Blood flow restriction (BFR) training to improve aerobic endurance

Incorporating blood flow restriction (BFR) into a high intensity OR low-intensity training programme can have a positive effect on aerobic endurance.

Last time we looked at how BFR training can improve strength. In this blog, we will be looking at how BFR can be used to improve and maintain aerobic endurance. Firstly, it is important to understand some of the ways that aerobic training can improve endurance and overall performance... Aerobic training can:
  • Increase muscle glycogen content (energy storage)
  • Increase stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped by the heart in one contraction and therefore the amount of oxygen transported to the working muscles)
  • Decrease heart rate (so the heart needs to work less to deliver the oxygen)

These changes are usually seen after a period of high-intensity aerobic training. However, using BFR during low-intensity exercise can illicit these same responses. The result: physiological adaptations that improve performance.

What does the research show? Physical activity with BFR is more beneficial for endurance than without:

Intervention: 2 weeks of walking training using BFR on the legs (20 minute walk, twice a day, 6 days a week) Result: BFR training increased aerobic endurance capacity (known as Vo2 max) by 11.6%

-Park et al 2010

Furthermore, applying BFR during high-intensity exercise can have more benefits than high-intensity exercise alone: Intervention: 4 weeks of treadmill running using BFR on the legs (2 x HIIT sessions a week - 30s on, 30s off at 80% peak running velocity) Result: BFR training improved running economy (which allows for a higher running velocity whilst using the same relative oxygen consumption - VO2)

-Paton et al 2017

What happens during aerobic exercise using BFR to elicit these responses?

Greater stress on the cardiovascular system...
  • When we train, heart rate increases in order to pump oxygenated blood around the heart. We also have a lowered venous return (less deoxygenated blood returning to the heart). The result = reduced stroke volume. This induces strain on the cardiovascular system as a whole.

Why is this important and what are the practical applications?

  • Those who are unable to undertake high-intensity exercise (injured/recovering) can use light stimulus BFR training as an efficient training stimulus without much mechanical stress on the body. This can reduce the risk of injury/re-injury and aid recovery.
  • Those looking to taper their training (before competition etc.) can still improve performance whilst not straining the body.
  • Utilising BFR during high-intensity exercise can add to the physiological adaptations observed after normal training - such as improved running economy.

BFR can be used to maintain aerobic endurance in those who wish to limit mechanical load on the body, as well as being utilised during a normal training session to add further physiological benefits.

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