It is debatable whether karate is more aerobic or anaerobic activity. Many people agree that with the idea that it is mainly anaerobic taking into consideration the time under exertion and the explosive movements in kata and kumite. On the other side, theoretically, every activity over two minutes is considered as an aerobic one. Go figure it out.
To get a better picture of this topic, we should get familiar with the basics first. It is imperative to distinguish between aerobic and anaerobic exercises and the physiological process that accompany these two.
As a PE teacher, when introducing the concept of aerobic and anaerobic exercises and metabolism, I tell my student that one is happening in the presence of oxygen (aerobic) and without oxygen (anaerobic). Now, this is a very vague explanation, but what else can you tell a fifth grader. However, it does help to introduce a much complex topic.
Our body is a machine, a complex one, that runs on energy. The only currency that our body is familiar with is not fat, sugar, or protein, but ATP (Adenosinetriphosphate). Fat, sugar and proteins are here to sustain the required level of ATP through various processes and energy systems.
The “three musketeers”- All for one and one for all. (Oxidative, glycolytic and phosphagen)
Musketeer number one: Oxidative energy system
All three energy systems work together to produce energy for the body. The oxidative energy system provides enough energy (ATP) by burning fat together with sugar without creating any oxygen depth. As a byproduct, we get carbon dioxide, water, heat, and energy.
This happens on the way to your dojo and during the warm-up routine while having a chat with friends and doing your stretching. And this is all done in the presence of enough oxygen to support the whole process.
During the day, when your body’s energy demands are low, or maybe right now while you are reading this post, you use 70% fat and 30 % glucose to meet the energy demands. Again, I am just guessing and oversimplifying the things.
Who knows, your metabolism might be screwed up because you are starving so you can fit in your weight category, so the cortisol and other hormones are out of whack. Or maybe you are a real guru regarding food and training, and you burn fat efficiently.
Fat to carb ratio changes all the time, especially ones you start moving and doing karate kid moves. The moment you increase your intensity is the moment you begin tapping more into your glycogen reserves in your muscle and liver.
The intensity is an essential part of the equation, but not the only one. How much glucose and fat you use depends on other factors such as nutrition, meal timing, hormones, supplementation, personal fitness level, and other adaptations. So nothing is black and while.
Let’s get back to the intensity. The energy demands increase, as you get to the end of your fight or kata performance. Or better say, the requirements stay the same but the ability of your body to get read of the waste products and sustain the same speed and power output gets challenged. At some point, you will start relying solely on the glycolytic pathway, or the anaerobic energy system. At this point, the energy will come primarily from breaking down glucose found in the bloodstream or from the stored glycogen in your muscles. And everything will happen in the absence of oxygen.
Since oxygen is absent, you will experience a buildup of lactate level. Lactates are products of pyruvate and hydrogen ions. Pyruvate is a waste product that gets formed when glucose gets used for creating ATP. Pyruvate gets sent it to the so-called Krebs Cycle for making more ATP. How cool is that? How amazing and smart is our body?
So why the body does not keep shaving that pyruvate into the Krebs Cycle? The Krebs Cycle is a slow process that can’t keep up with the buildup rate of the pyruvate during an intensive workout. So a molecule of pyruvate gets attached to a molecule of hydrogen ion and WOOOLAAAA you get lactate molecule. BTW the hydrogen ion in the acidic part of the lactate. And lactate can be reused for getting more glucose and fueling our muscles. However, that’s another story. And of course, other processes happen in between. If you want more information, you can have a look here.
Let’s present this nonsense visually and put is in a context of kata performance
The picture shows my heart rate during Gojushiho Sho performance. We can see that after 45-60 seconds the pulse gets into the orange and red zone. This is the moment you start relying on your anaerobic, glycolytic pathway and ability to deal with lactate acid (remember the H+ is the acidic component) accumulation or better-said hydrogen ions. You must have in mind that this is only one test, and is used just to show the point of this post.
The question is whether making more efficient aerobic system would push this line to the right and increase the time where the aerobic energy system supports your workout longer? And could you prolong the accumulation of lactates in the body?
Theoretically, it seems possible and logical. However, who would have a more significant benefit? A kata of kumite competitor? When answering this question, it is wise to see what are we dealing with. What is the nature and dynamics of these two disciplines?
It looks that the aerobic energy system is predominant in kumite, which comes from the dynamic of the kumite match. Here athletes perform karate techniques periodically, in a short period, together with brief rest intervals that referees use to make a decision and give a point. This provides some time to catch up your breath before the Hajime signal.
The kata performance, on the other hand, has a different dynamic. During kata, you have to keep your ass low and move fast, while executing punches, block and kick with maximum power. I mean you do not have to, but judges will raise the flag for your opponent. And, if you are in kata team, you have to kick you teammate’s asses as part of your bunkai.
Now, I am not alluding that kata is more physically demanding than kumite. However, I want to emphasize that the aerobic system might play a significant role in kumite preparation. And when it comes to the anaerobic energy system, besides glycolytic, you might what to pay attention particularly to the phosphocreatine one. But we will elaborate more on these “two musketeers” in the following posts.
Wrapping it up
It is indisputable that both, kata and kumite competitors rely on the aerobic energy system to a certain extent. However, the aerobic system cannot be predominant, and always will work in conjunction with the anaerobic glycolytic and phosphocreatine energy system.
In the following post will see how the two energy system together with the aerobic one, support the karate performance.
What about you?
What are your thoughts on this topic? How important is the role of the aerobic system in karate? Please leave your thoughts in the comment.
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