If you want to understand what the threshold is and what causes it, read on. We will revisit these four cyclist later on this page.
You will also learn how to train the threshold in the direction you desire.
Lactate Threshold (LT) - this term has many definitions and people argue with each other as to what is the correct way to define it. The answer is that there is no one universally accepted definition. To make it simple, we will define the LT as the maximum steady state effort that can be maintained without lactate continually increasing. Others may use a different definition but we believe this one is best because it represents a physiological phenomenon that is important for endurance performance. Other definitions of the lactate threshold are addressed on this page and at other places on this web site.
If you just want to know what we consider the best definition of this concept then one can stop here. If you want to know what causes the lactate threshold and how to train it so that it gets better, then this site will answer these questions. To understand it all takes some time but we believe every coach and athlete will profit from this understanding. A proper understanding will make one's training more effective and efficient We first start by examining what leads to a good performance and why the lactate threshold is so important. Improving one's performance is what most are interested in.
Performance - Researchers have identified three factors that are highly correlated with performance in endurance sports. These are
- VO2 max or aerobic capacity
- Economy of Movement
- Lactate Threshold
The chart below depicts this model
Those who propose this model says that the Lactate Threshold is the most trainable of the three. We believe that all three are trainable to a certain extent and we actually find that most coaches pay more attention to aspects of economy of movement than anything else.
But is this model correct? Does it distort what is actually happening? Is it missing something important? We believe this model misrepresents what happens during training and competition and is missing a key factor that determines the effectiveness of training and how one performs during a race. Here is the conclusion of a extremely good study that hints at what is wrong with this model but does not actually identify it. It in fact ends up muddying the situation instead of clarifying it.
Coyle, E. F., et al. (1988). "Determinants of endurance in well-trained cyclists." Journal of Applied Physiology 64(6): 2622-2630.In conclusion, the present results indicate that individuals with a similar VO2 max can vary greatly in glycogen utilization and time to fatigue when cycling at the same work rate and percentage of V02 max.
These differences in performance ability during high-intensity submaximal cycling are highly related (r = 0.96; P c 0.001) to a combination of lactate production (i.e., %VO~ max at LT) and muscle capillary density (e.g., lactic acid removal). Muscle mitochondrial activity, which can be a primary determinant of lactate production, was not different in groups L and H, nor was their blood lactate responses when running uphill.
The factors associated with a high %VO2 rnax at LT when cycling and performance ability were years of cycling experience and percent type I muscle fibers. It appears that intense cycle training performed for -5 yr compared with 2-3 yr promotes continued neurological and/or muscular adaptations that reduce muscle glycogenolysis specifically when cycling.
Notice some things in the above conclusion. Cyclists with a similar VO2 max have different thresholds. But they also exhibit other differences, such as glycogen utilization and higher lactate production. It also said that certain fiber types reduce lactate/pyruvate production.
One group of these cyclists are not utilizing the aerobic energy that is available to them.
Key finding of this studyAn important finding of this study suggests that endurance during submaximal exercise is closely related to the factors that control muscle glycogenolysis* and blood lactate concentration.
A thought provoking comment from this study is
It is interesting to discuss the possible factors that contribute to the widely differing rates of glycogen utilization, lactate production, and exercise time to fatigue in these athletes when cycling.So what are these factors? That is what this webpage is about. It will affect how a coach assesses his athletes and how he plans training for the next training cycle.
There was some interest in metabolic causes by the researchers in this study but they missed a key potential source of the excess lactate produced by the cyclists.
*a technical term which essentially means the breakdown of glycogen to glucose which then breaks down to produce lactate.
The Three Factors - Just what are they
VO2 max - is the maximal oxygen transported from the environment to the muscles and used there to support physical activity. It is often called aerobic capacity. It is dependent upon the specific activity since the amount of oxygen that can be transported and utilized for one activity may be different than another. So an athlete's VO2 max will be different for running versus cycling.
The VO2 max referred to in the above model is the VO2 max of the day of the race. In practice over a season, measured VO2 max varies quite dramatically, and as just pointed out varies from sport to sport with the same athlete. It changes from time to time, due to training, racing, illness or inactivity. But a performance during a race will depend on what it is the day of the race.
Here is the conclusion of a famous study about the aerobic process.
Holloszy, J. O. and E. F. Coyle (1984). "Adaptations of skeletal muscle to endurance exercise and their metabolic consequences." Journal of Applied Physiology 56(4): 831-838.In conclusion, endurance exercise training induces a number of adaptations in skeletal muscle. Probably the most important of these is an increase in mitochondria with an increase in respiratory capacity. One consequence of the adaptations induced in muscle by endurance exercise is that the same work rate requires a smaller percentage of the muscles’ maximum respiratory capacity and therefore results in less disturbance in homeostasis. A second consequence is increased utilization of fat, with a proportional decrease in carbohydrate utilization, during submaximal exercise. These metabolic consequences of these adaptations of muscle to endurance training could play important roles in 1) the increase in endurance and 2) the ability to exercise at a higher percent of VO 2 max in the trained state, by slowing glycogen depletion and reducing lactate production (i.e., raising “lactate threshold”).
A research presentation at ACSM 2011 showed the variability of VO2 max during a season and from season to season with an elite 1500 m runner over a 2 year period.
VO2 max varied from a low of 4.8 l/min to a high of 5.6 l/min in a 18 month period which is a 16.7% improvement, hardly a trivial change. Within the first year, the change went from 4.8 l/min to 5.16 l/min. Using ml/kg/min the low was 70.5 ml/kg/min and the high was 79.6 ml/kg/min. Performance changed substantially as the runner's best time in the 1500 m race went from 3:38.9 to 3:32.4 min:s from the beginning of year 1 to the end of year 2 (3:32.94 was the winning time at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.)
So training to raise VO2 max is very rewarding. This study has several interesting aspects and will be referred to at other parts of this page and in other sections on this web site. As the athlete's VO2 max goes up or down the lactate threshold will do the same. In the above study, the velocity at the lactate threshold went from 16 km/hr to 18 km/hr over the two year period, a 12.5% improvement. These corresponded to increases in VO2 max. So improvements in VO2 max will also affect the threshold positively. This was later published in a journal. Here is the cite.
VO2 max varied from a low of 4.8 l/min to a high of 5.6 l/min in a 18 month period which is a 16.7% improvement, hardly a trivial change. Within the first year, the change went from 4.8 l/min to 5.16 l/min. Using ml/kg/min the low was 70.5 ml/kg/min and the high was 79.6 ml/kg/min. Performance changed substantially as the runner's best time in the 1500 m race went from 3:38.9 to 3:32.4 min:s from the beginning of year 1 to the end of year 2 (3:32.94 was the winning time at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.)Ingham, S. A., B. W. Fudge, et al. (2011). Training monitoring; training delivery; middle distance running. American College of Sports Medicine, Denver, CO.
So training to raise VO2 max is very rewarding. This study has several interesting aspects and will be referred to at other parts of this page and in other sections on this web site.
As the athlete's VO2 max goes up or down the lactate threshold will do the same. In the above study, the velocity at the lactate threshold went from 16 km/hr to 18 km/hr over the two year period, a 12.5% improvement. These corresponded to increases in VO2 max. So improvements in VO2 max will also affect the threshold positively.
This was later published in a journal. Here is the cite.Ingham, S. A., et al. (2012). "Training distribution, physiological profile, and performance for a male international 1500-m runner." International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 7(2): 193-195.
So these studies alone calls into question the original model. Improvement in one of the factors affects the other; thus they are not independent variables. In the model above, there was another factor that affected performance. It was called Economy.
Economy of Movement - This factor can represent a lot of things. One simple way to look at it is that athletes whose movement is more efficient or economical will accomplish the same objective with less energy. Some athletes just use a little less energy to do the exact same thing and this has more to do with anatomy and physiology than training. But extraneous movement, extra weight, materials that cause friction will also cause the athlete to use extra energy. Athletes spend a lot of time training to improve form or style and thereby improve Economy of Movement They will also use materials that lessen the energy expended to accomplish a specific effort.
Economy of Movement is actually a much more complex factor and parts of it are not well understood. While stroke mechanics in swimming, rowing motion, running motion/mechanics and cycling cadence, position and movement affect efficiency of movement, there appear to be other factors that are not well understood. Neurological recruitment of different types of muscle fibers and body type are also important. All the energy generated within the muscles does not end up contracting the muscles. Most ends up as heat and only about 18-22% gets used for the actual contraction. The average is about 20% so those who are able to get 22% have an advantage over those who get only 18%. A factor that explains some of this difference is the percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers. The higher the percentage of slow twitch fibers, the greater the efficiency of the muscles in converting metabolic energy into athletic motion.
In terms of economy or efficiency, athletes adjust their equipment to provide better economy. High-tech swimsuits, shaving of body hair in swimming, rigging in rowing, shoe types in running, frame design, clothing, helmet design and gearing ratios in cycling--all affect the energy expenditure for a given rate of speed or power. We met a runner recently who claims that running barefoot is more efficient. All of these will make an athlete faster without one iota of change in physiology. Athletes spend thousands of dollars on their bikes and some have more than one in order to get better efficiency in a particular race.
So it is possible to increase an athlete's lactate threshold by changing non-physiological parameters. For example, we recommend that recreational triathletes improve their swimming stroke first before they ever try to measure their threshold in swimming. And we know a coach of triathletes and distance runners who will carefully analyze the running motion of her athletes to make them more efficient. For one athlete she emphasized less vertical motion in order to improve the athlete's turnover and economy.
But the interesting thing is that changes in VO2 max and economy affect the lactate threshold and not the other way around. So the model above is wrong in that it shows three independent factors.
Lactate Threshold. What follows now are some reasons why the lactate threshold is important. For those interested there is a more detailed discussion of thresholds in general and how to train them on our thresholds page, and specifics for triathletes in our triathlon section.
But first two key facts.
First - there is an effort level called the maximal lactate steady state (MaxLass or MLSS) that an athlete can continue at for an extended period of time without having to slow down, can be as much as an hour or possibly longer. As long as the athlete maintains this effort level, his or her lactate level will remain constant. At small effort levels above this point the athlete's lactate level will rise, and he or she will be forced to stop, sometimes within a few minutes, sometimes a bit longer. Above this maximal lactate steady state there are no more steady states but an inevitable and frequently rapid progression to exhaustion. There is a threshold at which an athlete can maintain his or her effort for an extended time but above which there is a inevitable path to exhaustion. This effort level is also often called the lactate threshold, the anaerobic threshold or the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA). The chart below shows that for this runner, at a pace above 4.2 m/s the lactate is no longer in a steady state and the athlete is forced to stop after a period of time.
Second - the maximal lactate steady state or the lactate threshold is the best predictor of race performance. Generally the athlete with the MLSS at the higher effort level (speed or power) will be faster in an endurance event. Increases in the maximal lactate steady state are almost always accompanied by improvements in race performance for endurance events. Since lactate levels are the best indicator of potential race performance for endurance events, frequent lactate threshold testing (every 4-6 weeks) is the best way to find out whether the training program is working or not. For short events such as swimming and rowing the maximal lactate steady state is also highly correlated with performance but anaerobic capacity or the ability to produce lactate and speed become more important as the events get shorter.
While each of the terms (MaxLass, lactate threshold, anaerobic threshold, OBLA) is associated with this maximum steady state condition, they have other definitions and uses as well. We discuss these on the thresholds page. There is even a term called the aerobic threshold, which has appeared in the training literature. The large number of similar terms with different definitions has caused much confusion with both coaches and athletes.
Revised Model of Performance - As we have seen both VO2 max and economy affect the lactate threshold (LT) but the LT does not affect the two other variables. Thus, the model of performance presented above needs to be changed. Of the three original factors, the one that most affects endurance performance is the lactate threshold. Athletes and coaches may not think of it this way, but the purpose of most endurance training is to improve performance at the threshold.
A high percentage of the training of an athlete is trying to affect these two factors that drive the lactate threshold. Few question the value of trying to raise one's VO2 max and proper biomechanics is a major emphasis for nearly every training program. But we know of no one who will say that this is all there is to it.
Is There Another Factor?
So there is a problem. Economy and VO2 max do not explain the threshold completely. This has been long understood and most training literature will acknowledge this. But most never discuss just what else affects the threshold, only that the threshold affects performance. Thus, the model is missing an important part of the picture. The above model is a more accurate one than what was originally presented, since VO2 max and economy affect the threshold. But it is missing something. What is it?
What would cause the lactate threshold to change while economy and VO2 max remain the same? What would cause VO2 max and the lactate threshold to go in different directions, which happens sometimes? The answer is quite simple. Look no further than what produces lactate. If the problem occurs because lactate and other metabolites are rising, then what is causing lactate and these other metabolites to rise.
The answer is the anaerobic system, which is rarely considered in exercise physiology and sports training for endurance events. One reason the anaerobic system is rarely considered is because it is very difficult to measure. However, it can be assessed through lactate testing and sometimes by other means. But it is not as easily measured as VO2 max. The effect of the anaerobic system on the lactate threshold has been in the literature for over 25 years but has essentially been ignored.
Given the above model, it becomes essential for the endurance athlete to measure the lactate threshold periodically, but it also is important to assess all the variables that determine the threshold because if one wants to improve the threshold one has to train those parts of one's physiology that determine it.
A better model of what is happening is in the following chart. This is derived from the work of Alois Mader and Jan Olbrecht. It expands on the model in the previous chart. It also separates what is happening in the body from what the athlete actually encounters in a race. The following model is meant for endurance athletes only such as triathletes, road cyclists, marathoners or cross country skiers. A more general model that includes short events will be presented after the discussion of the endurance athlete. Essentially the same basic model applies to the Ironman who takes more than 8 hours to finish a race and the 50 m freestyler in swimming who takes about 20-25 seconds to finish the race.
Before discussing the model in detail, we want to emphasize a couple things. The left side of the model represents what happens within the muscles in terms of energy production. The green box in the middle represents all the factors both within and external to the athlete that translate this energy into effective motion (see discussion of economy above). The right side of model represents the output in the physical environment in terms of performance.
anaerobic capacity - like aerobic capacity it is the ability to generate energy but through the glycolytic system or the breakdown of glucose. We define it as the maximal or organic potential to produce pyruvate or lactate which is the output of the anaerobic glycolytic system. It is where lactate originates in the body.
First, the model isolates the energy produced from the actual activity. Activating a certain set of muscle fibers accesses two types of energy capacities in these muscles, which we indicate by the two boxes of the left. These two boxes represent capacity and not actual realized energy. At rest they are hardly stirred and produce the low energies needed to do things at low activity. But as energy demands increase, such as in a 100 m freestyle race or a marathon, both capacities are accessed and a lot more energy is produced. Depending upon the length of the race or workout, both anaerobic and aerobic energy will be generated but the proportion will be different. Each athlete's energy system as a result of training will be unique. He or she will have a specific aerobic power: the amount of aerobic energy that can be produced and sustained over the period of the event. This is much less than the capacity of the two systems, but is influenced by BOTH.
Notice, at this point we have not said anything about a sport or event. We are talking only energy production. But at some point the energy production must move the muscles at a specific rate and in a specific manner for a specific time in a specific physical environment. Thus we have inserted economy. Economy represents the conversion of the metabolic environment to the physical environment that the muscles are exposed to and how efficiently the energy produced is creating actual motion in the desired direction of the race or athletic event.
The body converts this metabolic energy to mechanical energy at a certain level of efficiency – this is vitally important. However, it’s not the only thing: the economy of movement also includes the actual physical movement of the body during the event and its interaction with the environment and this is also critical.
In a swimming race, there are many factors: stroke mechanics, body and head positions, the type of suit and cap, body density, body hair, temperature of the air and water, pool length, water turbulence, current, and wind. In other words, this aerobic power must interface with the outside physical world to come up with a race time.
Economy is an important factor in a swimming race as it is in any other race or athletic competition.
The lactate threshold test is a key measure that reflects both the effect of metabolic activity and economy of movement that results from interaction with the physical world. The lactate threshold (which represents applied aerobic power) is the single biggest driver of success in endurance events and the main thing you want to emphasize in training for distance events. This test measures aerobic power and through that, aerobic capacity.
Because the main thing driving performance for an endurance athlete is the lactate threshold, not only should it be measured but also what is actually determining the threshold should be measured too. Without these measures the coach or athlete is guessing as to what is happening.
But since anaerobic capacity also affects aerobic power and thus the lactate threshold, the threshold alone is an imperfect measure of aerobic capacity. Thus, a second test is needed for anaerobic capacity. This is the maximum test (shown on the next graphic). It also is affected by all the interactions with the outside world that apply to aerobic testing.
We will see that for shorter events, the maximum test (or applied anaerobic power) is even more important because it attempts to measure the speed that will be necessary to win short races, not just the effect it has on the lactate threshold. In endurance races the anaerobic capacity might make a difference if the race comes down to a sprint at the end but its real importance is in how it acts as a gatekeeper for the amount of aerobic energy that can be utilized. The athlete with the bigger anaerobic capacity will normally win that sprint. But otherwise it is the lactate threshold that wins the race and often a LOWER anaerobic capacity causes the lactate threshold to improve
The above model includes three factors not in the original model: Anaerobic Capacity, Aerobic Power, and something called "Other". "Other" is things like psychological training, hydration, electrolyte replacement, hyperthermia, nutrition, injury etc. Some of these are extremely important. Things such as wind and current in a distance swimming race, heat and hills in a cycling race or marathon affect things in a major way but this is included under the economy factor, as we are defining economy as everything that affects implementation of aerobic power.
Anaerobic Capacity - This is one of the two main factors underlying performance. It is difficult to measure, and that is probably why it is not part of many assessments of training efficiency. But it still has an effect and cannot safely be ignored.
Most coaches and sports scientists think that anaerobic capacity affects only short events. But there is substantial evidence that high anaerobic capacity can dramatically depress performance in endurance events. At various places on this site and on the Secrets of Lactate CD-ROM this mechanism is discussed in detail. Many have said that no one understands the lactate threshold (because it doesn’t always correlate with other measures of aerobic capacity such as VO2 max). Actually, once anaerobic capacity is taken into account, it all makes sense. There are research papers as early as 1986 that talk about the effect of too much anaerobic capacity, but this has largely been ignored in coaching practice and in academic research.
Let's look at the four cyclists from the top of the page.
General Model of Performance
For shorter events such as rowing, middle-distance running, swimming and other sports with events under 20 minutes but especially those under 8 minutes, energy from the anaerobic system is key to optimal performance. In short events, this is because the anaerobic system provides much more of the energy.
For long endurance events, anaerobic capacity affects performance in two ways besides producing a small amount of energy
- First, anaerobic capacity helps determine aerobic power and thus the lactate threshold, because it interacts with aerobic capacity. Briefly, the anaerobic system limits the body's use of the aerobic system by putting out more lactate and hydrogen ions than the aerobic system can absorb, inhibiting muscle contraction. We refer to this as the gate-keeping effect, which is discussed in detail on the CD-ROM and elsewhere in the triathlon site. If the anaerobic capacity is too high the athlete will be slowed down by the excess acidosis that accompanies lactate production. So for endurance events it is necessary to train the anaerobic capacity down. The lower it is the more the aerobic system can be utilized before acidosis occurs. But, it can’t be TOO low because you need some anaerobic capacity for speed....
- Second, because anaerobic capacity affects performance by determining the total amount of carbohydrates that are available for the aerobic system during competition. Carbohydrates metabolize faster than fats and unless the anaerobic system is generating enough carbohydrate fuel for the aerobic system, the aerobic system will have to use a higher percentage of fats which metabolize slower and force the athlete to slow down. Thus, if the anaerobic capacity is too low, less carbohydrate will be available for aerobic metabolism. In our first point it indicated that a lower anaerobic capacity would be desirable in order to raise aerobic power and the threshold and that is true but if it is too low it will cause the athlete to rely too much on fats and this will slow down the athlete. Supplementing the glucose/glycogen that is used during a race is why an athlete will consume glucose products as the race progresses so that he/she can utilize more of a faster metabolizing carbohydrate fuel instead of fats.
Understanding this model is the key to proper physiological training not only for an endurance athlete but for any athlete. Hockey players, swimmers, speed skaters, soccer players, track cyclists, kayakers, etc have to know the levels of these factors because performance in short events as well as team sports depend on their optimization. But for endurance athletes such as road cyclists, marathoners, triathletes, cross-country skiers, rowers and distance swimmers, optimizing their VO2 max, anaerobic capacity and lactate threshold is of prime importance and these athletes must emphasize each in their training.
For those events that are shorter, a more general model is appropriate. The model below includes a new variable called anaerobic power that affects performance in short events. The model is very similar except anaerobic power is added and the Max Test is a clear part of the assessment.
Anaerobic power becomes more important the shorter the event. For events less than a minute such as a 400 m foot race, some track cycling events and 100 m swimming events, it is of utmost importance. It becomes less important as the event gets longer so that 3000 m running, 2000 m rowing races, and swimming events over 200 m will be affected only in a minor way. For distance events it is of little consequence, which is why it is not part of the model for endurance performance.
Basically, anaerobic power is at what level one can utilize the anaerobic system to generate energy, and for how long. The anaerobic system generates energy at a much higher rate than the aerobic system and thus provides the speed to win shorter events. The problem is that the anaerobic system produces many metabolites, such as hydrogen ions, that can inhibit continued movement. So the athlete must be trained to utilize and withstand the effects of these negative metabolites. A high VO2 max is one of the best ways to do this. That is why athletes in short events must have high aerobic capacity as well, and much of their training is aerobic or endurance training. Swimmers who excel in 100 m events spend most of their training to raise their aerobic capacity or endurance ability and much less on developing the anaerobic system that provides the speed to win the race. The high aerobic capacity allows the sprinter to use the speed system (anaerobic system) longer and at higher levels, which increases anaerobic power. And that is what wins short races.
Here are the comments by two coaches describing this affect:
- The aerobic system acts like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the bad stuff that is produced by the anaerobic system. The stronger the vacuum cleaner the more anaerobic work can be done.
- The stronger the aerobic system is, the more anaerobic energy can be sustained over the course of a race. In a short race often decided by less than a second, this is the key between winning and not even being in the finals.
This has been a fairly long and somewhat elaborate discussion of the importance of the lactate threshold. The reader may not have expected this technical a discussion but it is important to embed the lactate threshold within those other factors that affect performance to show why it is so important.
Lactate Threshold Implications for Training
The above model indicates that there are two aspects of your basic energy metabolism that affect the lactate threshold, namely
- aerobic capacity and
- anaerobic capacity.
Thus, changes in either will affect the lactate threshold.
Importance of aerobic capacity - We make the comment at various places on this site that there is never enough aerobic capacity or VO2 max. We have not found any athletic situation where a lower VO2 max is an advantage. Thus, training to raise it is always an objective. We add this one very important caveat: sometimes training to raise VO2 max takes away from training that is more important for the athlete and some training to raise VO2 max can affect other aspects of optimal performance negatively. For example,
- First, most team sports require a high skill set appropriate for the specific sport. Most training should emphasize this skill set as well as team tactics and there may not be enough time to maximize VO2 max. Some individual racing sports also require extremely high skills and these skills are the priority in training. Two examples are down hill skiing and motocross racing. In all these situations VO2 max is important but it is not as important to maximize it as it was for the 1500 m runner referred to above.
- Second, some training to raise VO2 max to a maximum will cause changes in other aspects of training that are detrimental. Some of the methods to raise VO2 max will lower anaerobic capacity or quickness. In many team sports this would be detrimental so a less than maximum VO2 max is therefore acceptable to ensure the speed necessary or strength necessary for the sport is present as there is not enough time to maximize both. For example, ice hockey players need high aerobic capacity to extend their time on the ice at a high rate and to last long into the game at high levels. But there is no faster team sport than ice hockey and anything that sacrifices quickness and strength will be undesirable.
- Third, there are some short events where the level of aerobic capacity may have little effect or no effect on the outcome of a specific race. Some of these very short events are a 100 m and 200 m running events and 50 m freestyle swimming. Also many strength and dexterity events such as a high jump or pole vault are not dependent on aerobic capacity. However, a relatively high aerobic capacity will help the athlete repeat high level training with less stress on the body and as such a high aerobic capacity is extremely valuable in training as opposed to the actual competition.
Importance of anaerobic capacity - Anaerobic capacity does not act the same way as aerobic capacity and because it is difficult to measure, little is understood about its specific effects. Just how does anaerobic capacity from the above model affect an event. Here is part of the model
Let's take the 1500 m runner mentioned above as an example. His aerobic capacity was 79.6 ml/kg/min at max during the time period measured and his best time 3:32.4. How could he become faster? From the above model, he could raise his aerobic capacity and that would definitely make him faster but it is already pretty high so that might be difficult. Not shown in the above diagram is economy of motion and if he could improve that he would also become faster. And these are the two ways that most coaches emphasize for improving their athletes.
But there is a third way which might be fruitful. We do not know if the runner's anaerobic capacity is optimal for the 1500 m race. Suppose it was not and suppose it was too high. Then workouts that lowered the anaerobic capacity would make this runner faster at 1500 m. If the anaerobic capacity was too low, then workouts that raised the anaerobic capacity would make the runner faster at 1500 m. Notice we said it would make him faster at 1500 m. By changing the anaerobic capacity the runner would be less effective at other distances. If the anaerobic capacity was lowered, less speed would be available and the runner would be less effective at shorter distances. By raising the anaerobic capacity the runner would be less effective at longer distances. The two energy systems have to be balanced for the specific race. This is a topic that is not understood very well and there is little if anything about it in any training literature.
Two last comments on this here.
- First, any workout that raises or lowers one of the two capacities will affect the other. There is no magic workout but a series of carefully sequenced workouts that gradually raise the aerobic capacity to its max and adjusts the anaerobic capacity to the appropriate level. That is why any athlete will complete a variety of training sets, all with different effects and at different times in the training cycle. Hopefully, they are well designed. The above 1500 m runner's training must have been well designed since he is one of the best in the world.
- Second, for races that are run above threshold, most races up to 10 k in running, anaerobic power will be a consideration. That is how long and and what level can the anaerobic system be exploited and not force the athlete to slow too much. The shorter the race the more above threshold the race will be run, rowed, cycled, swum etc. and the greater the effect that anaerobic power will have on the final time. As we said above, for endurance events anaerobic power is not a factor except in some rare situations.
Lactate Threshold Training
Training to improve the maximal lactate steady state is often called lactate threshold training.
However, this is not training at the lactate threshold. It is important to understand this distinction. The LT is not recommended as a useful training speed. Why?
Because training at this specific effort level is usually not good for the endurance athlete. It is often a formula for over-training. These intensities are too stressful for most athletes, especially elite athletes. This may sound contradictory but the better the athlete the more dangerous is training near or above the threshold. If you do not understand that now, you should by the time you finish the rest of the sections on this site. There is an exception to this and we refer to this as suppresson training.
Training intensities can be based on the lactate threshold (for example often regenerative workouts for elite athletes are at a low percentage of the LT, such as 70% of the LT pace.) Training intensities for non elite athletes can be at a much higher percentage of the LT. This appears contradictory to most until they realize that these regenerative paces (70% of LT) for elite endurance athletes are at a much higher speed or power than 85-90% of the LT of a recreational athlete or 75-85% of a very good endurance athlete. The following chart shows the difference between various runners.
Training at high intensities is probably the most valuable training for improving endurance but should be very, very limited since an athlete can quickly over-train when exercising above the lactate threshold. Gifted endurance athletes do not feel much stress when training at or above the lactate threshold, but this can be deceiving. The stress they are putting on the aerobic system at these high intensities can break down their aerobic system too much and result in less aerobic capacity, not more.
So frequent training at the lactate threshold will most likely lower the lactate threshold and training at lower levels and significantly above it will often raise it.
The lactate threshold is best used to evaluate the results of a training program. It is the best marker to evaluate whether all those hours of training are paying off.
Again a very detailed discussion of thresholds, OBLA and the maximal lactate steady state is on our Thresholds page. There you will find definitions of the different types of thresholds, their history, how they are used for training and how you can train them for better performance.
We are going to contradict ourselves in a way. Anaerobic capacity can be quickly changed through certain types of training. One way to lower anaerobic capacity for an endurance event is to conduct a training session or two at the threshold. However, because of the stress of these workouts they should be surrounded by regeneration workouts to reduce the severity of the workouts on aerobic capcity. But be careful. Too much suppression will reduce the anaerobic capacity too much and will end up slowing the athlete down for a distance race.
Why Lactate is Unique
Lactate is the unique metabolic variable that indicates the capability of the muscles for an athletic performance. Lactate is an output of the anaerobic process and a fuel for the aerobic process. Blood lactate levels during different levels of exercise can measure the strength of each system. No other parameter provides this same information.
The ability of the muscles to reach a peak performance during an athletic event requires that the energy systems providing energy be "fine-tuned" or "balanced" properly so that the athlete can generate the highest amount of energy per unit of time during a race. Proper training is what accomplishes this fine-tuning or optimal balance of the aerobic and anaerobic systems and it is lactate testing that lets the coach know if the balance has been obtained or how each energy system must be trained in order to obtain the balance. To illustrate what is meant by balancing look at the following table:
What affects the running speed at a specific distance? Before you say VO2 max, consider that world class 400 m runners have VO2 max almost as high as marathoners. And top middle distance runners definitely have VO2 max as high as marathoners. What is the difference? Their energy systems are balanced completely differently, so that they will excel at a specific distance. Knowing what this balance is for each athlete is the secret to success in both sprints and distance events. This balance produces very different lactate curves. Knowing your curve will tell you what you can expect to do in a race, especially the one you have been preparing for with all that training.
The Steering Principle gets you to your goal, an optimum performance?
Coaching is a profession requiring both art and science. The building blocks for an optimal performance are many and must be constructed in a proper sequence and must recognize that each individual is different. Some of these building blocks are
- correct technique
- positive mental attitude and
- a proper diet.
However, the cornerstone for this building is precise physiological training. That is the main reason an athlete spends so much time in the water, on the bike, on the track or the road, in the weight room or wherever training is best conducted. Ask yourself, do you know if all those miles/hours of training are paying out?
But what is appropriate physiological training?
- It is not volume or else those who put in the most hours/miles would be the winners.
- It is not intensity or else those who pushed themselves the hardest would be the winners.
- It is not someone's favorite workout or else everyone would be copying the magic workout or training pace.
It turns out that each individual has his own way of adapting. Any smart training plan must recognize this by constantly adjusting the athlete's training based on his or her response to previous training. Has the training been effective? How do you know? That's what lactate testing tells you.
As we pointed out above the proper balance differs by event and by individual. This is a fact of life. Each has to find his or her own way to the proper balance of the energy systems and peak conditioning on the day that counts, race day. Each must measure progress, adjust the training program and then do the training. It is a constant evaluation of the athlete's conditioning followed by a readjustment of the training program. The athlete is gradually and systematically steered to an optimal performance. See our web page on the Steering Principle.
Steering to a optimum performance through constant testing
With proper protocols a portable lactate analyzer such as the Lactate Scout or Lactate Plus enables the coach to measure both the aerobic and anaerobic conditioning of each athlete. Information about both systems is necessary for the coach to optimize the conditioning of each athlete, whether he is a 50 meter freestyle swimmer (about 22 seconds plus per race) or she is an Ironman triathlete (over 8 hours per race for the world's best). With information on both energy systems, the coach can plan, control and monitor the training of athletes with a precision not available before. Lactate testing provides the important information that enables the coach to individualize the intensity of each athlete's workout and control his training so he reaches performance objectives. No over-training and no surprises come race day. For information on two accurate and fast portable lactate analyzers see the Lactate Scout and Lactate Plus sections on our web site.
How Does Lactate Testing do This?
- Provides a multi-dimensional profile of conditioning. Because lactate is produced by the anaerobic system and used by the aerobic system, it is the only marker available for measuring both systems. The amount of energy an athlete can produce per unit of time depends on the development of both systems, which is why they have to be balanced. (Essentially this means training the anaerobic system to a level that is appropriate for the athlete's aerobic capacity.) This balance will depend upon the event for which the athlete is competing and will also depend upon which part of the training cycle the athlete is in. The first part of the training cycle focuses on building as strong an aerobic system as possible. As the athlete gets close to the "big" event, the anaerobic system will have to be "fine tuned" for a peak performance. See the thresholds page for more detailed information.
- Shows adaptation in each system. Over time, changes in blood lactate levels tell the coach what physiological adaptation has taken place in each system. They tell the coach which forms of training are working (or not working). Training time becomes much more efficient as the athlete performs only workouts that work. Your analyzer becomes a training compass that steers each athlete in the right direction. It is much more relevant than heart rate monitoring which reflects a general overall body response to stress and doesn't necessarily reflect what is happening in the muscles or with the anaerobic system. It is much more versatile than VO2 testing which requires very expensive equipment and requires experts to administrate the test properly, and focuses solely on the aerobic system.
- Teaches coaches and athletes what is required for a peak performance. Lactate testing is also a learning and motivating experience for coaches and athletes as they become much more aware of the interactions of variables and the other nuances that affect workouts as well as performance. Since the emphasis will be on training energy systems and not the use of very broad training zones, coaches will understand what works best for each energy system and why, what may be counter-productive and when and in what sequence various types of training are appropriate.
The Best Information in the World on Lactate
Lactate Threshold Testing Information for the coach. The Secrets of Lactate CD-ROM was written for the coach and is anything but trivial. There are 16 tutorials on different aspects of lactate testing, metabolism, and interpretation with in-depth discussions in three sports (swimming, rowing and triathlon). In addition there are 8 extensive discussions on topics such as the lactate threshold and anaerobic threshold, heart rates and lactate, proper lactate test protocols and how to make your lactate testing consistent from test to test. There is an interactive module on exercise metabolism which animates how the body's energy systems respond to various races and training exercises. The CD-ROM is the most complete discussion of lactate testing in the world. If you click on the link above or the image below you will see a more detailed discussion that also provides links to sample slides in the tutorials.
Additional training information for the coach. Probably the two best books in the world for explaining the science of training are Jan Olbrecht's The Science of Winning (published October 2000 and reprinted in 2007) and Ernie Maglischo's Swimming Fastest (published January 2003). These are two scientists who have spent their lives with athletes as opposed to academia. Both have PhD's in exercise science but don't live in academic ivory towers. Jan has worked with top athletes in Europe such as world record holders Luc van Lierde Ironman triathlete) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (swimmer), while Ernie has coached several NCAA championship teams and swimmers. Jan helped train 45 medal winners at the Athens and Beijing Olympics. These two books are wonderfully clear and offer different perspectives from most on what it takes to maximize performance.
Another great book is the Physiological Tests for Elite Athletes written by the Australian Sports Commission. Here is a description of how the most successful sports program in the world is testing their athletes in 17 internationally recognized sports.