Any runners in their forties and fifties probably recall being told by my coaches that the day after a hard race they needed to “go for a run to release the lactic acid.” Runners were led to believe that lactic acid was some kind of poison that needed to be worked out of the muscles in order to promote healing and recovery. Today we discuss lactate threshold training.
Lactate Myths: Busted Wide Open
First, let’s clear up everything you think you know about lactate.
X Lactate makes your muscles burn.
This is false. The truth is that lactate eases the burn.
X Lactate contributes to muscle soreness.
This is also false. Since challenging workouts cause lactate, and you get sore after challenging workouts, people often have the misconception that lactate contributes to muscle soreness. The soreness is actually a result of micro-tears and inflammation that result from the tough workout.
X You need to do something specific to remove lactate from your body.
You probably are not surprised to learn this is also false. Your body naturally removes lactate. You can’t speed up the process by foam rolling, running slowly, eating something special, or any other process.
What is Lactate Threshold Training
Lactate threshold training is an excellent way to improve performance. Since your lactate threshold can improve over time, many coaches (and athletes who are self-coached) work diligently to see improvements in this area.
You have reached lactate threshold when you are engaging in an all-out workout where you are building up lactate in the bloodstream faster than your body can remove it. Usually reached at somewhere between 50 and 80% of the athletes VO2 Max, the athlete will need to experiment to determine his or her own threshold.
If you are engaging in moderate exercise, the lactate can be absorbed quickly. However, with high-intensity activities, this is not the case. Once your body reaches this point, many athletes feel the need to pull back, slow down or decrease intensity. For this reason, athletes desire to increase their lactate threshold.
How To Calculate Your Lactate Threshold
If you are an elite athlete, you can learn your lactate threshold at an exercise physiology lab. There you will find exercise specialists who can do metabolic testing. For us mere mortals, that may not be an option. If you live near a university, it is worth investigating if they have a sports medicine department. Oftentimes you can get things like metabolic testing done at a greatly reduced rate if you are willing to work with a student.
Research shows that for most athletes, your lactate threshold happens somewhere between 82-92% of your maximum heart rate. For those who know their maximum heart rate, you can easily calculate the lactate threshold.
The most common way to determine maximum heart rate is to take 220 and subtract your age. Some people find this to be a flawed theory.
If you want to measure your maximum heart rate during exercise, try this. You will need a heart rate monitor, which many fitness trackers now have built right in.
- Warm-up for 10-15 minutes
- Begin running, planning to run a 5K at race pace
- Be certain to work up to your maximum “race pace” within the first 10 minutes
- Run at threshold (race pace) for at least 20 minutes
- Cool down
Look at your heart rate during that 20 minutes at race pace. If you were being honest with yourself and your workout, and this run is actually your best effort 5K, analyze the heart rate. Your heart rate during this “race” should be your threshold heart rate.
How Does Training Affect Lactate Threshold?
The idea is that if you increase your lactate threshold you can exercise at a higher level of intensity over a longer period of time, prior to reaching exhaustion. If you want to increase your lactate threshold, you have to learn to push through it.
What Happens When You Reach Your Lactate Threshold?
When you are building up lactate in your bloodstream faster than your body can clear it through, you have hit your lactate threshold. Even if you aren’t working with an exercise specialist to determine when you have hit that imaginary wall, you may know.
This is the point in your workout when the muscles in your body start to scream for mercy. Your muscles burn, your lungs scream stop and may even become so nauseous you swear you are about to vomit.
Can I Improve My Lactate Threshold?
You sure can. If you are trying to improve your lactate threshold through HIIT workouts, you are working at 80% of your maximum heart rate for 80% of the workout.
Some people might think they should work out for a higher percentage of the workout, or to shoot for a higher maximum heart rate, but that would be counter-productive.
Running Workouts to Improve Lactate Threshold
The first step to improving your lactate threshold may be to increase your overall mileage, depending on what your training looks like. While most people are doubtful that increasing mileage and not focusing on pace or speed during these runs will help you get faster, time on feet almost always translates to speed improvement.
If you have been happy to run along at a comfortable pace, you need to incorporate tempo runs into your workouts. In step one, you have increased mileage. Here, you are ensuring that you are adding quality miles to your week. Remember that you should be doing some running at a race pact to be sure you are taxing your body. That’s the purpose of tempo.
Lastly, you need to incorporate some shorter intervals at faster speeds. Here is where workouts like mile repeats come into play. If you are training for a 10K race, for example, you might try one of these workouts:
- 1-2 mile warm-up
- 4 x 1600 at 10K pace with 2:00 easy jog in between
- 5-10 minute cool down
- 1-2 mile easy warm-up
- 3 x 2000 meters at 10K pace with 3:00 easy jog between
- 5-10 minute cool down
If you’re training to go faster, you want to do an LT training run on fresh legs. If you’re trying to get faster and improve endurance, you may wish to imbed your LT portion into a longer run. For example, if running for 90 minutes, imbed 20 minutes at threshold in the middle of the run.
Is Lactate Threshold Better Than VO2 Max?
VO2 max is the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to your muscles each minute during a workout. Since aerobic activity improves VO2 Max, it is a great measure of physical fitness. It does not, however, measure performance. Think about it: we have all met someone who is an aerobic beast and can run for hours and hours…. at a turtle’s pace.
On the other hand, if you have a high lactate threshold, your body can handle higher effort over a longer period of time. This translates to performance.
Which type of training is better? Honestly, that depends upon your goals. If you are training for a trail ultramarathon, you may find VO2 max training better suits your needs. In a trail ultra, you need to be able to move for an extended period of time over rough terrain.
If, however, you are racing a 10k, you will probably benefit more from lactate threshold training.
As with anything, you need to focus on your end game in order to figure out the best plan to arrive at your destination.