Energy System Oversimplification

One of the biggest and most common misunderstandings I’ve seen with regards to training of soccer players is related to the energy systems. One of the misconceptions is that the energy systems do not act in unison. I debunked this misunderstanding here.?Another misconception is that there are just two energy systems: Aerobic and Anaerobic. The reality is that there are three pathways to resynthesize ATP once it has been broken down to ADP + P during biological processes (in this case exercise). The three pathways are:

  • Anaerobic Alactic (ATP-PC system)?- This system can only supply about 6-10 seconds worth of energy. Think of it as a Ferrari….great for big horse power and high speed but not so great (terrible in fact) for fuel economy.
  • Anaerobic Lactic system ?- This can meet energy demands for up to 2 minutes of nearly maximal intensity activity. It comes with the drawback of producing metabolic waste that ultimately disrupts movement efficiency. Think of this energy pathway as a Honda Accord….good (but not great) fuel economy and power output.
  • Aerobic system?- This system is highly efficient at resynthesizing ATP but can’t do it very quickly if the demand is high. As a result, it’s best suited for meeting the demands of lower intensity activities. Or, in the case of highly trained aerobic alactic sport athletes like soccer players, it can actually help fuel repeated high intensity efforts more commonly associated with the ATP-PC energy system. This energy pathway is like a Toyota Prius….it is great for fuel economy but will never be associated with the power outputs and speed of the Ferrari?(ATP-PC system).
The temptation to pair these three systems down to two seems logical….the first two are anaerobic aren’t they? The problem with oversimplifying like this is it can lead to poorly designed energy system fitness training schemes. The first system is expressed in flat out sprints, jumps and high speed changes of direction. These types of activities occur very frequently in soccer. The second system is expressed during sustained (30-120 seconds) moderate to high intensity activity (with no intermittent rest periods). These rarely occur during match-play as soccer is an aerobic-alactic sport characterized by short duration high intensity efforts punctuated by low-intensity intermittent rest periods rather than longer sustained efforts. An oversimplification could lead one to believe that the best form of training for soccer is vomit-inducing anaerobic lactic work. And while there’s certainly a time and place for such training, it should not be your primary training stimulus.
No one in their right mind would call a Ferrari a Honda Accord (or vice versa) so don’t make the mistake and oversimplify the two anaerobic energy systems down to one.


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Mike Young

Director of Performance at Athletic Lab
Mike is the Head Fitness Coach for the North Carolina Courage and North Carolina FC. He is also the owner and Director of Performance at Athletic Lab sports performance training center. He previously served as the fitness coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Carolina Railhawks. He has a PhD in Biomechanics, an MS in Coaching Science, and a BSS in Exercise Physiology and has coached Olympic and professional athletes in Skeleton, Track & Field, MLS and NASL Soccer, PGA Golf, NFL Football, MLB Baseball and Olympic Weightlifting. He has lectured around the world and authored 2 books and dozens of research and coaching articles.