The return of roadwork: Developing aerobic baseline capacity for athletes

A decade or so ago the phrase “roadwork” would have conjured up the image of a tracksuit clad athlete stoically jogging through the early morning mist and up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the inspirational tune “Gonna Fly Now’.

In recent times though, roadwork has fallen out of fashion in the athletic community; now we talk about “conditioning” and flog ourselves stupid with insane high paced workouts that leave us bathing in a puddle of our own puke and sweat.

While I think it is a good thing that we’ve come to understand that running for hours on end is detrimental to the strength, health, and performance of the majority of athletes, we’ve replaced it with something just as stupid.

The majority of “conditioning” training I see people do rarely results in any kind of improved sport performance and, in fact, usually actively interferes with it.

People forget that conditioning is specific. A boxer who is fully capable of doing ten rounds of intense sparring can be left gasping for air like a pack a day smoker after just ten minutes of wrestling practice, simply because they are not yet adapted to the specific conditioning demands of wrestling.

The best kind of sports conditioning is training or playing in the sport itself, and anything that interferes with an athlete’s ability to train or play is a hinderance. That said, it follows though that anything that can increase or enhance an athlete’s ability to train or play is beneficial.

So, aside from developing strength, if “conditioning” is out, what does that leave us with? Aerobic baseline capacity training. Roadwork 2.0 if you will.

Aerobic conditioning is not domain specific so, provided care is taken to keep the level of physical stress low, improvements made allow an athlete to train in their sport longer and more frequently.

The following three methods have each shown excellent results across a variety of sports and activities.

Barry Ross Baseline conditioning 
This protocol is probably the easiest and most effective I have ever come across for developing an aerobic baseline for training. The fact that it is so simple and so undemanding is probably the main reason that almost nobody will start or stick with it.

The program was developed by Barry Ross, one of the best sprint coaches in the world, who needed to improve his athletes’ aerobic base without also further fatiguing them or impacting their ability to recover from their intense sprint training sessions.

The solution he came up with was to get his athletes to walk as fast as possible for 15 minutes three times a week with the goal of walking slightly further every week. This was to be repeated for four weeks followed by a two week break before repeating.

Tempo Running
The concept behind tempo running is that as there is little or no barrier to entry to running and only in the most extreme of circumstances do people become unable to take another step. As a result it is extremely easy for athletes (or anyone else for that matter) to run too far and run too fast damaging both sports performance and their bodies. We needed a method of limiting both the pace of the run and the quantity of running performed.

For years I called the following method “Tempo Running”, before I found out that it is essentially a low tech approach to the reasonably well known “Maffetone Running Method”.

This sounds easy, but the first session crushes egos on a regular basis. All the athlete has to do is run for 30 minutes twice a week maintaining a pace which allows them to breath only through their nose. If at any point during the run the athlete breathes through their mouth, they must walk the remaining time even once they are able to resume nose only breathing.

By restricting peoople to only breathing through their nose, it forces them to work at a pace that their body can easily handle.

I got the idea after watching Russian amateur boxers working the pads and even sparring with a mouthful of water, that they were then forced to spit out between rounds to prove they hadn’t swallowed the liquid.

Steady state after high intensity training
While none of these methods are onerous, this approach is the most easily integrated into an existing routine. All that is required is ten minutes of easy, steady state aerobics immediately after an intense sport training session, six days a week.

It is important to take note that in order for this protocol to be effective, it must be performed directly after a high intensity sports training session – not as a separate session, and not after something slower paced.

Interestingly, while it is probably the least effective of these three options for developing your aerobic baseline capacity (it’s still pretty good though) this is the only one that is even remotely likely to result in additional fat loss. While aerobic training is not particularly good at mobilising fat from adipose tissue stores, it is reasonably effective at making use of it once it enters the bloodstream. By performing some steady state aerobic training after high intensity training, which is amazing at mobilising fat from adipose tissue, you are essentially giving yourself some insurance that the fat that was mobilised gets burned.


You might have noticed that none of the above training protocols are particularly exciting or sexy.  That’s the thing about training in an effective, productive manner – sometimes it’s boring.

And that’s what makes this training genuinely hard for people to do.

The long runs and the puke inducing work outs feel hard but almost everybody will do them because they also feel exciting but it’s a willingness to do the rote work, the punch the clock style training sessions, that is the mark of a genuine athlete.

Photograph by Malcolm Murdoch