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Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Running: Differences, Exercises
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Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Running: Differences, Exercises

Isabel-Mayfield-health-reporter
Written by Isabel Mayfield | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on 2022 August 19
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8 min

It’s time for you to finally understand the key differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

aerobic vs anaerobic running

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You might be an avid runner or just starting out. Either way, you’ve probably heard the terms aerobic and anaerobic thrown around, and you might be wondering what they mean. 

There are big differences between these two training types, and understanding what they are can help you create a training plan that suits you best.

In this article, we will be explaining the key differences between aerobic and anaerobic training. 

What’s the Difference Between Aerobic and Anaerobic? 

The main difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise is whether or not your muscles have enough oxygen to efficiently fuel your movements.

Aerobic running means your lungs are able to provide enough oxygen to your body. You release all the byproducts of this energy exchange as water and carbon dioxide as you exhale. 

When you run anaerobically, your lungs can’t keep up with your body’s need for oxygen. This lack of oxygen creates lactic acid in your muscles. This means you will run out of energy more quickly and take longer to recover after your run. 

Aerobic running

One of the fundamentals of long-distance running is a well-developed aerobic system. The longer you are able to sustain energy output while staying in an aerobic state, the farther you will be able to run.

This is because of the way our bodies convert sugar into fuel for our muscles in the presence of oxygen. As we train in an aerobic state, our bodies break down stored sugar in the form of glucose into something called ATP, which we use to fuel our muscles.

In the presence of oxygen, the byproduct of this conversion is just carbon dioxide and water, both of which we release from the body as we exhale.

Improving your aerobic endurance gives your body the ability to stay in this state of homeostatic energy use for longer. This will allow you to sustain your energy levels for longer and run farther without fatiguing.

Anaerobic running

An example of anaerobic running is high-intensity training, like sprinting. 

The way that your body creates energy to sustain this kind of activity isn’t something that can be maintained for long. This means that you are able to have short outbursts of intense energy but will fatigue soon after starting high-intensity anaerobic exercise.

The process for creating ATP without the presence of oxygen is quite different. As the glucose breaks down to create ATP for our muscles, it creates byproducts that are not as easily released by the body. 

When we run anaerobically, the process that converts glucose into usable energy for our muscles results in lactic acid as the byproduct. This causes a drop in the pH levels in our muscles, slowing down our muscle contractions, and creating that burning feeling as your exercise. 

This burning sensation will continue until you have reached a level where your oxygen intake is equal to your level of output. Which is why anaerobic training is unsustainable for long periods of time.

The reason that your body releases lactate during bouts of high-intensity exercise is to create a feedback cycle that signals to the body it’s time to stop. This helps prevent overexertion and possible damage to your muscles.

Anaerobic and Aerobic Running Metabolism

Metabolism refers to the way your body breaks down different compounds to use them to fuel your bodily processes. 

You probably know metabolism in reference to being either high or low and having an effect on how quickly and easily you break down food in order to digest it. 

Most of us are aware of the effects that having a high or low metabolism can have on your weight. Those individuals who are blessed with a higher metabolism digest their food more quickly, and often lose weight more easily.

Running metabolism refers to the way that your body breaks down glucose in order to use it to fuel your movements. Anaerobic and aerobic exercises create and use energy within the body very differently.

Aerobic

Aerobic means –in the presence of oxygen.– This kind of metabolization uses the combustion of glucose found in carbohydrates – as well as amino acids and fats – to create fuel for your muscles. 

As mentioned before, the result of this process is something called ATP. When this process of energy creation is done aerobically, the result is somewhere between 30–36 ATP molecules.

Anaerobic

Anaerobic respiration happens in the absence of oxygen. This kind of energy conversion burns only carbohydrates, and the lack of oxygen causes inefficient energy production, resulting in the creation of only 3 ATP molecules.

Aerobic and Anaerobic Running Pace

The pace of your running is what dictates whether or not you run with your aerobic or anaerobic system activated. This is one of the key differences between sprinting and jogging.

One of the best ways for you to figure out whether you are doing aerobic or anaerobic training is to invest in a heart rate monitor. 

Knowing your maximum heart rate – which you can approximate by subtracting your age from the number 220 – will allow you to exercise within a range that will activate either your aerobic or anaerobic system.

Aerobic exercise is done somewhere between 60–80% of your maximum heart rate, whereas anaerobic exercise happens in the range of 80–95% of your maximum heart rate.

3 Benefits of Anaerobic Running

This article might have painted a negative picture of anaerobic exercise due to the lack of efficiency and negative byproducts of this process. But the truth is, anaerobic exercise has a lot of positive effects on the body.

#1 Increased bone strength and density

Sprinting and weight-lifting are both considered anaerobic exercises, which can improve your bone density. This is because there is added pressure on the bones from the surrounding muscles and tissues as they contract while you exercise.

This stress actually stimulates the bone to create more bone tissue, which helps increase the size and mass of your bones.

#2 Improved lactate threshold

The lactate threshold is the sweet spot right before you make the switch to anaerobic respiration. It is the space where you maximize your level of output without increasing the concentration of lactate in your muscles.

Anaerobic exercises increase your muscles’ ability to process lactic acid and improve their ability to work in the presence of higher amounts of lactic acid. 

To work within this threshold and increase your ability to exercise anaerobically, you might want to try working with tempo runs.

#3 Weight loss

Since anaerobic exercise is more physically demanding and uses more energy, it is thought to be better for weight loss than aerobic exercise. It also helps increase the amount of lean muscle mass you have, which can boost your metabolism and burn fat more effectively.

3 Benefits of Aerobic Running

Focusing on aerobic exercises can give you noticeable effects that you will feel both during and after exercising. 

#1 Improves the health of the cardiovascular system

Aerobic exercise can improve your cardiovascular health in a number of ways. Two of the most noticeable are a decrease in blood pressure and improved health of your heart and arteries.

Aerobic exercise improves your muscles’ ability to pull oxygen from the blood, resulting in a reduced need for your heart to pump as much blood throughout the body. This leads to a decrease in blood pressure as well as less strain on your heart.

As you exercise, your heart pumps blood through your arteries more quickly and vigorously. This can help to remove any fatty buildups in your arteries that would later become dislodged and result in a heart attack or stroke.

#2 Better endurance

By doing aerobic exercise, you will increase your cardiovascular health, which will, in turn, allow you to distribute blood and, therefore, oxygen throughout your body more efficiently. This will help to improve your running endurance, which means running farther and in less time.

#3 Better for your joints

Generally, aerobic exercise is more low-impact and, therefore, better for the joints. Aerobic running is things like light jogging or speed walking. Both of these exercises put much less strain on your bones and joints than things like sprints.

Although there are benefits to anaerobic training that can be felt by your bones and joints, if you are overweight, or suffering from injury it’s better to focus on low-impact exercises.

FAQs

Why do people who participate in marathons tend to have smaller muscles?

Generally, marathon runners are running long distances, which will aid in the creation of slow-twitch muscle fibers. These kinds of muscle fibers are smaller and tend to lead to smaller, more toned muscles.

Is sprinting aerobic or anaerobic?

Sprinting is a high-intensity exercise that is done through a short burst of maximum energy expenditure. These kinds of exercises will cause the activation of your anaerobic system.

Is jogging aerobic or anaerobic?

When you jog, you should aim to stay somewhere between 60–75% of your maximum heart rate. This makes jogging an aerobic exercise.

Is running a marathon aerobic or anaerobic?

In order to have the endurance necessary to complete a marathon, you will need to have a high level of aerobic endurance and work to stay within an aerobic range throughout the race.

Anaerobic exercise is unsustainable and can’t be done for the amount of time that a marathon takes to finish, which can be upward of 4 hours.

Is running aerobic exercise?

Running can be either anaerobic or aerobic exercise, depending on the pace you choose to run at. Things like hill climbs and sprints will give you an anaerobic workout, whereas jogging will increase your aerobic endurance.

A Word From Our Coach

Whether you decide to partake in anaerobic or aerobic training, you can’t really go wrong.

Any form of exercise will help you to keep your body strong and healthy, and at the end of the day, this should be the goal of any training routine.

Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are great for the health of your heart, can help you lose weight, and will help you get marathon ready if running longer distances is something you are working towards.

Regardless of if you choose to do anaerobic exercise or focus on aerobic training, you can rest assured that you are doing something good for your body.

Getting into the habit of regular exercise is something that will serve you for years to come.

However, you decide to make this happen, remembering the reason that you are choosing to exercise in the first place can help you continue to show up for your training with consistency.

Bottom Line

Hopefully, after reading this article, you have a clear understanding of the differences between aerobic and anaerobic training.

Having a better understanding of each exercise and the impacts that it will have on your health can help you decide which kind of training is best for you. Which you decide to focus on will be dependent on your personal fitness goals.

Aerobic exercises can help you improve your aerobic capacity and will help create more fast-twitch muscle fibers. This is great for anyone wanting to run longer distances or improve their running endurance.

Anaerobic workouts are better suited for anyone trying to improve their muscle mass and get their body ready for fast, explosive movements. The trade-off with doing more anaerobic training is these kinds of exercises generally require more recovery time afterward due to increased lactate.

Both anaerobic and aerobic training will help improve your cardiovascular health, help you lose weight, and generally improve your health and well-being.

Isabel-Mayfield-health-reporter
Written by
Isabel Mayfield is a certified yoga instructor with over 10 years of experience in the fitness industry. She is passionate about self-improvement and loves to help people improve their sense of self-worth through education and support in meeting their fitness goals.
Medically reviewed byRosmy Barrios, MD
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