Running for Boxing Fitness

April 29, 2009, 12:01 p.m. (ET)

This week's Women's Task Force blog is another exchange between Patrick Borkowski, High Performance Director of USA Boxing, and Coach Christy Halbert, Chair of USAB's Women's Task Force, regarding best training practices for boxing four rounds of two minutes in domestic and international women's bouts.  Specifically, this blog addresses the practice of running for boxing fitness.

CH:  "Roadwork" is a tradition in boxing, but boxers never actually run in a bout.  What is it about running that makes it so beneficial for boxers?

PB: When a boxer, or any other athlete for that matter, trains for their sport they want to make sure that every element necessary is developed to their maximal potential. Specific metabolic demands of boxing include High Energy Phosphates, the Anaerobic or Lactate system as well as the Aerobic system. In order to maximize the potential of each system an athlete wants to isolate each system during training as well as work a combination of systems. Running is perhaps the simplest modality to pinpoint a specific system and overload that system greater than sport ever would. This is because it is an ingrained motor skill that everyone can do and has the ability for very specific guidelines such as speed, distance, acceleration, etc.

CH:  When thinking of roadwork, images of long-distance runs of many miles or many minutes come to mind.  Is this type of "roadwork" the best model for Olympic-style boxers who compete in three or four rounds of two minutes?

PB:  There is a time and a place to train all physical demands of boxing, what is most critical is to ask the questions why, when and how. Boxing is not a “steady state” sport. The intensity of a bout is constantly up and down between extremely high force output exchanges and lower intensity movement and set ups. Intermingled with this are the occasional clinches and various referee stoppages for equipment issues or warnings and cautions. The typical long distance run is a very steady state activity that will only address the lower intensity demands of the bout. This is great during the earlier training periods and will provide a solid aerobic base for recovery in between the high intensity activity that makes up majority of the training time approaching competition.

Once you have entered a stage in which you are preparing for a competition, the type of running you do should start to hone in on the specific demands of the sport. If you are boxing 4 rounds of 2 minutes, you need to maximize the amount of work you can perform in 2 minutes as well as you ability to recover and duplicate such an effort. Various interval running drills can address this much more effectively than long distance runs. Additionally, when performing interval work, you can gain performance benefits for both the anaerobic system, during the actual work time as well as your aerobic system during recovery times when your heart is still racing to prepare you for the next repetition.

CH:  When preparing for four rounds of two-minutes, what might be an example of a good running interval routine?

PB:  One of my favorite interval drills for preparing boxers is a shuttle run. While the round is two minutes long, when you really break it down, the athletes are averaging around 4-5 seconds of hard exchanges followed by approximately 8-10 seconds of jabbing and set up. A shuttle run can help duplicate this intensity due to its constant stop and go requirements.

To start, I find an open area in which the athlete can run down and back over a given distance, usually about 25 yards, but any distance with in reason can work. Have the athletes warm up thoroughly and then perform one trip down and back at maximal speed. Perform 3-4 repetitions of this and time your athletes every repetition. Ideally you want a down and back trip to be approximately 10 seconds.

After you know your athlete's maximal time for one trip, increase the work demand to two trips, and give your athlete a target time of twice their single trip time, plus an additional two seconds. After two sets of this, increase the work to three trips (3x single trip time plus 4 seconds). Continue to follow this pattern until the run takes the athlete approximately a minute and a half to perform. In between sets and reps, vary the recovery time so there is just enough time to fully duplicate each effort. Because you are using times based on the athlete’s day of performance, you know exactly what they are capable of. If the work time is 20 seconds or less, give then a minute to recover. If the work time is 20 – 30 seconds, give a minute and 20 seconds to recover. If the work time is above one minute, match the recovery time with the work time.

As a precaution, this is a very difficult workout to match your times on. Younger or more inexperienced athletes will need to start slowly with only a few repetitions. Gradually build as your athletes continue to successfully make the times. Then decrease the amount of time they have to complete each repetition.

CH:  A lot of boxers think "If I run longer than my opponent then I'll get in better shape than her."  Is this accurate?

PB:  You might be in better long distance shape than your opponent, but that doesn’t mean you will be in better shape for the bout. It is very similar to our previous conversation. You may be able to box for 10 rounds, but if your opponent can out work you in the first 4 rounds, they will have won the bout. The goal is to be able to perform the greatest intensity of work for the bout and then be able to recover for the next bout.

Going back to running, you want to be able to run as far as possible in 2 minutes. Maybe you can run half a mile in that time, but if you go for a 5-mile run, your two-minute splits may only be a quarter of a mile. You are exercising at half the intensity then what the competition will demand of you.

CH:  How critical is the rest interval?  Some boxers desire to shorten their rest interval because they think they'll get in better shape.  Is this true?

PB:  As I touch on very briefly above, the rest interval is critical. In order to maximize your work within a given time, you need to train by overloading that time interval on a repetitive basis. If you do not give an appropriate rest interval so that the athlete can duplicate their intensity, then you will actually train them at a much lower level than they require.

For example, if the goal of a training session is to overload the athlete’s lactate system, you may choose to do a 1 minute inclined run. This will maximize the lactate production with in the muscle and force the body to adapt and recover. In order to duplicate the same effort, the athlete will need at minimum 1 minute of recovery before the next repetition. This way, every repetition is targeting the lactate system. If the rest interval is dropped to only 30 seconds, the athlete does not fully recover the lactate system and begins to use more of the aerobic system. They will still get a good workout, but the overall intensity on each repetition will not be as high as it could be. The reason for performing this type of running workout is that you can force the body to work harder in that one minute then you could during one minute of sparring or bag work. Therefore, the athlete can increase the amount of technical work that can be done in one minute because it is not a strain to the anaerobic system.

CH:  Long-distance running is very popular among professional fighters.  Would running long distances be harmful for an Olympic-style boxer?

PB: Long-distance running when performed at the right time, under the right goals can still be very beneficial to an Olympic-style boxers. However, when long-distance running dominates the physical training, the overall intensity of training is decreased below the demands of the sport. Athletes will lose strength, power, speed and agility by overdoing their distance running. All these elements are critical for a boxer at any level.

CH:  Can long-distance running be a good way to manage weight?

PB:  Long-distance running can serve to help manage weight, but ultimately it will always come down to nutrition. If the body is consuming more calories than it is using, you will gain weight. What many people do not understand is that increases in physical activity will increase the hunger mechanism of the body greater than actually needed. The body naturally wants to be prepared, so it will want to store calories. It takes great discipline of daily food intake to manage this.

On average, running a mile burns 150 calories, only slightly more than what is in a sports drink. Too often I have worked with athletes that will subconsciously increase sugary snacks and drinks as they increase their activity level.

Another interesting thought to ponder is this: have you ever seen a overweight sprinter? I have not, at least not a successful one. Sprinters train very specific to their event; at the most, a 100-meter sprinter would run a single mile during base training phases. Yet the intensity at which they run each training session is so high and demanding of the body that they are burning calories not only during their 10-second run, but in the minute or two they spend recovering from that repetition. Ultimately it comes down to the same concept of quality and intensity of training. If they ran long distances all the time, they would not be training at the intensity they need to win a race. As such, a boxer needs to spend the majority of their training at a intensity equivalent to or greater than their competitive needs. Either way will help manage weight if diet is addressed properly.

CH:  What about boxers with acute or chronic injuries that make running very difficult or painful?  What alternatives are there to running?

PB: Especially with today’s technologies, there are a number of exercise modalities which can be substituted for running. Such modalities include biking, elliptical machines, cross country skiing machines, stair steppers and step mills. Of course there is also swimming. The same rules apply, create workouts with specific goals and monitor the specifics of each drill.

One thing to remember, though, is that every exercise modality is not created equal. Even if one exercise seems to be harder than another, there are so many factors that play a role, you can not assume it is a superior activity. For example, you can bike as hard as possible for 10 minutes and never burn the same amount of calories or have the same physical gains as if you ran as hard as you could for 10 minutes. Biking is a non-impact activity that limits the amount of total body muscle used. This does not mean that biking is not a good alternative, but you have to keep in mind that matching a running workout on a bike will require additional work.

CH:  When considering intervals, whether in the gym or on the road/track, is it fair to say we should stay very close to the competition work and rest interval?

PB: There are two different ways you want to train. The first is to maximize each demand of the sport, this requires staying within competition work times, give or take a little, but with longer rest periods. This allows a greater intensity over the time of the workout and overloads the athlete’s ability to perform in a given period of time. The second is to prepare for the specific demands of the competition, which would require work and rest intervals equivalent to competition. Anytime you stray to far away from this, you are failing to prepare the athlete for the demands of the sport.

CH: Thank you, Patrick. 

Boxers can read more training tips and best training practices in Patrick's column in the USAB magazine.