There are 3 distinct yet closely integrated processes that operate together to satisfy the energy requirements of muscle. The anaerobic energy system is divided into alactic and lactic components, referring to the processes involved in the splitting of the stored phosphagens, ATP and phosphocreatine (PCr), and the nonaerobic breakdown of carbohydrate to lactic acid through glycolysis. The aerobic energy system refers to the combustion of carbohydrates and fats in the presence of oxygen. The anaerobic pathways are capable of regenerating ATP at high rates yet are limited by the amount of energy that can be released in a single bout of intense exercise. In contrast, the aerobic system has an enormous capacity yet is somewhat hampered in its ability to delivery energy quickly. The focus of this review is on the interaction and relative contribution of the energy systems during single bouts of maximal exercise. A particular emphasis has been placed on the role of the aerobic energy system during high intensity exercise.
Attempts to depict the interaction and relative contribution of the energy systems during maximal exercise first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. While insightful at the time, these representations were based on calculations of anaerobic energy release that now appear questionable. Given repeated reproduction over the years, these early attempts have lead to 2 common misconceptions in the exercise science and coaching professions. First, that the energy systems respond to the demands of intense exercise in an almost sequential manner, and secondly, that the aerobic system responds slowly to these energy demands, thereby playing little role in determining performance over short durations. More recent research suggests that energy is derived from each of the energy-producing pathways during almost all exercise activities. The duration of maximal exercise at which equal contributions are derived from the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems appears to occur between 1 to 2 minutes and most probably around 75 seconds, a time that is considerably earlier than has traditionally been suggested.