I often see fighters preparing for fights with cardio that is not very sport specific. Meaning, that the type of challenge that they’re providing for their body is nothing like the cardio challenge of an MMA fight. To get in fighter shape, you have to mimic the challenges your body will face in the cage.
Long distance, slow pace cardio like 5 mile runs or an hour on the elliptical will give you more endurance, but what kind of endurance?
Low intensity/long duration cardio is OK if you’re not going to explode and spike your heart rate during the fight, but MMA is an explosive sport. There are times of relatively low intensity and movement, but you rarely go a long time without having to explosively react to your opponent’s movements.
Every time you engage in a grappling scramble or striking exchange, you’ll spike your heart rate. That spike can deplete your endurance severely if your body’s not prepared to handle it.
Your body uses different metabolic systems to fuel your muscles, so your muscles can’t be trained with repetitive, low intensity contractions that are fueled by aerobic metabolism. You have to activate a higher percentage of muscle fibers with more intense contractions for a shorter duration if you’re going to successfully prepare your body for a fight.
Doing so helps to teach your muscles to produce more forceful contractions, and thus preserving your muscle. Higher intensity cardio work can actually help build muscle and increase strength, instead of killing it.
Sprints, circuit training, and intervals should be used to build cardio, burn fat, and increase muscular force. I like to do heart rate intervals, where I can spike my heart rate to a particular number, and then let it recover. Usually, I’ll try to get my heart rate up to 85-90% of my max heart rate (220-my age), and then let it drop down to 60%. I do this for about 8-10 reps, and it usaully only takes me 20 minutes. Here is an example of a cardio workout I did a few weeks back on an elliptical.