Aerobic Contribution to High-Intensity Training, A Brief Recap of the Evidence

[Updated 3/24/12]

We received an inquiry today from a magazine writer seeking research that supports the idea that short, intense training may be more aerobic than once thought.  Based on our response to his inquiry, we wanted to consolidate the evidence in a single post.

There appear to be two categories of research that support this theory:

The first type of research shows that single max. efforts become dominantly aerobic far sooner than old models predict. This includes the following:

  • Figueiredo et. al. (2010) evaluated a single max. effort 200-meter freestyle sprint by elite swimmers. The aerobic system became dominant somewhere between 30-60 seconds and remained dominant for the rest of the sub-two-minute effort. [Abstract]
  • Gastin (2001) reviewed dozens of studies on aerobic/anaerobic contributions to single max. effort sprints. He conclude that widely-accepted energy systems models are outdated/flawed and the aerobic system becomes dominant far sooner than previously understood. Though the paper estimates the crossover to aerobic dominance occurs around 75 seconds, some studies show it occurs under 60 seconds. [PDF]
  • Spencer and Gastin (2001) and Duffield and Dawson (2003) evaluated single max effort runs at distances of 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, and 3000m.  Spencer and Gastin noted a crossover to aerobic dominance between 15 – 30 seconds for the 400, 800, and 1500 m runs. Duffield and Dawson measured the same crossover only slightly later, but well before 60 seconds.
  • Zouhal et. al. (2012) measured energy system contribution in elite flat water kayaking racing distances of 500 and 1,000 m. They found the aerobic system reached the crossover point (i.e. provided more than 50% of the energy supplied) and continued to increase in dominance after approx. 30 seconds of race effort. In both distances, by approximately 45-60 seconds of race effort, the aerobic system was responsible for ~90% or more of the energy supplied.

The second type of research demonstrates a progressive shift towards increasing aerobic contribution during repeated max. effort sprints. This type includes the following:

  • Gaitanos et. al. (1993) evaluated ten 6-second sprint repeats and found a progressive shift toward greater aerobic contribution. [PDF]
  • Putman et. al. (1995) evaluated three 30-second maximal sprints separated by four minutes rest. During the 1st sprint, aerobic contribution was 29%. By the third sprint, aerobic contribution was 63%. [PDF]
  • Bogdanis et. al. (1996) evaluated two 30-second maximal efforts separated by four minutes of passive rest. They found that the the aerobic system generated approximately 34% of the energy produced during the first 30-second sprint and increased to 49% for the second 30-second sprint. [PDF]
  • Trump et. al. (1996) evaluated three 30-second maximal efforts with four minutes rest between. They found that aerobic contribution during the first bout ranged from 16-28% and increased to ~70% in the third bout. [PDF]
  • Parolin et. al. (1999) evaluated  three intervals of 30-seconds maximal effort separated by four minutes of passive rest. Total average aerobic contribution was 34% for the first interval and 58% for the third. [PDF]

Together, this research establishes that short, intense training becomes predominantly aerobic very quickly and increasingly aerobic during high-intensity intervals.


  1. Any idea on the application of this research? To me it does not exactly support the idea that intense work-outs are going to increase you aerobic performance. It points more in the other direction to me. That your aerobic stamina is going to increase your anaerobic performance. Or more specifically more aerobic stamina will increase your CrossFit Wod times.


    • Neil says:


      Thanks for your question.

      First, aerobic adaptations result from increased aerobic stimuli. This is uncontroversial based on well-accepted training principles of specificity, overload, and adaptation. Our research compilation provides strong evidence that HIT causes specific aerobic overload and is thus capable of causing aerobic adaptations.

      Second, some skeptics of high-intensity training for endurance have claimed that such training is not capable of eliciting direct aerobic adaptations because such training was thought to be predominantly anaerobic. Essentially they claimed that aerobic specificity was missing. Our research compilation demonstrates why such claims are misguided.

      Third, seminal CF literature once claimed that aerobic benefits can derive from training that is predominantly anaerobic. See e.g. Glassman, “What is Fitness,” CF Journal 2002 (“anaerobic activity can be used to develop a very high level of aerobic fitness”) and Glassman, “Metabolic Conditioning,” CF Journal, 2003 (“Anaerobic training can match endurance training for aerobic benefit.”) Our research compilation suggests revisions to these concepts may be warranted because: 1) training that was once considered predominantly anaerobic is not predominantly anaerobic and 2) the aerobic benefits of CF-style workouts can match endurance training benefits precisely because CF-style training is predominantly aerobic.

      Finally, you are correct that aerobic stamina will help with CF WODS. Now we understand why: CF WODS (and similar HIT) are highly and predominantly aerobic.

  2. Thanks. I now have more to think about. Great stuff!



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