Training Above Your Lactate Threshold

In the past scientists viewed maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) as the key component to success in prolonged exercise activities.  More recently though, scientists have reported that lactate threshold is actually a more consistent predictor of performance in endurance events like running, cycling and more.  As a runner your lactate threshold is crucial, so here’s exactly what you need to know to maximize your potential.

What is Lactate Threshold?

For those seeking the technical definition of lactate threshold, it’s the intensity of exercise at which there is an abrupt increase in blood lactate levels (Roberts & Robergs 1997).  Now let’s explain.

Lactate is a by-product of anaerobic metabolism that is produced across all kinds of exercise.  Most of the time there is a balance between the rate of lactate that is being produced and the amount of lactate that is absorbed.  At some point during exercise though, the removal of lactate can’t keep up with the speed at which it is building up.  This is called your lactate threshold, and once you’ve reached it your performance drops significantly.

This occurs because excessive blood lactate and hydrogen ion concentrations interfere with efficient muscle contractions in the body.  As a result, you power output drops and you’re forced to slow down.

How Do You Measure Your Lactate Threshold

Most people measure lactate thresholds in the lab, but there are DIY methods for finding your lactate threshold.  One of the best means for doing this is to follow the directions below:

  • Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes on a flat surface.
  • Time yourself for a 30 minute run at your maximum possible speed.
  • Measure your heart rate for the last 20 minutes of your run.  Your average heart rate during this 20 minute period will estimate your heart rate at your lactate threshold

How Does Your Own Lactate Threshold Rate?

  • Now that you’ve got your results you’re probably wondering what it all means.  Well trained athletes want to increase the percentage of their VO2max at which their lactate threshold occurs.  In other words, well trained athletes want to perform at near maximum for long periods of time.
  • People who aren’t fitness focused usually reach their lactate thresholds at about 60% of their VO2max.  Athletes who are moderately in shape reach their lactate threshold at 65-80% VO2max, and the most elite of the pack will perform at 85-95% VO2max.  As you get in better shape your percentage will rise, as will your ability to run harder for longer distances at a time.

How This All Applies to Training

As we’ve learned above, your lactate threshold represents the highest steady-state exercise intensity that an athlete can maintain for any prolonged period of time.  Determining optimal training routines to improve athletes’ lactate thresholds is still in its infancy, but scientists have come up with a few high volume, maximal steady-state, and interval workout designs that have the most significant effects on lactate threshold improvement.

Increase Volume

Initially, the best way to improve your lactate threshold is to increase your training volume.   If you’re running 20 miles per week, the best way to boost your lactate threshold per week is to gradually increase to 40 miles per week at a 10-20% increase each week.  One of the greatest benefits of this increase will be an increased capacity for mitochondrial respiration, something that is imperative to improvements of lactate threshold.

Tempo Runs

You can also participate in “maximal steady-state” training, otherwise known as tempo runs.  Experts recommend that once you have built a strong base for yourself running wise, you can start to spend 10% of your time on maximal steady-state exercise sessions.  Start working tempo runs into your routine and you’ll definitely see results.

Interval Training

Interval training performed above your lactate threshold can also help boost your lactate threshold significantly.  There are many ways to create interval training.  One of the best is to alternate four minutes of high intensity work with four minutes of low intensity, aerobic recoveries.  Just like in the case of tempo work, interval training should not take up more than 10% of your overall weekly training time.

You should also remember that when you’re scheduling your workouts, tempo and interval runs should be spaced out throughout the week as opposed to back to back.  This will help significantly when it comes to avoiding injury.

The Final Word

Whether you pay attention to the technical or just run for fast times and personal records, it’s important to remember the role that lactate threshold training has in your overall routine.  Spend 20% of your time overall on tempo and interval runs and you’ll see significant improvement as an endurance runner.