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It’s time to rethink aerobic fitness training in police academies

Conventional approaches don’t fully meet the needs of law enforcement trainees


To overcome the limitations of conventional aerobic training, law enforcement academies can consider implementing high-intensity interval and functional strength training as superior alternatives.

Yuri Arcurs

We all want to ensure recruits have the edge they need to succeed in law enforcement academies, right? But let’s take a moment to ponder this. Could our conventional approach to aerobic training be falling a little flat?

What if there was a better way? What if rethinking aerobic training in law enforcement could lead to superior results that set recruits up for success beyond the academy?

Let’s dive in.

Limitations of conventional approaches to aerobic training

Law enforcement academies have traditionally relied on conventional approaches to aerobic training, such as long-distance running or jogging, as well as steady-state cardio workouts. While these methods have been widely used, they have several limitations that can make them ineffective for the specific needs of law enforcement officers.

A 2021 study found that “although police officers frequently report a high proportion of regular endurance training, the training regimen might not yet be as effective or efficient as in most Olympic sports. [1] The study pointed out that “polarized endurance training, as performed by middle- and long-distance runners and which includes regular high-intensity bouts, could probably contribute to a more efficient development of endurance performance.”

One major drawback is the lack of specificity of common endurance training to the demands of law enforcement work. Simply running for long distances may improve general cardiovascular fitness, but it fails to adequately develop the specialized physical and mental skills required in the field.

A recent study expressed that “numerous large-scale studies of the physical job demands of LEOs assigned to patrol functions have consistently ranked muscular power, anaerobic capacity and strength as contributing to critical tasks more than muscular endurance or aerobic capacity.” [2]

Repetitive overuse raises injury risk

Conventional approaches often come with a higher risk of overuse injuries due to repetitive motion. Running long distances daily can lead to issues like shin splints, stress fractures and joint problems, which not only disrupt the training process but also impact an officer’s ability to perform their duties effectively.

For example, let’s look at a recruit who has a lower extremity structural imbalance, like valgus knee stress (think knock-kneed). They may also have a foot that externally rotates, tibial torsion and a hip hike. Now let’s do some math.

How many feet in a mile? 5,280.

How many feet in the average stride? Let’s say 25 to 32 inches, depending on height and pace. [3]

Now divide 5,280 by two legs – that comes to 2,640.

Next divide that by 2.5 feet (30 inches) – you get 1,056.

That is 1,056 strides per foot per mile. Now if that same recruit were to go out and run three miles, that is 3,168 total foot strikes. If that is done on that structurally imbalanced leg several times a week throughout the duration of an academy, the potential for lower extremity injury may be magnified.

Strength training is therapy for hormones

Testosterone is an anabolic hormone, while cortisol is generally regarded as a catabolic hormone. Basically, testosterone does everything cortisol does not do.

A 2018 paper from the “Journal of Biochemistry and Physiology” found “research studies on men show the existence of a select group who, through their exposure to chronic endurance exercise training, have developed alterations in their reproductive hormonal profile – principally, low resting testosterone levels.” [4]

A separate study, this one from the “Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism,” took 15 sedentary males and tested their baseline testosterone levels prior to participating in six months of progressive endurance training. At the end of six months, the researchers then retested the subjects’ testosterone levels and found significant drops in total testosterone and free androgens. The subjects also had a significant reduction in body weight, but this did not correlate to the changes in testosterone. [5]

Researchers from Kent State University compared testosterone levels of 11 endurance-trained and 11 untrained male subjects. The researchers found significantly lower total and free testosterone levels in the endurance-trained group.

The researchers concluded that “the findings indicate that chronic endurance training lowers testosterone and free testosterone in males possibly by impairing testicular function.” [6]

In comparison, a 2007 study had 20 untrained male subjects work out with weights once, then tested baseline testosterone and cortisol levels. The subjects then worked out with weights three times per week for four weeks using a program that consisted of seven strength training exercises. After four weeks, their hormones were tested again.

The researchers found nearly a 40% increase in resting testosterone levels, while both post-training and resting cortisol levels were lower. [7] In essence, the strength training was therapy for their hormones.

Modern trends in aerobic training

To overcome the limitations of conventional aerobic training, law enforcement academies can consider implementing high-intensity interval and functional strength training as superior alternatives.

Incorporating high-intensity interval work may better prepare recruits and officers for the physical (and mental) demands of the job. For example, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has also been found to be more beneficial to cognitive functioning. A 2020 study from “Brain Sciences” found that “greater improvements in executive functioning will result from HIIT compared to [moderate intensity exercise].” [2]

The researchers also found “an increased level of learning success” in the HIIT training group. They concluded that “this study adds to research in favor of HIIT over MICE [moderate-intensity continuous exercise] as a more effective way to improve performance of executive function.” [2]

On an acute level, “high-intensity aerobic exercise leads to metabolic, circulatory and neurohormonal changes at the level of the brain.” [8] These changes can lead, beyond optimal arousal levels, to a “temporary reduction in cognitive performance.”

In other words, the brain is overloaded by the demands being placed on it. It is trying to do too many things at once: Buffer the accumulation of hydrogen ions and ensuing acidity, divert energy stores to and from other functions, counteract CNS (central nervous system) fatigue and more.

The good news: This may be trainable

Ten- and 20-second high-intensity fan bike intervals are a good way to ramp up lactate and hydrogen ion accumulation. Then you can challenge your brain by performing a mental strategy test such as speed chess, speed Connect 4 or memorizing faces, license plates or lock combinations immediately after each interval.

You can also test your ability to focus through menial task training including buttoning your shirt cuff, threading a needle, building a card house and more. We’ve seen officers work up to 20 maximal 10-second sprints in an hour or 10 maximal 20-second sprints in just under an hour.

The adaptable and variable nature of this type of interval training better prepares officers for the unpredictable nature of their profession. They can develop the ability to quickly adjust their physical and mental response to changing scenarios and make split-second decisions under pressure.

Close up of an unrecognizable man doing cardio training on stationary air bike machine with fan at the gym. High quality photo

Ten- and 20-second high-intensity fan bike intervals are a good way to ramp up lactate and hydrogen ion accumulation.

herraez/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rethinking aerobic training with aerobic capacity

Instead of jogging long, slow distances, officers can utilize Chris Hinshaw’s aerobic capacity model for interval training. This replicates the high-intensity situations police may encounter on the job, allowing them to develop the necessary speed, power and endurance required for effective law enforcement work.

We hired Hinshaw to teach us how to incorporate the aerobic capacity model into academy preparation, academy PT and in-service officer training. In our academy settings, we saw drops of up to two minutes in 1.5-mile run times and up to eight-second drops in 300-meter run times, in as little as 10 weeks. We also saw a significant decrease in lower extremity injury rates.

The kicker: The longest run was 1,000 meters.

We did, however, use a progressive model of varied distances, sets, reps, rest intervals, intensities, etc. An easy-to-follow example is the 10 sets of three-minute runs. After an extensive warmup that consisted of 20- and 50-meter mixed-intensity sprints and walking recoveries, recruits would run at a moderate pace for three minutes. They marked the first distance interval, rested one minute and ran the next interval, trying to make it back to the starting point. The goal was to complete all 10 sets while covering the same distance every set.

Hinshaw also taught us how to train for the 1.5-mile run evaluation, how to utilize all three energy systems (ATP-CP, glycolytic and aerobic) while performing the evaluation, effective stride-per-breath ratios and several other strategies.

Creating a chart with split times for age and gender is also a useful tactic. Here is an example:


30% female 1.5-mile run split times


30% male 1.5-mile run split times

Four benefits of rethinking aerobic training

While slow distance runs are good for cadence and team-building, rethinking excessive aerobic training and adopting HIIT and functional strength methods can benefit recruits and officers in several ways. The following advantages highlight the significance of this shift:

1. Enhanced job performance

According to a 2008 article from Police Chief, “A lack of fitness makes officers prone to on-duty injuries and illnesses, increases their exposure to liability, and engenders a loss of respect from the community based on their appearance.” [9]

Improved physical and mental conditioning directly translates to enhanced performance on duty. Officers who have superior fitness are better equipped to handle the demanding tasks they face in the field. A 2014 study found “regular exercisers are more resistant to the emotional effects of acute stress, which in turn may protect them against diseases related to chronic stress burden.” [10]

2. Reduced injury risk

Conventional aerobic training methods, such as long-distance running, often lead to overuse injuries that can hinder an officer’s ability to perform their duties. Studies have shown that officers who engage in functional training methods have a significantly lower incidence of running-related injuries.

Researchers out of Bond State University and Cal State Fullerton looked at the injury rates of 4,340 police academy recruits between 2012 and 2019. They found: [11]

  • The highest number of injuries occurred between weeks two and five, with the highest number occurring during the second week.
  • Recruits at this academy were more likely to experience musculoskeletal injuries to their lower limbs due to physical training or defensive tactics training.
  • A training program that focuses on long-distance running may be predisposing recruits of this population to a large amount of lower limb injuries through mechanisms such as program-induced cumulative overload, whereby the combination of physical training and occupational demands can lead to injury.

3. Improved overall health and resilience

The benefits of high-intensity interval and functional training methods extend beyond specific job-related skills. By engaging in varied and challenging exercises, officers can improve their lactic threshold, cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, body composition and resilience.

4. Increased motivation and engagement

Conventional aerobic training methods can often feel monotonous and uninspiring, leading to a lack of motivation and adherence. High-intensity interval and other functional training modalities offer a dynamic, engaging and challenging experience. Integrating problem-solving, teamwork and competition into the workouts can improve adherence, increase motivation and create a greater sense of camaraderie among recruits and officers.

Implementing a new approach

To successfully implement this type of training into law enforcement academies, it is crucial to follow certain strategies:

1. Collaborate with fitness specialists and coaches

Partnering with experts experienced in law enforcement fitness training is vital. The TSAC certification by the National Strength and Conditioning Association is a good place to start. [12] These specialists can design customized programs that address the specific needs and challenges officers face in the line of duty.

2. Tailor programs to meet the demands of the individual and profession

Daily flexible nonlinear periodization allows for fluctuations in daily and weekly training based on physical readiness and recovery. [13] By testing grip strength, vertical jump height/power or wearable technology physical readiness predictions, you can gauge if a recruit or officer has properly recovered prior to participating in an intense workout:

  • Green light: 90% of best or above in grip strength or vertical jump; 90 and above physical readiness score on wearable technology.
  • Yellow light: 80%–89% of best in grip strength or vertical jump; 80–89 physical readiness score on wearable technology. The check engine light is on.
  • Red light: 79% and below of best grip strength or vertical jump; 79 or below physical readiness score on wearable technology.

3. Offer ongoing support and education

It’s essential to provide officers and instructors with continuous support, education and resources related to physical training. Regular workshops, seminars and access to up-to-date research can keep everyone engaged, knowledgeable and motivated to follow the new training approach.

A new era in academy training?

Transforming the way we train in law enforcement academies is no easy task.

By leaving behind the monotonous long-distance endurance training and delving into methods like aerobic capacity and other HIIT and functional methods, you’re unlocking a world of transformative possibilities. Imagine your recruits, not only with cardiovascular endurance, but with finely tuned agility, explosive power, quick decision-making skills and the ability to adapt to any situation.

Picture building teams of exceptional officers who have the stamina, speed, strength and critical decision-making ability to perform at their peak in high-pressure scenarios.

By embracing a reimagined approach to aerobic training, you can empower your recruits to reach new heights, surpassing the limitations of conventional methods.

Let’s give our recruits the training they deserve and make our communities safer and stronger.

1. Zwingmann L, Zedler M, Kurzner S, et al. (2021.) How fit are special operations police officers? A comparison with elite athletes from Olympic disciplines. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.

2. Mekari S, Earle M, Martins R, et al. (2020.) Effect of high intensity interval training compared to continuous training on cognitive performance in young healthy adults: A pilot study. Brain Sciences.

3. Bumgardner W. (August 2022.) How to calculate stride length by height.

4. Hackney AC, Agon E. (2018.) Chronic low testosterone levels in endurance trained men: The exercise – hypogonadal male condition. Journal of Biochemistry and Physiology.

5. Wheeler GD, Singh M, Pierce WD, et al. (February 1991.) Endurance training decreases serum testosterone levels in men without change in luteinizing hormone pulsatile release. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

6. Hackney AC, Sinning WE, Bruot BC. (February 1988.) Reproductive hormonal profiles of endurance-trained and untrained males. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

7. Timon Andrada R, Maynar Marino M, Munoz Marin D, et al. (January 2007.) Variations in urine excretion of steroid hormones after an acute session and after a 4-week programme of strength training. European Journal of Applied Physiology.

8. Jimenez-Maldonado A, Renteria I, Garcia-Suarez PC, et al. (November 2018.) The impact of high-intensity interval training on brain derived neurotrophic factor in brain: A mini-review. Frontiers in Neuroscience.

9. Quigley A. (2008.) Fit for duty? The need for physical fitness programs for law enforcement officers. Police Chief.

10. Childs E, de Wit H. (May 2014.) Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Physiology.

11. Maupin DJ, Canetti EFD, Schram B, et al. (July 2022.) Profiling the injuries of law enforcement recruits during academy training: a retrospective cohort study. BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation.

12. National Strength and Conditioning Association. (n.d.). Become a tactical strength and conditioning facilitator [TSAC-F].

13. Fleck SJ. (September 2011.) Non-linear periodization for general fitness & athletes. Journal of Human Kinetics.

Jason Shea is a subject matter expert who coordinates health and wellness training and certifications, including curriculum and course development.