Water polo is a worldwide sport that requires its athletes to be in phenomenal shape to perform well. Any athlete that’s training for this sport must know what to focus on when structuring their workout regimen to find success. This begs the question, “Should the program focus on aerobic exercises or anaerobic exercises?”
Water polo is more aerobic than anaerobic. According to a recent study, 50-60% of a water polo player’s energy comes from aerobic pathways, whereas only 30-35% comes from anaerobic pathways (source). This is because players constantly tread water at a moderate intensity and use up oxygen as fuel.
All sports use a combination of aerobic and anaerobic pathways to supply energy to the players, but water polo primarily depends on aerobic pathways. It’s more than likely that you haven’t revisited the conceptual basis of aerobic pathways versus anaerobic pathways since high school science class. For this reason, we will briefly review these two terms and then discuss how they apply to the nature of water polo and its players.
Why Water Polo is Largely Considered an Aerobic Sport
You’ve read that water polo is an aerobic sport… but what does that mean exactly?
Brief Overview of Aerobic Exercise vs Anaerobic Exercise
The very first thing that you should know is that your body uses a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to generate energy for movement. We gather this energy currency through the food we eat. During exercise, your body pulls this ATP apart to create the energy to flex your muscles.
There are two ways to pull this ATP apart: aerobic pathways and anaerobic pathways. The key difference here is that aerobic pathways require oxygen, whereas anaerobic pathways do not.
Generally, aerobic pathways are used for low-to-moderate physical exercise when the body has sufficient time to gather and utilize oxygen to produce energy. A prime example of this would be long-distance running at a slow, steady pace.
On the other hand, Anaerobic pathways are used with quick and sudden bursts of high-intensity exercise, like sprinting at full speed, for instance.
Under these circumstances, the body doesn’t have enough time to rely on oxygen for energy production because it is at risk of depleting its ATP reserves.
Instead, the body must rely on a buffer, called creatine-phosphate (CP), so that you can perform the first few seconds of exercise without needing to breathe heavily (source). Once this creatine-phosphate is exhausted, however, then the body moves on to the aerobic pathways.
Now that we’ve established a fundamental basis for aerobic exercise versus anaerobic exercise, let’s move onto the reasons as to why water polo is largely considered to be an aerobic sport.
Players Must Tread Water the Entire Game
At a glance, it’s easy to believe that water polo is heavily anaerobic due to the fast-paced, up and down nature of the sport. However, these short bouts of intense physical activity pale in comparison to the amount of moderate-intensity treading that water polo players must put themselves through.
Every single water polo player that’s active in a game must tread water to keep themselves above the water’s surface. As soon as they stop treading, they leave themselves at the mercy of the water.
Surprisingly, water polo players must continue to tread water even when there’s a break in play. There’s no break for them because there’s no standing room in the water polo field of play. So if they want to stay active in the game, they have to breathe in oxygen and keep their legs churning.
Players tread water at a low-to-moderate intensity so that they can use oxygen effectively to fuel their bodies. If they opted to tread water at maximum intensity with anaerobic pathways, they wouldn’t last the duration of the water polo match. Instead, their energy would quickly fizzle out, and they would have to exit the game due to exhaustion.
It is typical for water polo players to use a type of swimming stroke called the eggbeater kick to conserve their energy. With this technique, the player continually rotates both legs in an alternating fashion. This way, players don’t have to waste any energy with unnecessary movement, which ultimately prevents their bodies from resorting to anaerobic pathways.
So whenever you see a water polo player staying in the same relative position or steadily moving to different areas in the pool, know that aerobic exercise is at play, not anaerobic exercise.
Even Though It’s a Water Sport, Players Still Rely On Air
The sport of water polo may be played in the water, but this doesn’t change the fact that all humans need oxygen for prolonged periods of exercise. The water may add a layer of complexity not found in land-based sports, like basketball or baseball, but this simple fact remains. Just because water polo athletes are immersed in water doesn’t mean this universal law changes.
Plus, it’s important to realize that water polo athletes don’t spend most of their time underwater. Since they’re treading water and maintaining a roughly vertical position, their heads lie above water the majority of the game.
This allows players to breathe easy, continually fueling their aerobic pathways with the oxygen it needs. Unlike competitive swimming, players don’t need to change their breathing patterns all that much.
Moreover, the ball spends the majority of its time above water as well. Thus, if players want to be actively involved in water polo play, they have to stay at the water’s surface to do so. This lends itself better to the reliance on oxygen for energy since water polo players’ breathing patterns are left uninterrupted for the most part.
In addition, it’s worth noting that water polo games last anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour in real-time. Games are broken down into multiple periods of five to nine minutes each. In other words, these games aren’t a 30-second sprint race where oxygen isn’t so much of a factor. Players need to rely on their aerobic pathways to make it through these long games, or they’ll end up too tired to continue.
Are There Any Anaerobic Elements to Water Polo?
While water polo predominantly revolves around treading water (an aerobic movement), that’s just to keep the player in the game. It’s similar to how the act of jogging around the court keeps a basketball player in the game. There’s no doubt that the acts of treading and jogging are critical to a player’s success, but they’re not the only maneuvers a player must use to find success.
Just like a basketball player needs to use quick bursts of speed and acceleration to score, a water polo player must rely upon their explosiveness to put points on the board.
Water polo is not a one-dimensional sport, like long-distance running or sprinting. Instead, players must use both aerobic and anaerobic elements in combination to function in this sport. Over periods of play, you can expect both of these elements to be used interchangeably depending on the game situation.
Examples of Aerobic & Anaerobic Movements in Water Polo
Now that we’ve established that water polo incorporates both aerobic and anaerobic elements, let’s take a closer look at some of the specific water polo maneuvers considered aerobic and anaerobic.
Aerobic Water Polo Movements
As we touched on earlier, the eggbeater kick is the most prevalent aerobic exercise in water polo. Since this physical activity is done at a moderate intensity for sustained periods of time, it exactly fits the criteria characteristic of aerobic exercises.
The eggbeater kick is such an integral piece to water polo that the sport would cease to be what it is without it. Not only do players rely on this technique to stay afloat and conserve energy, but they also use it to keep their hands free for performing basic water polo skills, like passing, shooting, and defending.
You can find additional information on the water polo fundamentals by clicking over to Basic Water Polo Skills: A Complete Beginner’s Guide.
Aside from the eggbeater kick, the heads-up freestyle stroke is also a prevalent aerobic activity in water polo. Players must use this aerobic maneuver to move around the pool at a steady pace.
Again, this is done at a relatively moderate intensity for longer time intervals as players transition back and forth between opposite ends of the pool.
Anaerobic Water Polo Movements
As far as anaerobic movements go, the boost or jump is one of the most important.
Essentially, this movement is based upon a player lifting themselves out of the water and into the air. Players typically jump to gain control of the ball, either for shooting or blocking. In addition to jumping vertically, players may also jump horizontally to catch or hit the ball.
Since these are quick movements that require an extra burst of energy, they are powered in the absence of oxygen, meaning that they are anaerobic movements.
Furthermore, other short stints of activity, such as brief swimming sprints, and outmuscling opponents for possession, are best suited for anaerobic pathways. There’s not enough time for the body to convert oxygen into energy with these movements, so creatine-phosphate must be relied upon instead through the anaerobic pathways.