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Roadwork - to run or not to run

You can be as talented, as technical and as strong as possible. If the tank is empty, you’re as good as done in a boxing match. Your shots miss power, your reaction time decreases and your defense becomes non-existing. You’re likely to get rag-dolled, no matter how good you are.

There are many examples to illustrate this. Let’s take a look at what happened when Wladimir Klitschko fought Ross Purity on May 12th 1998 in his home town Kiev, Ukraine. Klitschko won round after round. For 9 rounds he was beating the brakes of Purity with an utterly dominant performance. In round 10 Klitschko was completely exhausted and quickly fell apart. In round 11 Klitschko's trainer entered the ring to stop the fight because his pupil was unable to defend himself.

There is no discussion about the importance of cardio. How to train to get this cardio, is up for debate. And a big part of that debate is about Roadwork. To run or not to run. More precisely long steady-state running(SSR). Even at the highest levels in fight sports, this discussion exists.

History of Roadwork in the world of boxing

Roadwork has traditionally been a staple for cardio training. Just remember Muhammed Ali’s famous quotes:

“The fight is won or lost… out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”

“I learned to run until I was tired, then run even more after that”

In a typical old-school boxing program, running at a slow pace for 4-6 miles was done first thing in the morning, before any other type of training was done. Let’s have a look at the Roadwork habits of some oldschool boxing greats.

Rocky Marciano got up early to run a minimum of seven miles. He did this every day without exception, even on Christmas. Muhammed Ali ran up to 5 miles a day 4 times a week. Mike Tyson got up at 4:30 am to run 4 miles, followed by a mile-long walk. Keep in mind that these three examples are all heavyweights, for whom it’s harder to run long distances than the lighter weight classes.

Opponents of SSR for boxing

In the last two decades, there have been some boxers and bowing trainers who dismiss SSR.

People who oppose SSR as a means to get the right cardio, argue that SSR is an aerobic activity and fighting is an anaerobic activity. In a fight, you explode, relax, explode, relax,… Because of this reason, roadwork should be abandoned and the focus should completely be on High Intensity Interval Training(HIIT), which is anaerobic.

An example here is boxing coach Shane McGuigan and his pupil and boxing WBO interim featherweight champion Carl Frampton. Carl Frampton and his coach oppose SSR. Rather than wasting your time running long distances, you are better off doing sprints. When doing sprints you would be better off because, next to cardio, you are also training explosiveness, power and speed. Moreover, McGuigan states that excessive aerobic work reduces an athlete’s power.

Since high intensity interval training burst into the boxing scene, it has been adopted in almost every boxing training program. The benefits of this kind of training for speed, explosiveness and yes also cardio have been well accepted. These benefits are also supported by scientific research.

But does this mean that there is no place for SSR in a modern boxers’ training program? After all, if we look at some of the more recent boxing greats, many of them run long distances on a regular basis. Floyd Mayweather Jr for example runs 6 to 8 miles daily, his past opponent Manny Paqcuiao runs 6 miles daily. Are they training insufficient or could it be that SSR does have some benefits that you can’t get from High Intensity Interval Training?

The answer is yes! Research has shown that anaerobic exercise, like SSR, has a by far bigger impact on cardiac stroke volume (SV). SV is a measurement of how much blood gets pumped with each heartbeat. Barry Johnson explains in his book "medical aspects of boxing" the benefits of an increased SV for a boxer:

“The boxer is able to decrease the recovery time of the heart rate after exercise because of increased efficiency in his circulatory system… This increase provides more blood to the working muscles and enhances muscles endurance”

In other words: aerobic exercises increase the volume of blood that the heart can pump, which makes a boxer tire out less fast and recover quickly. These are big advantages and should not be overlooked.

Probably one of the biggest advantages of long runs is an advantage that is less measurable. It’s the mental aspect. Running long distances can really clear your mind while building mental toughness. As Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the all-time greats, explains below in a powerful speech:

“the greatest thing about the roadwork is how that it positively affects your confidence”

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