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Is Basketball Aerobic or Anaerobic?

Basketball is primarily an anaerobic sport that requires explosiveness, acceleration and change of direction. This is performed by fast-twitch (Type 2) muscle fibres. Anaerobic systems can be exercised via interval-training, sprints and plyometric training.

In basketball, both anaerobic and aerobic systems are at play. The sport isn’t exclusively anaerobic and explosive, because a game of basketball consists of many periods of what is called “non-live action”. Examples of non-live action are game stops, time-outs, media breaks and half time. 

These moments of rest extend the game from 4 x 12 minutes in theory – to up to 120+ minutes of activity. To perform at a high level over 2 hours, basketball players need a good base-level of aerobic fitness (in addition to anaerobic fitness).

What Basketball Players Need to Know about Anaerobic Training

To become a high-performing basketball player, you primarily need a high level of anaerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness relates to your ability to execute any physical actions that don’t require oxygen. This is what anaerobic means; “non-air demanding”.

Is Basketball Aerobic or Anaerobic?

How can the muscles perform without oxygen? Because there’s an energy storage in your muscle fibres that you can spend on a quick sprint or a block. Although, after a short period of time, the energy is used up and requires you to restitute before another burst of energy can be released.

Fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres are used for intensive and prolonged types of training. Fast twitch, or Type 2, are explosive, large and great for e.g. basketball jumps. Slow twitch muscle fibres, or Type 1, are fatigue-resistant and persevering, which are useful when games last for hours.

Difference between Runners and Ballers

To contrast basketball with a sport that requires another kind of energy systems, we can look towards distance running. A long-distance runner doesn’t jump, shoot or block anyone—they just run at a steady pace for long periods of time. This is aerobic (oxygen-demanding) muscle work.

As a basketball player, you probably don’t want to look like a marathon runner—with thin arms and legs, carrying as little weight as possible (if that’s you, these 5 key workout principles will help you).

In order to get a muscular, strong and explosive physique, you need to train differently than people from endurance sports.

For basketballers; sprints, weightlifting, short interval training, high-intensity training and plyometric jumps are ways to improve the body’s ability to work anaerobically.  

In this sense, it’s crucial to train in a way that is similar to the characteristics of the sport itself. You get better at what you do, so if you jog a lot, you’ll become a better jogger. But that’s not what you want as a basketball player.

“Pre-season basketball workouts should incorporate resistance training, interval training, agility training and plyometrics in order to train fast twitch muscle fibre and the phosphagen and anaerobic glycolysis metabolic systems.” — Brian McCormick

Although a basic level of aerobic fitness is required in basketball, you need to focus on building fast-twitch muscle fibres that make you run faster, shoot longer, block better and become more explosive on the court.

Why Basketball Players also Need Aerobic Fitness

According to GSSI, coaches often overlook the importance of aerobic systems for success in basketball. In plain English, this means that it’s not enough to be buff; you also need to be in good shape. 

Good shape refers to your ability to use oxygen (air) to convert glucose (sugar) and fat into energy. If you are not in a good aerobic shape, you will fatigue towards the end of the game and not be able to perform at your highest level.

GSSI suggests that up to 65% of a basketball game is not high-intensity. This means that the majority of your time on the court is spent on walking, waiting or jogging back and forth.

These lower intensity breaks are very important for your muscle’s restitution (regeneration of PCr) and ability to perform high-intensity movements again and again.

“The relatively high level of aerobic demand, despite the high percent of playing time spent walking and standing, suggests aerobic metabolism is critical in the removal of lactate and the restoration of PCr.”GSSI

In short; you need your breaks in between the live-action, to regenerate your explosive energy and remove acid from your muscles, so you don’t become sore mid-game.

Live vs. Non-live Parts of Basketball

You might be wondering why it’s suggested by GSSI that up to 65% of a game isn’t high intensity. How can more than half of the game be spent on lower intensity movements?

Live vs. Non-live action is a way to explain the active and non-active parts of a basketball game. A game that lasts 48 minutes in theory may last more than 120 minutes in practice, with all the game stops (media breaks, quarters, half time and timeouts).

The non-live periods, where you are not “live in action”, running for a ball, defending or dribbling, make up for the majority of game-time. In order to be a great player, you need to stay fresh and at peak-level even as games drag out for several hours.

Therefore, aerobic training like running, swimming or cycling can help you increase your aerobic fitness and result in better stamina on the basketball court. Although, as suggested, you may want to train your stamina in way that’s directly transferable to basketball.

How to Train Aerobically for Basketball

If you train long distance running, you’ll get the muscle fibres and body of a long distance runner. This is not optimal for basketball, where fast-twitch muscle fibers are required for quick changes of directions, jumps and accelerations. A better way to condition your body for basketball is short interval sprinting.

“A great way to train your cardiovascular system is to sprint anywhere from 5-20 seconds, followed by a rest period that is somewhere around 3 to 1x as long as the sprint time.  Build up the amount of sprints you can do at a 1:3 ratio of work to rest. Progress to a 1:2 and 1:1 work to rest ratio.” — Drew Rossi

High-intensity track running is suggested by multiple coaches and researchers. A general pattern is to reduce the rest time more and more as the level of fitness is built up. Here is another suggested training for how basketball players can build aerobic fitness:

“The athletes run 300m sprints at 90% of full speed with a 1:3 work to rest ratio. Run 2000m per session, or roughly six sprints. The athletes run two to three times per week; lower the work to rest ratio to 1:2 in the final workouts.” — Brian McCormick

In conclusion, basketball players can gain the required aerobic fitness through HIIT training with decreasing rest-periods through the training cycles.

3 Energy Systems of the Muscles

There are 3 systems that fuel the body with energy.

The 3 energy systems are called 1) phosphagen system, 2) glycolytic system and 3) oxidative system. All 3 system are at work all the time, but 1 and 2 are primarily used for intensive short activity, whereas system 3 is used for longer low-intensity activity.

Each system has its primary deployment in certain types of activity. The phosphagen system is for sprints, the glycolytic is for medium-high activity and the oxidative system is for long-distance/endurance sports.

All systems create ATP, which is the body’s energy source. If you run out of ATP on the basketball court, you will face “the wall” and feel completely exhausted. 

To become the best basketball player you can be and excel on the playing field, you need to know about these energy systems, anaerobic vs. aerobic training, types of muscle fibres and what you can do to build and maintain them over time.

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