A Mighty Winded

What do you really know about gassing out?

Anyone who has watched combat sports for any length of time has undoubtedly witnessed a fighter gas out in the middle of a fight. Sometimes, the fighter is saved by the bell or able to defend himself just enough to continue. However, many times, gassing out leaves a fighter defenseless, and his opponent is able to take advantage and end the fight. Countless fighters have lost fights in this manner in some of the biggest fights of their careers. Regardless of the level of competition—from amateurs to the top pros—gassing out is really the great equalizer in combat sports.

Given the obvious importance of being able to make it through the entire fight and how much is often at stake, the question to ask is, “Why do so many fighters gas out in the first place?” After all, it may be understandable if it only happened in the amateur ranks, but when world titles change hands because one of the fighters gassed—and it’s rare to see an entire card without it happening—it’s clear this phenomenon is not selective to skill level or experience.

Although endless hours online are often spent debating various losses and why a fighter did or didn’t do one thing or another, when a fighter loses because he gassed, the near universal consensus is that it happened because he wasn’t in shape. After all, when you’re out of shape, you’re bound to gas out sooner or later, and when you’re in shape, it means you can always last bell-to-bell, right?

Though the casual fight fan often believes the answer to this question is “yes,” the real answer is far more complex than it may seem on the surface. The more you understand about how energy production in combat sports really works, the more obvious it becomes that thinking a fighter always gassed because he was just out of shape is along the same lines as thinking that the best way to train to get into the UFC is to have a lot of street fights.

Myth Busting
The best place to begin to understand the bigger picture of conditioning, gassing out, and being in shape for combat sports is to start with a clean slate by putting an
end to many of the common myths surrounding the topic.

He built up too much lactic acid.
This is one of the more popular myths, and it’s been repeated over and over, even by those that are otherwise knowledgeable. Despite the fact that scientists have known that this is not the case for many years, it is frequently cited as the underlying mechanism of what happens when a fighter gasses out.

The truth, however, is that lactic acid is NEVER the cause of a fighter gassing out, because it doesn’t even exist in the human body. Yes, that’s right, there is never any lactic acid in your muscles, not during a fight or otherwise. Instead, a substance known as lactate is produced when your body breaks down carbohydrates and turns them into an energy source that your muscles can use through a process known as anaerobic glycolysis. Rather than causing fatigue in the muscles, however, the chemical steps involved that result in lactate formation actually help prevent fatigue and are an absolutely vital process in energy production. In other words, lactate is actually a fighter’s friend, not his foe.

He ran out of gas
This is another commonly held belief that may seem to make sense on the surface, but under the microscope of exercise physiology, it just doesn’t hold up. The truth is that the chemical fuel that the muscles and your entire body run on—a chemical called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)—never drops below about 60% of resting levels in the working muscles, even during the most intense periods of exercise and exertion. Fights also don’t last long enough for your muscles to run out of the stored sugar (glycogen) that’s used to make more ATP either.

In other words, you don’t fatigue because your muscles run out of energy—it doesn’t happen. If your car runs out of gas, you just end up stuck somewhere. If your muscles ever actually did completely run out of ATP, on the other hand, there would be serious cellular damage, and you’d be in big trouble.

In order to prevent this from happening, the body has a variety of failsafe mechanisms in place that guarantee your muscles will never run out of ATP. The entire metabolic system is designed around making sure gas is ALWAYS left in your tank. It may look like a fighter has no energy left when he’s gassing out, but you can rest assured his tank is more than half full.

He was just out of shape.
Without question, this is one of the biggest myths, as well as one of the most complex issues of conditioning. Everyone has heard a fighter say he felt like he was in the best shape of his life going into a fight or how he was able to go forever in training, only to end up gassed out in the second round. So what happened? Was he not in the kind of shape he thought? Are all fighters who gas out in bad shape?

To really get to the answer to this question, you have to understand that there are two sides to the equation: energy production and energy expenditure. If you don’t look at both sides and see the whole picture, it can be easy to make incorrect assumptions. Energy management is really what determines whether a fighter ends up gassed.

Imagine two fighters who are both in the same shape going into a fight against each other. Fighter A is determined to finish the fight quickly and loves the knockout, so he swings for the fences on every punch and is constantly pressing forward. Fighter B, by contrast, is a very defensive fighter. He is patient and carefully picks his shots, always waiting for his opponent to make a mistake that he can capitalize on before exploding and expending a lot of energy.

It’s not difficult to see which fighter is more likely to end up gassing out. Fighter A is constantly expending energy at a much faster rate than fighter B, and, consequently, he’s going to fatigue at a much faster rate. If he’s not able to finish the fight early, he’s likely to be significantly slower and gassed out by the end.

This difference in energy management—how and when each fighter chooses to use the energy they are capable of producing. It plays the biggest role in how quickly fighters fatigue. A fighter can be in great shape, but if they manage their energy poorly, they can still end up gassed before a fighter who is smarter about his pacing and energy expenditure.

This also explains why fighters gas out at all levels of the sport. The top pros are typically in much better shape than those at the bottom, and they are producing a great deal more energy, but no matter what kind of shape they’re in, they can still gas if they don’t use their energy wisely.

To understand exactly why poor energy management can lead to a fighter gassing out, you have to look at the basics of energy production. After all, we’ve established that muscles don’t fatigue because of lactic acid buildup, and they aren’t running out of energy, so what’s really happening?

Although science can’t fully explain the mechanisms yet, it’s well documented that the greater force and power a muscle produces, the faster it fatigues. This is why no one will ever run a mile at the same pace they can run a 100 meters. The more energy your body produces anaerobically (without oxygen), the more power it can generate, but the faster it will fatigue as well. Higher power activities require ATP to be supplied at a greater rate, and thus more of it has to come from anaerobic energy production.

Every fighter differs in how much energy they can produce aerobically and how much they can produce anaerobically, and there is an inverse relationship between the two. In other words, the more energy a fighter can produce aerobically, the better his endurance will be, but the less force and power he will be capable of generating, and vice versa—those capable of the highest power levels also experience the greatest rate of fatigue.

This inherent tradeoff between a high work rate (power) and the ability to maintain it, combined with management of energy expenditure, provides the big picture of why fighters really gas out. Each fighter is capable of different levels of aerobic and anaerobic energy production, and it varies in their ability to effectively manage their energy expenditure.

Fighters that can produce a great deal of energy aerobically and are effective at managing it will last from bell-to-bell every time. Those who can’t produce as much aerobically and have to rely more on the anaerobic side and/or those who don’t know how to pace themselves effectively, are much more likely to gas out every time.

Combat sports are exciting because they are so dynamic and there are endless variables. Every fighter is different, and you never really know what’s going to happen in any fight. To the casual observer, it may look like two guys standing in a cage throwing wildly at each other, while anyone who knows the sport understands the complex game of combat chess that’s being played and the high level of skills involved. Energy production and management is as complex and variable as the skills that are being fueled. To the educated eye, it’s not a simple issue at all, just another piece of a complex puzzle that ultimately determines whose hand is raised and who is left face down on the canvas.

Joel Jamieson is one of the world’s foremost authorities on strength and conditioning for combat sports. He has more than 7 years experience working with many of the top athletes in the sport and has trained some of the biggest names in MMA, including 7 world champions. He formerly served as the Director of Strength & Conditioning for Pride FC and is the founder of 8weeksout.com.
Copyright © 2013 FIGHT! Magazine | Contact Us