How to Program For the Aerobic Energy System

How to Program For the Aerobic Energy System

Energy system training is a massive subject in the fitness and athletic development industry. Few coaches would disagree that understanding energy systems training is vital to their efficiency as a strength and conditioning specialist and the longevity of their career. While many coaches understand the basics of what energy systems training is, they have trouble with the application of this knowledge in the construction of a fitness program. We thought we’d share some knowledge on not what the aerobic system is (though that is certainly important), but on how to actually construct a program focusing on the aerobic system for your clients. Learning how to program for the aerobic energy system is the first hurdle fitness coaches need to overcome.

 What is the Aerobic Energy System?

The aerobic system accesses a massive store of virtually unlimited energy. In simple biological terms, the aerobic energy system utilizes fats, carbohydrates, and sometimes proteins for re-synthesizing ATP (cell energy) for energy use like training or exercise. It’s a great deal more complicated, but this energy system uses oxygen as its primary fuel source.

This energy system can extend out work for hours. To simplify the understanding of this particular energy system, we use the term “sustain” to describe the activities performed by the aerobic energy system. An example of work that would be performed by the aerobic system includes low intensity but long duration activities like a 60-minute row or long-distance running. Anything that is classified as aerobic is long in nature but low in intensity. In other words, the action is sustainable for long periods of time.

Before we move on, if you’d like to learn more about the basics behind Energy System Training, check out this comprehensive and free Energy System Training Guide created speicifcally for coaches.

Why Train the Aerobic Energy System?

  • Cardiovascular development
  • Pulmonary development
  • Muscular development
  • Patience

Aerobic or “sustain” training is centered around sustainable pieces of work over various time domains. Biologically, humans are set up to “go long” or sustain work for extended periods of time. There are great benefits to sustained work for the average person who is concerned with vitality. For example, improved immune system, improved cognitive function, improved digestion, and an improved disposition. There are also great benefits for athletes who are on the pursuit towards elite levels of performance. For example, increased mitochondrial density, increased capillary density, improved fuel utilization, and faster recovery between intense pieces of work. The development of the aerobic system will always be a foundational aspect to any training program. One final note, we at OPEX believe that the coach should emphasize aerobic or “sustain” training above all other energy systems. The rationale behind this is that a well developed aerobic base lends itself well to the other energy systems and training as it helps the client recover from an effort and work faster.

Here are a few examples of what progression may look like in a sustain program for six weeks involving rowing, running, and sessions on the assault bike. Anything that trains the aerobic system involves movements that are easily repeatable to your specific client. Generally, this means sustainable activities like running or rowing. Take a look at some examples of aerobic training weeks below for each of the three movements. We’ve also included some notes for you to make sense of what exactly you are looking at.


Week 1: 5x1000m @ 1:50/500m (2 minutes b/t)
Week 2: 5x1200m @ 1:50 (2 minutes b/t)
Week 3: 4x1500m @ 1:50 (2 minutes b/t)
Week 4: 3x2000m @ 1:50 (3 minutes b/t)
Week 5: Retest 2000m row
*1:50 split based off someone with a 6:40 2k PR

(Notes: This progression nearly keeps a fixed amount of distance per session, roughly 6000 meters of rowing. However, each week the pace is maintained but the distance is extended forcing the athlete to “extend” out his capacity at that pace. This all culminates with a 2000 meter row time trial on the fifth week.)


Week 1: 8x400m @ 1:20 (1:30 minutes b/t)
Week 2: 10x400m @ 1:20 (1:30 minutes b/t)
Week 3: 5x400m @ 1:20 (1:30 minutes b/t) + 10x200m @ 38-40 second (1 minutes b/t)
Week 4: 6x400m @ 1:20 (1:30-2 minutes b/t) + 12x200m @ 38-40 second (1 minutes b/t)
Week 5: Retest 1 mile TT
*1:20 split based off someone with a 5:20 mile PR

(Notes: Just as the other energy systems, you want to progress this by acclimating the client to more distance in their working sets. We see an increase from week one to week two followed by a repeated total distance during week three, however, half of the distances ran are in shorter increments at faster speeds. Week four has the same structure as week three but total distance is increased. This culminates with a one-mile time trial on week five.)



Week 1: 10 sets: 1 minute @ 10 minute Max Cal Ave RPM + 4, 1 minute walk
Week 2: 8 sets: 1:30 minute @ 10-minute Max Cal Ave RPM + 2, 1:30 minute walk
Week 3: 6 sets: 2:00 minute @ 10-minute Max Cal Ave RPM, 2:00 minute walk
Week 4: 4 sets: 3:00 minute @ 10-minute Max Cal Ave RPM – 2, 3:00 minute walk
Week 5: 2 sets: 5:00 minute @ 10-minute Max Cal Ave RPM – 2, 4:00 minute walk
Week 6: Retest 10 minute Max Cal on AB

(Notes: In this progression, we follow a similar pattern where we are extending out the work performed per set while also decreasing pace to accommodate for increased working time. Similar to the running and rowing progression, the athlete is completing nearly the same amount of total work per week. But, the two variables that are changing are the length of time per set and the pace at which it is performed.)

One crucial element to aerobic energy system training is that the effort needs to be sustainable. Hence the reason we call aerobic energy system training “sustain.” If you or the client are unable to maintain a specific pace, you need to stop the session. The point of aerobic sessions is not to get faster every round or burn out and lose pace, it’s to build the aerobic system by forcing you to maintain a very specific pace. This is the part in which many clients become frustrated and agitated at true aerobic sessions. It’s a type of patience that’s difficult to train and instill. However, the aerobic system builds the base for many other types of training and sport because the clients are better able to recover.

While most clients will spend the majority of their time in the aerobic system it is important to learn how to create progressions for the lactic and alactic systems. Learn how to develop progressions for the remaining all three energy systems as well as for general population clients and athletic seasons in our free guide Energy System Training.

Download Now


(Visited 4,716 times, 5 visits today)


  1. Can someone explain why the row split time would be 1:50 based off a 6.40 2K row time.

    The split for a 6.40 row time would be 1.40, so not sure why 1:50 is being used for the subsequent weeks training. What am I missing?


  2. @Christopher

    Matt Springer here, OPEX HQ coach. The 2km row is a test to assess the limits of aerobic capacity. If 1:40/500m is the person’s peak capacity during testing, you have to back off that number slightly to produce sustainable repeats in training.

    The example uses 1:50/500m. Said another way, that is 75% of power when measured in Watts. People have been successful with 90% FTP, as well. That would be 1:44/500m given the current units.

    Determining that range of 75-90% power (W) is going to come down to the discretion of the coach. Know the client’s essence and training history to make the appropriate call on how far to back off from their tested maximum.

    If you want to carry on the conversation further, reach out with

  3. Hi, I’m just wondering why the rowing is at 75% of the 2k test but the run has the splits at the exact split test of the 1 mile test?

    1. Hey Sean,

      The rowing splits are 1k (of 2k) and longer so you wouldn’t want to go as hard as a % as you would when did 400m (or apx 1600m) runs. Generally, the closer the total distance/time vs the test/trial distance/time will require a larger % drop in effort as compared to shorter distances/rests

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *