​Lactate Threshold

Following on from my previous blog I was recently approached by a coach who had been to a lecture on Lactate Threshold. He wanted to know how he could implement it into his 5km and 10km coaching. Lactate Threshold is a widely used term in running but there are differing opinions of what it means and what the exercise intensity is that reaches it. While there seem to be more and more studies on lactate and how it regulates the metabolism, we will stick more with its role in exercise. Lactate Threshold is reached just before lactate clearance is no longer able to keep up with production. Each person is unique in the period of time and the intensity of the exercise to reach lactate threshold, and the blood lactate concentration that results in it. Lactate is not just a product of anaerobic exercise but an important generator of glucose that fuels muscles. Oxygen is also an important ingredient in the energy producing equation. Faster and fitter athletes will always have lower blood lactate levels when doing the same work as lesser athletes. They will also have better oxygen carrying capacity.

The main reason of training is to increase your Lactate Threshold point and that includes long runs and speed work. That in turn helps you run faster. Although they were not aware of it at the time there have been many coaches in history who were increasing lactate tolerance through their training methods. Woldemar Gerschler, a German track coach, was probably the first that recognised the concept and introduced the idea of interval training during the 1930's through to the 1950s. He worked with cardiologist Dr. Herbert Reindel. While the actual physiological processes that take place in the body were not yet fully realised, both men believed that alternating faster work and slower rest intervals was the best way to develop endurance. The rest duration was governed by the individual heart rate of each athlete. When the effort level approached the maximum heart rate of 180 bpm the athlete was told to rest until their heart rate declined to 120 bpm. Then the next work interval began. This training structure was guided by an athlete's physiology, not by a regulated time. A typical training session for athletes trained by Gerschler were intervals such as 60 x 200m. Athletes such as 5000m World Record Holder, Gordon Pirie, would do such sessions twice a day, usually with an hour warm up and warm down.

In the 1960s and 70s James Counsilman was an American swim coach. His best swimmer was Mark Spitz who won 7 gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. Counsilman’s training involved repetition with two forms of training. The first was at race-pace with long rest periods. However, the other was swimming at a heart rate for 180 beats per minute for 3 minutes. Again, the rest period was until the heart rate had returned to 120 bpm. The difference between Counsilman and Gerschler was that Counsilman’s swimmers were holding their high heart rate for longer. Depending on your initial speed, it generally it takes 30-45 seconds to reach 180 bpm and therefore they were swimming for over 2 minutes at the higher rate. While the term Lactate Threshold was unknown by both Gerschler and Counsilman they were both probably pioneers in recognising the concept of increasing endurance by using heart rates. As their athletes improved, they were able to exercise at higher and higher levels of intensity while still keeping their heart rates at the same levels.

A typical training mistake of many athletes and coaches is to try and constantly train at Lactate Threshold. They do this to improve lactate clearance capacity. However, exercise lactate is mainly produced by glycolytic muscle fibres (fast twitch) while lactate is cleared mainly by the slow twitch fibres. These have a very high mitochondrial capacity. The main job of mitochondria is to take in oxygen and nutrients, break them down and turn them into energy. This means to improve lactate clearance capacity, you need to also train the slow twitch muscle fibres.

Unfortunately, most athletes and coaches do not have the equipment to perform a lactate test. Therefore, they will never find out about their lactate metabolism. With modern watch technology it is a little easier to calculate maximum heart rate but for those not so technically minded there are some simple training sessions which help utilise the concept.

Most athletes will have a 5km time. Add 1 minute to this time and divide by 5. This can be your approximated time to run 1km reps. You could start off with 5 reps with 60 seconds recovery and over 2-3 months build it up to 8 reps with a 45 second recovery. Further extension can be achieved by keeping the total distance at 8km but increasing the distance run to 1500m, 2km, 3km and so on until you are able to run 2x4km or later even 2x5km at the same pace. This sort of training does not even need a track, just a park or road. The whole session is aerobic and as well as teaching the body to utilise and clear lactate it is also training the heart. A stronger heart has better stroke volume which allows it to pump more blood. This in turn means more oxygen being carried and more work being able to be done at the cellular level. In other words, it is increasing your Lactate Threshold and will help you run faster.

In a lot of ways coaches such as Gerschler and Counsilman were pioneers. It is through such coaches that progress has been made in training. When such coaches are successful they get recognised and it is the exercise physiologists who then come along and make academic sense of it. They then give it a title such as Lactate Threshold.

Note: This blog also ties in with Do Magazine Schedules Work? The workouts described there could also be entitled Lactate Threshold.