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The Importance of the Aerobic System

The idea for this post was stimulated from a conversation with a coach who has been implementing a tactical periodisation approach with a Gaelic football team. One thing that came up was the manipulation of variables within training to elicit various adaptations. There are 3 energy systems:

1) ATP-PCr system

2) Anaerobic Energy System

3) Aerobic Energy System

All 3 energy systems are in use all of the time at different proportions, but I think that the Aerobic system is the foundation for Gaelic Football (and other team sports). The level of recovery between high-intensity bouts is dependent on how developed the Aerobic system is, and given the size of a GAA pitch, the majority of ground that players cover in a game will be powered by the Aerobic system (walking, jogging, low intensity running etc.).

The ATP-PCr system is vital for Gaelic Games as well given the importance of the first 5 yards through accelerations or change of directions etc. The Anerobic system is also vital for a number of reasons, one such reason is to back up the ATP-PCr system. Given the chaotic nature of a game, it is not reasonable to think that a player will fully replenish their ATP-PCr stores in between every single high intensity bout, no matter how well developed the Aerobic system is. If the ATP-PCr stores are not replenished fully, then the Anerobic system will be used to ensure a fast production of energy. I would anticipate this happens frequently during a game, and so this highlights the importance of developing all energy systems for GAA. Other Anaerobic efforts can include tackling, jumping and sprinting. Players can complete submax "strides" during a game, but I would be looking to develop the Aerobic system to where these submax efforts are more Aerobic than Anaerobic.

In terms of programming, there are many methods to develop each of the given energy systems. Obviously (if you have read my previous posts) I am a huge proponent of a games-based approach. I think small-sided, medium-sided, and large-sided games are hugely beneficial for for energy system development, or more specifically, conditioning for performance. However, sometimes it may be necessary to overload a given energy system - through HIIT and all the variables that can be manipulated within that. Martin Buccheit and Paul Laursen defined 5 types of HIIT that hit all provide a variety of stimuli:

Taken from HIIT Science, a resource (book and online course) which I have found to be incredible.

  • Long Intervals: 2-5 mins work :1-4 mins rest.

  • Short Intervals: 10-60s work : 10-60s rest.

  • Repeated Sprint Intervals: 3-10s work : 15-60s rest.

  • Sprint Intervals: 20-30s work : 1-4 mins rest.

  • Game-Based Intervals: 2-5 mins work : 1-2 mins rest.

Building a cup - the Bob Bowman analogy

While I was on my university work placement at the Western Australian Institute of Sport, I was tasked with listening to a talk by Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps swim coach), and making up simplified notes to share with coaches. His analogy of the role of the Aerobic system in Phelps' career is something I have always remembered, and it is a big influence on my thought and planning process:

Capacity is improving the performance and potential of the athlete. How good can they be? It is long-term and general, widespread and less specific, and therefore less volatile.

Ultilization is short-term / right now. It is very specific.


Sacrifices short-term gains for long – term goals => 1:00 in 100m Breaststroke this season or 55s in Breststroke two seasons from now. It is methodical and systematic, promoting general fitness and general improvements.

Like building a cup. The goal of capacity training is to make the cup as big as it can be.


Short-term focus – what are we going to do this season? Sacrifices potential for actual – what can the athlete do 2/3 years from now vs. what can they do this season. It is dynamic and volatile. Operates at the edge of the athlete’s capabilities.

It fills the cup that was created from capacity training.

Long-term plan

If a swimmer comes from a high-school background, they will have undergone alot of capacity training. They will have created a big cup. The focus is on capacity and long-term development.

If they move onto college training, utilization training takes place here – fill up the cup that was created in high-school. Here the focus is more on short-term goals. However, the more capacity training from high school, thr greater the benefit of utilization training. High school swimmers build a big cup.

Michael Phelps had a big cup before 2008 olympic games (where he won all around him). The task was to fill it up.

I would summarise the message as follows:

Capacity is an aerobic base. If an athlete’s aerobic base is large, they can perform large amounts of anaerobic efforts, as their ability to recover (aerobic system) is large. This enables them to perform repeated anaerobic efforts.

Utilization is anaerobic. It directly affects the ability of the athlete to perform a sprint effort.

Ideally, the athlete will have a large aerobic base (capacity) to enable a large amount of utilisation training. While capacity training will not directly affect the time achieved in a race, it will affect the level of training that will occur in preparation for a race, which will determine the race time. For an athlete to reach their potential, they must have a big aerobic base (build a big cup) and then they can undergo a large quantity of anaerobic training (fill the cup).

Applying this philosophy to Gaelic Football, players need to have:

1) a big cup, which has been

2) filled to maximise their performance in a game.

Looking at the typical anerobic actions in a game - tackling, change of direction (or agility), acceleration, these are the game-changing moments. It is important that players have the foundation in place to allow themselves to perform these game-changing, high-intensity actions. Building a big cup is critical to Gaelic football performance, and performance in any team sport.


All energy systems are utilised all of the time in varying proportions, depending on the intensity, type and duration of a given task. When training through a games-based approach, players will be utilising all three energy systems, but sometimes it is useful and necessary to overload a given energy system with a targeted HIIT block. My opinion: the Aerobic system is king, and a non-negotiable for me is to develop it as often as possible.


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