Bulletproof Conditioning for Wrestlers & Combat Athletes + The Lactic Acid Myth 

The Physiology of Conditioning 

Because wrestling is generally thought to be a high intensity intermittent sport, one of the common miscalculation wrestlers make is to rely exclusively on high intensity interval training for their conditioning. This is a mistake because there are adaptations at lower intensities that we simply cannot get or cannot get as effectively at higher intensities. These include mitochondrial biogenesis, capillary density, and eccentric hypertrophy of the left ventricle. Let’s briefly review why these matter: 

Mitochondria – often called the “powerhouse” of our cells because they produce energy by oxidizing the food we eat. This is where aerobic metabolism occurs and exclusively where we are able to metabolize fat.  

Capillaries – tiny blood vessels that transport blood, nutrients, and oxygen to working muscles and remove the waste of energy production. This is the pipping that allows muscle cells to do muscular things.

Left Ventricle Hypertrophy– Exercise induces two different adaptations to the left ventricle: eccentric and concentric hypertrophy. You can think of the heart like a balloon. Eccentric hypertrophy means the left ventricle has gotten larger which allows more blood to be pumped. You can also think of the heart like a muscle. Concentric hypertrophy means the left ventricle walls have gotten thicker and stronger which allows a more forceful contraction that pumps more blood. Both result in greater cardiac output through different mechanisms.   

The end result of these adaptions is that we’re able to deliver more blood to working muscles, utilize more fat as fuel, and manage waste products more efficiently, allowing us to go harder for longer.

Is Wrestling Aerobic?

When you look at energy demands during a wrestling match, at the 1 minute mark up to 50% of energy production comes from our aerobic system. Beyond that it’s even greater, so you can make a reasonable claim that the majority of our energy production in the sport of wrestling comes from the aerobic system. But the most compelling reason to train our aerobic system comes down to one of the major misunderstandings of bioenergetics – lactic acid. 

The Lactic Acid Myth 

The aerobic system is essential in buffering fatigue, ultimately allowing the anaerobic systems to produce more energy at a faster rate. This has a lot to do with what athletes and coaches commonly call lactic acid. Lactic acid is one of the most misunderstood concepts in athletics. In fact, pretty much everything we thought we knew about lactic acid is wrong. First of all, lactic acid likely doesn’t exist in humans or if it does exist, it is immediately broken down into lactate and hydrogen ions. But this isn’t just semantics because lactate doesn’t cause fatigue. Actually lactate is far more a hero than a villain. Here’s how the metabolic story unfolds: 

The burning sensation we get during long(ish) bouts of high intensity training comes from a drop in pH in our muscles. This is a problem because our muscle cells can’t contract when their pH gets too low (or high). Remember pH means “potential of hydrogen” and the pH scale is a bit weird – low pH is acidic and means there’s a lot of hydrogen present. In order to buffer this pH, our body takes these hydrogen ions and attaches them to pyruvate. 

Pyruvate + two hydrogen atoms = lactate. 

So lactate is actually the result of us buffering this fatigue. But now we have to deal with lactate. Here’s when things get pretty cool. Our body can actually ship this lactate to the other muscle fibers (including, importantly the heart) where it can be metabolized as fuel. Slow twitch aerobic muscle fibers are really good at metabolizing lactate so the more slow twitch muscle fibers we have, and the more aerobically conditioning these fibers are, the better we can manage lactate. This is why aerobic training will improve our anaerobic threshold – because we can deal with metabolic byproducts more efficiently. This is also why we shouldn’t spend all of our time doing high intensity training – because then we get really good at producing lactate, but not as good at clearing lactate. There is also a ceiling to the amount of high intensity training we’re capable of doing (and between all of the wrestling, lifting, sprinting, and additional conditioning work we tend to do, wrestlers are pretty good at pushing those limits.) Folding in some lower intensity training throughout the season allows us to develop these necessary qualities without the additional, additive pounding of more intense volume.

Intensity Still Matters

I want to be careful not to overstate my claim here. High intensity training is essential to a comprehensive training program for wrestlers. My only point is that aerobic training is as well. Generally speaking, you want to spent pre and early-season establishing a strong aerobic base and then shift towards more anaerobic lactic and alactic energy systems training as the season progresses. It would also be wise to spend just enough time throughout the season maintaining your aerobic conditioning so you don’t lose those adaptations towards the end of the season when all systems should be operating at maximum capacity.

Works Cited

French, D., Griffin, F., Linden, H. (2021), et al. A Cross Sectional Performance Analysis and Projections of the UFC Athlete: Volume Two. UFC (Zuffa, LLC). p. 236.

Hall, M. M., Rajasekaran, S., Thomsen, T. W., & Peterson, A. R. (2016). Lactate: Friend or Foe. PM & R : The Journal of Injury, Function, and Rehabilitation, 8(3 Suppl), S8–S15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmrj.2015.10.018

Weiner, R. B., & Baggish, A. L. (2012). Exercise-induced Cardiac Remodeling. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases54(5), 380–386. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2012.01.006

If you liked this blog post, you’ll love the sequel.