand defences and head movement. This can prevent the boxer from effectively evading danger throughout the fight and controlling the ring. Therefore, there must be a more effective way to train one’s cardiovascular system with limited wear and tear on the body.

Effective use of zone 1 and zone 3 training can provide the boxer with the necessary adaptions whilst providing the best avoidance of injury also. Zone 1 training should be used following heavy training days to provide ‘recovery runs’: these are very low intensity exercises (running, stationary bike, cross trainer). Recommended at one 30–40-minute session per week, this training will decrease monotony and provide slow rate central adaptions to the cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory systems.

Zone 3 training should be utilised 3 times a week to push the boxers’ systems to the limit and elicit fast and effective adaptions. This will provide changes to central (heart and blood) and peripheral (oxygen utilisations etc.) systems. Due to their demanding nature, sessions should range from 20-35 minutes. The work to rest ratio will vary throughout each session and between sessions. However, if planning a programme, it is recommended to use a work : rest ratio of between 3:1 – 1:1. These sessions can also be adapted to improve a fighter’s specific style and prepare them for different scenarios they may experience in a fight.

For example, a session starting with several fast 30 second sprints with minimal resting, followed by some constant longer (1 min – 3 min) runs would provide an athlete with the experience of a highly aggressive fighter aiming to push the pace from the start and get an early knockout. Training for these specific scenarios throughout the camp will provide the athletes body the experience of reaching red zone at any point within the fight and the ability to recover from it.

As research progresses, so too should training plans. However, many coaches and athletes are stuck in their ways with no room to change. Hopefully, this article gives an insight into the possible adjustments that could prove beneficial to boxers and athletes in any aerobic based sport with high bursts of anaerobic exercise (e.g., rugby). Note that this is a very brief overview of a complicated subject with plenty of research articles on the topic out there if you wish to read further!

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