Everyone wants to ride, run and swim faster.
Whilst natural ability still plays a huge role, lactate threshold is highly
trainable (as is Vo2Max). By training properly almost every individual can ramp up their
What is Lactate Threshold
(also known as anaerobic threshold)?
Lactate is a by-product of anaerobic metabolism
that, despite common misconception, is produced across all exercise
intensities. In fact, even when you stand up from sitting in a chair, lactate
acid is produced. The key in sport is the balance between the rate of lactate
production and lactate absorption.
During light and moderate-intensity exercise,
the blood concentration of lactate remains low. The body is able to absorb
lactate faster than the muscle cells are producing it. However, as exercise
intensity increases, there comes a point at which lactate removal fails to keep
up with the rate of lactate production. This point is referred to as the
lactate threshold and spells the beginning of the end of high intensity
Excessive blood lactate and hydrogen ion
concentrations combine to interfere with efficient and proper muscle
contraction, and as a result, power output drops, suffering increases and you
are forced to slow down.
threshold represents the highest steady-state exercising intensity an athlete
can maintain for prolonged periods of time (> 30 minutes).
Most coaches and sport scientists today
recognize lactate threshold, or a derivative thereof, as one of the strongest
predictors of endurance performance.
Lactate Threshold also serves as a very useful
measure for the determination of training zones and the overall effectiveness
of training programs.
How is Lactate Threshold
Lactate threshold tests typically are performed
on a treadmill or bicycle ergometer. After an adequate warm-up period, the test
starts at an exercise intensity corresponding to 50-60 percent of the test
subject's VO2MAX. Each stage lasts 2-6 minutes, allowing sufficient time for the
subject to achieve steady-state heart rate, VO2, and lactate production. Blood
samples taken towards the end of each stage determine blood lactate
concentration (a simple finger prick does the trick). The workload increases in
steps and the process is repeated until an obvious spike in lactate
concentration occurs. Heart rate, power output or speed, and/or VO2 are recorded
at each stage.
We measure blood lactate concentration in
millimoles (mM) of lactate per liter of blood (mmol/L). Lactate threshold
typically is expressed as a percentage of one's VO2MAX or maximal heart
rate. With the advent of power meters, various power outputs identify a riders
lactate threshold and training zones. By evaluating a rider's power output at
lactate threshold, we can determine the potential for success. To be competitive
in a race like the Tour de France, a male professional must be able to maintain
5-6 watts/kg at lactate threshold. This means if the rider weighs 68 kg (150
lbs) he must produce 350-400 watts while riding up even the toughest hills.
If you take two cyclists, one with a high VO2max but a moderate
lactate threshold, and the other with a moderate VO2max but a ridiculously high
lactate threshold. Being the same size and weight, the cyclist with the highest
lactate threshold would likely find himself victorious in a head to head race
up a monster hill.
It is possible to find your lactate threshold
without going to a laboratory. A majority of cyclists could care less what
their actual lactate threshold number is. What is important is how fast and
long can they ride at a given workload.
applied exercise physiologists believe that finding your lactate threshold in
the field is actually more applicable than finding it in the lab. What you can
do while on a ride is a pretty good indicator of what you'll be able to do on a
ride. Sounds so simple you may think that last sentence was a mistake. No
mistake, just simple common sense. There are a variety of techniques for
finding your lactate threshold on the road.
It seems that each coaching system or training
book has its own specific method. Although they vary a bit, most will give you
an effective idea of your lactate threshold. Some are more complicated than
others. For the sake of time and simplicity, one of the easiest techniques for
finding your lactate threshold in the field is to use the following approach,
using a heart rate monitor or power meter.
Finding Your Lactate
- Find a flat or
slightly uphill stretch of road (avoid undulations or hills)- you may also
use a trainer (but this is mentally tough).
- Warm up for at
least 10-15 minutes.
- Ride a
thirty-minute time trial with your best possible time.
- If using a heart
rate (HR) monitor, record the last twenty minutes of your ride. - Your
average heart rate over this period will estimate your HR at lactate
- If using a power
meter, record the last twenty minutes of your ride - Your average power
over this period will estimate your power output at lactate threshold.
How Does Your Lactate
To put things in perspective, untrained
individuals usually reach lactate threshold at about 60 percent of their VO2MAX.
Moderately trained athletes reach lactate
threshold at 65-80 percent VO2MAX.
Elite endurance athletes have a very high
lactate threshold relative to their VO2MAX. They are able to ride at 85-95
percent VO2MAX, and it is this ability that allows them to make a living riding
bikes, running or both.
Your numbers can change. Lactate threshold is
not as fixed as VO2max. Through proper training and commitment, an athlete can
increase the percentage of VO2max at which their lactate threshold occurs. What fantastic
news! Finally, something an individual can control. Through years of hard work
and training, a person can become an athlete who is able to perform at near
maximum for extended periods of time.
Factors that Affect the
Rate of Lactate Accumulation
There are numerous factors that change the rate
at which lactate is produced.
intensity. The harder you work, the more lactate your active muscles
- Diet. If you don't have good stores of glycogen, your high intensity training
will be short lived.
- Training status.
Proper training develops four primary mechanisms to slow the rate of
workload. A large muscle mass working at a moderate intensity will produce
less excess lactate than a small muscle mass working at a high intensity.
Certain cycling techniques will slow the overall accumulation of lactate
by using different muscles.
mitochondrial density allows for greater lactate resynthesis.
- Superior fatty
acid oxidation prevents lactate production at submaximal exercise
intensities. Your body will preferably burn fat over glycogen and this
will preserve your glycogen as a fuel source for continued exercise.
capillary density improves both oxygen delivery to and lactate removal
from the active muscles.
- Muscle fiber
type composition. Slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers produce less lactate
at a given workload than fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. Although
there is a big genetic component, proper training can influence the
proportion of slow vs. fast twitch muscle fibers.
What does it all mean?
We have said that lactate threshold is one of
the strongest predictors of endurance performance. So, if you increase your
lactate threshold, you will be able to swim/bike/run faster and put the hurt on
your friends and fellow competitors. To quote an analogy from a well known
endurance coach, "It's not only the size of your magic wand (VO2max), but how your wield it
(lactate threshold)." If you train properly, you can have dramatic
increases in you lactate threshold.
do we train properly to increase lactate threshold? Well, that's a whole other