If you're not doing roadwork, you're not really training for boxing.
The Marquess of Queensberry rules might outlaw running inside the ring, but it's one of the best ways to prepare your mind and body for a bout. Elite fighters have used roadwork for boxing conditioning since the early days.
Muhammad Ali used to say that fights were "won or lost on the road."
Unfortunately, programming roadwork for boxing isn't as easy as lacing up your shoes and running until you're tired. Done right, roadwork can take your recovery, punch output, and mental toughness to the next level, but poor programming can lead to mental burnout and injury.
Today, we breakdown all you need to know about roadwork for boxing. By the end of this article, you'll know the different uses for aerobic and anaerobic roadwork, and understand how to incorporate both into a custom conditioning routine using precise heart-rate goals.
The Debate on Roadwork for Boxing: New-School vs. Old-School
There are two dominant approaches to programming roadwork for boxing: new-school (anaerobic) and old-school (aerobic).
Old-school training was simple and effective, focusing primarily on aerobic development. You got up every morning at the break of dawn, threw on your sweats and sneakers, and hit the road for a steady 5-mile jog. Progress was easy to track - you either ran further, or faster.
But even with a history of success, the old-school approach to roadwork for boxing fell out of favour in the early 2000s. Tedious and time-consuming, this style of training definitely earned the name roadwork, and people were getting tired of the morning monotony.
With sports science flourishing in other fields, boxing was deemed due for an upgrade.
The new-school approach to roadwork is all about high-intensity "anaerobic" intervals. This radical departure was based on the idea that sprint-style training would better prepare boxers for the energy demands of a fight. In The Boxer's Guide to Performance Enhancement, Ross Enamait (2004) likens the anaerobic requirements of a fight to those involved in a 200-meter sprint.
Science seemed to support the shift to anaerobic roadwork for boxing. Tabata et al. (1996) tracked impressive fat-burning effects during short, high-intensity interval training sessions. Moreover, Enamait (2004) warned that excessive aerobic work could reduce power output.
Thrilled at the thought of getting more conditioning with less time on the road - and worried about aerobically exercising their power away - fighters and boxing fitness enthusiasts went wild for new-school training. Long, low-intensity jogs were replaced with hill sprints, shuttle runs, and 400-meter intervals, along with off-road conditioning substitutes like burpees, barbell complexes, and Tabata-anything.
But something strange happened. Fighters were working harder than ever, redlining themselves on the road before hitting the boxing gym that same day, but nobody was getting in better shape. In fact, the number of combative athletes gassing out and getting injured shot up for the first time in years, with MMA getting the worst of it.
Clearly, new-school roadwork training for boxing wasn't enough. But boxing training methods are certainly due for that upgrade...
So what's a young fighter to do?
Hybridized Roadwork for Boxing: Getting the Best of Both Worlds
Roadwork training for boxing requires a hybridized approach that targets both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. This approach gets the best of both worlds, balancing light, sustained work with intense intervals to help improve recovery, build mental strength, and optimize speed and power development.
In order to train these systems effectively, you will need to track your heart-rate (HR).
Heart Rate Training for Boxing Roadwork
Measuring your HR will tell you whether you're working hard enough, how long to rest between efforts, and how quickly your fitness level is improving.
First, calculate your maximum heart-rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from 220. Your HR goals will be based on this number. Based on this formula (220 - AGE), a 30-year old athlete would use 190 beats per minute as their MHR.
Once you've got your MHR sorted, roadwork is a no-brainer: just plug in the target number and work hard enough to maintain it.
You have three options for tracking HR during a workout:
- Buy a HR monitor. Buying a HR monitor lets you to track your HR in real-time. Depending on the model you choose, this can be a bit of an investment, but it's worth it to eliminate the guesswork (especially when doubts creep in on fight day!).
Wristband and chest-strap options are available. Just find one with great reviews that fits your budget - it'll be one of the best purchases you make for your boxing career!
Polar H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Sensor & Fitness Tracker
- Track your HR manually. If you're on a budget, you can also track your HR manually (though you will need a standard watch or iPhone stopwatch feature for this).
The easiest way to track your HR manually is by breaking your "beats per minute" (bpm) into 10-second chunks. Identify your HR goal for that particular roadwork session, then divide it by 6. The number you're left with will be your "10-second HR target," which we will track with a stopwatch to control our pace.
For example, let's say your target HR is 130 beats per minute for 45-minutes. Divided by 6, we're left with 21.6. To check if you're working hard enough, measure your pulse for 10 seconds. Slow your pace if you count more than 22 beats; speed up if you count less than 21. I personally can't do this without staring at my stopwatch, but maybe you're just awesome.
- Track your HR on a cardio machine. Most cardio machines have built-in HR monitors you can use for free. Some are handheld; others attach to the finger. Of course, you'll need access to one of these modern cardio machines, but many boxing gyms have one or two tucked away in the corners.
Now let's talk about specific HR goals to hit with your roadwork training.
Aerobic Roadwork for Boxing: Guidelines and HR Goals
The aerobic system works when mitochondria use oxygen to burn away fat, restore phosphocreatine (PCr), and limit the buildup of glycolytic byproducts (Pollock, 1973). Aerobic training enhances the efficiency of this system, helping the boxer make weight, fuel power punches late in the fight, and resist muscle fatigue.
Floyd Mayweather is known to log epic 10+ mile runs in the dead of night.
Old-school roadwork training also helped fighters increase their cardiac stroke volume (SV). Greater SV meant their hearts could pump more blood with each beat, which translates to faster recovery between on the stool between rounds, or while circling the ring between combinations. Crucially, this adaptation only occurs with training that keeps the heart-rate in the aerobic "zone" for extended periods; sprint-style work forces the heart to beat too fast, which stops the ventricles from filling up to capacity and growing larger (Little et al., 2010).
Our aerobic training recommendations are based largely on the old-school model, but with an extra dash of sports science.
Aerobic Roadwork Guidelines:
- Keep your HR around 70% of your max heart rate (MHR), which you can find using the "220-AGE" formula. For example, a 30-year old male would use 190 as their MHR (because 220-30=190), and 133 as their aerobic HR target (because 190x0.7=133).
If that's too much work, and you're a reasonably fit individual between 18-30 years old, aim for somewhere between 130-150 beats per minute (bpm).
You may be shocked at how slow this is at first. Stay focused, keep moving, and trust that the proper adaptations are occurring. Eventually, you will find you can move much faster while keeping your heart rate on-target, so your body is effectively working harder with less effort. This means your aerobic base is building.
- Maintain your target heart-rate for 30-90 minutes, depending on your fitness level and goals.
- Outdoor jogging is ideal, but you can substitute tread-mill running, footwork drills, jump-rope, or any off-road exercises so long as your target HR is maintained for the duration.
- Start with 3 x 30-minute sessions each week to develop your "aerobic base." Strive to maintain your target HR for the duration, but don't be discouraged if you must alternate running and walking in the beginning. Once you can sustain this pace for a full 30 minutes, add distance, time, or additional sessions, but do not increase your target HR if you want to improve your cardiac stroke volume.
Anaerobic Roadwork for Boxing: Guidelines and HR Goals
When properly implemented, anaerobic roadwork can improve speed and power (Luebbers et al, 2003), increase your ability to sustain "sprint-speed" punch flurries (Tabata et al., 1996), speed fat loss (Trapp et al., 2008; Boutcher, 2010, p. 1), and develop unshakable mental toughness.
Timothy Bradley works on his speed and power at the track.
The anaerobic system is made up of two distinct subsystems, each of which must be targeted separately in your training program:
- Our Glycolytic system uses glycogen to produce energy, and is designed to deliver moderate power in short bursts. As the body converts glycogen into ATP, we create glycolytic byproducts that cause fatigue. (yes, these are the same byproducts that aerobic training helps us eliminate, so you see the importance of a hybridized approach!).
- The ATP/PCr system uses ATP in muscle cells to produce incredible power in very short bursts of 8-10 seconds. For context, this is what we tap into when going "all-out." This system uses phosphocreatine (PCr) to replenish itself, and can take anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes to fully recover between bursts.
Anaerobic Roadwork Guidelines:
- To train the glycolytic system, keep your heart-rate between 80-90% of your MHR for every interval. Separate each interval with a moderate rest period that suits your training goals and fitness level.
For example, you might program 8 x 200m interval runs. Upon completing the first run at near-maximal speed, you would rest for 30-60 seconds. Trainers often have their fighters walk back to the starting line as a form of active rest.
Understand the demands this roadwork style places on the body. Do not schedule a glycolytic system training session on a sparring day.
- To train the ATP/PCr system, keep your heart-rate between 90-100% of your MHR for every interval. With this roadwork style, your work periods will be shorter, and your rest will be longer.
For example, you might push yourself with 10 sets of max-intensity hill sprints or punch-out drills. Each work period might last only 15-20 seconds of hell, separated by 30-90 seconds of rest.
As when training the glycolytic system, avoid scheduling sparring or other high-intensity training during your evening boxing work.
Programming Roadwork for Boxing: Sample Routines
This section provides sample hybridized roadwork templates for beginners and intermediates. However, if you're looking for a one-size-fits-all plan, you're going to be disappointed. Proper programming requires knowledge of the individual athlete. That said, we can recommend some best practices to help get you started.
Sample Roadwork Routine for Boxing (Beginners)
Beginners will focus on developing their aerobic base, without depleting them for their boxing sessions. This introductory phase will also help strength joints and ligaments to protect against injuries.
Echoing what most coaches will tell you, we recommend beginners limit their roadwork training to 3, 30-minute sessions each week:
- Day 1 - 30-minute aerobic activity @ 130-140 beats per minute, or 65-70% of MHR.
- Day 2 - 30-minute aerobic activity @ 130-140 beats per minute, or 65-70% of MHR.
- Day 3 - 30-minute aerobic activity @ 130-140 beats per minute, or 65-70% of MHR.
For example, let's supposed I'm starting a fight camp next month. In addition to my normal boxing routine, I'll get up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning to log 5-6km (a little over 3 miles for readers on the Imperial system). If my knees or ankles are bothering me, I'll substitute my roadwork for 30+ minutes on a low-impact cardio machine. Pacing is easy with a HR monitor: I just move fast enough to stay at 135bpm, and try to stay there for the entire session. In about a month, this basic regimen will build my aerobic base for all the tough training ahead.
Sample Roadwork Routine for Boxers (Intermediate)
Once you've developed your aerobic base and prepared your body for the rigors of high-intensity intervals, you're ready to add anaerobic training to your boxing roadwork routine. The intermediate program combines classic and modern training protocols to help you improve recovery, build mental strength, and optimize speed and power development.
Be aware of the mental and physical cost of anaerobic training. Though aerobic training is not without its risks, we must pay extra attention to how we incorporate anaerobic work into our overall program: too much leads to injury or mental burnout, but too little leaves us a beat behind our opponents.
This hybridized training template combines the best of the aerobic, ATP/PCr, and glycotic training methods we described earlier:
- Day 1 (Aerobic training day): 30-60 minute outdoor trail run @ 70% MHR. Incorporate backwards running, side-shuffling, and boxing footwork intermittently.
- Day 2 (Glycolytic training day): 8 x 200m interval runs @ 80-90%. Walk slowly back to the starting line to recover between efforts.
- Day 3 (Aerobic training day): Repeat Day 1, but limit duration to 30 minutes.
- Day 4 (Roadwork recovery day): No roadwork. Beginners should take a full rest day; intermediates can hit the boxing gym as normal.
- Day 5 (ATP/PCr training day): 10-20 x 50m hill sprints @ 90-100% MHR. Rest 30 seconds after each effort, then walk back to the starting point.
- Day 6 (Aerobic training day): Repeat Day 3. Consider substituting a low-impact alternative such as swimming, biking, or using the elliptical.
- Day 7 (Roadwork recovery day): Full rest day.
When implementing this into your training schedule, do not train the glycolytic or ATP/PCr systems on sparring days. Reserve sparring for aerobic training or roadwork recovery days only.
How do I implement these templates into my training?
This depends entirely on the athlete's current training schedule, goals, and fitness background. No single answer exists.
However, we can prescribe some basic guidelines:
- Start by scheduling aerobic training on days you aren't in the boxing gym. Arrive at the gym fresh and ready to learn.
- As you build your work capacity, you can run and box in the same day. However, you should try to schedule your runs on non-sparring days you so enter the ring with fresh legs. Therefore, aerobic runs should fall on days where you drill, shadowbox or work the bags.
- As with everything, ease into this program. Don't be afraid to mix walking and running into your 30-minute aerobic sessions. Your goal is to stay at your target HR without ever exceeding it, but that doesn't mean you need to sustain it throughout, especially at first.
- No ATP/PCr training on sparring or lifting days.
- No Glycolytic training on sparring or lifting days.
Does it matter when I run?
Not really. So long as you do it.
When scheduling roadwork and boxing skill training on the same day, you have a number of different options. Some fighters prefer to run in the mornings, drawing strength from the idea that they're working while their opponent is still asleep. Others prefer to hit the road after training to ensure they approach every skill development session fresh.
Ultimately, you'll have to decide what works.
Do I have to run outside? Can I use a treadmill/Airdyne/elliptical/other cardio machine instead?
Though outdoor running is ideal, using cardio machines for roadwork can be a great low-impact alternative to mix in. Plus, as we mentioned earlier, most cardio machines have built-in HR monitors. Being able to watch your HR on the dashboard in real-time is extremely valuable.
This study says that a 1% incline most accurately represents the energetic demands of an outdoor running environment, so adjust your cardio machines accordingly.
Still, I'm a firm believer in outdoor roadwork when weather permits. After experimenting with both options extensively, I've come to believe that outdoor runs get me in better shape. I still mix in one elliptical or Airdyne session each week to give my joints a break, but I'm of the bro-sciencey opinion that outdoor running builds my lower body better. Most importantly, it gives me an excuse to get outside and think about life and boxing for awhile.
Final Thoughts On Roadwork for Boxing
Roadwork is crucial for success in boxing, but it's only worth doing when done right. If you're showing up to the gym too sore to learn and perform, you're doing yourself no favours.
Don't pick sides in the old-school/new-school debate. Instead, take the best of both worlds, absorbing what works and discarding what doesn't. When tailored to the individual, hybridized roadwork training for boxing allows you to build stamina, speed, and power simultaneously, without taking unnecessary mental and physical abuse.
If you'd like additional help with your roadwork training for boxing, or have some hate mail to send my way, send me a message on Instagram (@mac_rea), Twitter (@macrea), or Facebook.
Boutcher, S. H. (2010). High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. Journal of Obesity, 2011.
Enamait, Ross (2004). The Boxer's Guide to Performance Enhancement.
Little, J. P., Safdar, A., Wilkin, G. P., Tarnopolsky, M. A. and Gibala, M. J. (2010), A practical model of low-volume high-intensity interval training induces mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle: potential mechanisms. The Journal of Physiology, 588: 1011–1022. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2009.181743
Luebbers, P. E., Potteiger, J. A., Hulver, M. W., Thyfault, J. P., Carper, M. J., & Lockwood, R. H. (2003). Effects of plyometric training and recovery on vertical jump performance and anaerobic power. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 17(4), 704-709.
Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 28(10), 1327-1330.
Trapp, E. G., Chisholm, D. J., Freund, J., & Boutcher, S. H. (2008). The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International journal of obesity, 32(4), 684-691.