Ask the Coach: Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Training in Water Polo


What is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training in water polo?


The terms “aerobic” and “anaerobic” refer to the presence and absence of oxygen, respectively. Most of our cells prefer to get their energy by using oxygen to fuel metabolism. During exercise with adequate oxygen (i.e. aerobic), muscle cells can contract repeatedly without fatigue. During anaerobic or non-oxygen conditions (i.e. higher intensity exercise), muscle cells must rely on other reactions that do not require oxygen to fuel muscle contraction. This anaerobic metabolism can impair muscle contractions and this deterioration in performance is called fatigue.

Fatigue causes you to experience added discomfort and weakening muscles. Eventually you will need to slow down and lower your exercise intensity. Slowing down allows the muscles to once again rely solely on aerobic metabolism.

The problem with the terms “aerobic” and “anaerobic” when applied to water polo is that we actually never switch from total aerobic to total anaerobic metabolic conditions. In reality, the more intensely we train, the greater the need for anaerobic energy production. Consequently, it is best to view the terms aerobic and anaerobic as transitions in metabolism, where the proportion between aerobic and anaerobic metabolism changes depending on exercise intensity.

As training intensity increases, the need for energy release eventually exceeds that which can be supplied by aerobic metabolism. Our muscles simply need more reactions to support the energy demand. Therefore, anaerobic contribution to metabolism increases. When this happens, we refer to this change in metabolism as a metabolic threshold. This metabolic threshold represents the exercise intensity where we start to produce those waste products of anaerobic metabolism that can eventually lead to fatigue.

So how do these terms relate to water polo? Well, it depends on your circumstances and your goals. Aerobic training conditions enable you to exercise for long periods of time, with you potentially benefiting from the sustained energy expenditure (i.e. calories burned). Aerobic exercise tends to be less stressful on muscles, so during the “Base Phase” and early stages of your cycle, most of your training will be aerobic. However, in order to rapidly improve your exercise capacities, tolerance, and performance, anaerobic training is a necessity. Therefore performing anaerobic exercise is typically used more frequently during the competitive and intense phase of your training.

High reliance on anaerobic metabolism is unavoidable for some types of exercise or activities. For instance, lifting weights is an anaerobic exercise (this is why muscles fatigue so rapidly with this type of training). Other types of activities, such as heavy ball training, can also be anaerobic – especially if you are unfit.

Fortunately, we do not need sophisticated equipment to detect when we transition from aerobic to anaerobic exercise. As we approach and pass our metabolic threshold intensity and start to breathe harder, we are forced to rely more on concentration on drills and situations, and training simply becomes uncomfortable. However, a simple heart rate check can help you determine personal thresholds– if the heart rate value is below or above the prior established metabolic threshold of each individual athlete, this reflects an increase of anaerobic contribution.

I hope this helps, just remember to always pay attention to your athletes. Just because a written workout looks professional does not necessarily mean it’s a great workout– the human factor must be taken into consideration at every stage of training. They say there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in Fit.

Submitted by:

Daniel Johnson