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As an endurance athlete you need accurate physiological data to guide and monitor your training by. Lactate threshold is one of the most commonly, and effectively, used performance markers used by many athletes and coaches. The point is to learn the highest intensity at which you race and train before hitting the wall from high levels of blood lactate. Elite athletes and coaches know the key to success is to increase sustainable power on the bike and speed while running at lactate threshold. You may be asking what is lactate threshold? How do you test one’s lactate threshold? And most importantly, how does one train to increase their lactate threshold?


What is Lactate Threshold?
The energy required to move is supplied from the breakdown of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The body can only store about 85 grams of ATP and would use it up very quickly if our bodies did not have a few ways of resynthesizing it. There are three energy systems that produce energy: ATP-PC (short, explosive movements), glycolytic (intermittent hard intervals) and aerobic (endurance exercise). Athletes most commonly attribute the intense burning felt during exhaustive bouts of exercise to the accumulation of lactate in the blood which is produced by the higher level of exercise intensity.
When you demand energy faster than your aerobic energy system can produce it, your glycolytic energy system picks up the slack. Even though the glycolytic energy system is often characterized as “anaerobic”, it’s not that there’s no oxygen available, but rather that your aerobic system is going as fast as it can and you still need more energy. The glycolytic system is fast because it doesn’t use oxygen to burn carbohydrate, but it’s less efficient and produces less energy, per unit of fuel burned, than the aerobic system. Your body has to clear the lactate from the blood and working muscles and process it back to useable fuels, and lactate threshold is the point at which production outstrips the clearing process and higher levels of blood lactate start to accumulate in the muscles. Lactate threshold can be determined through lactate threshold testing, verified within your training program, and used to make you stronger and faster.
Why Lactate Threshold Matters
Your lactate threshold essentially defines the upper limit of your sustainable efforts in training and competition. Once you cross over and rely more heavily on your glycolytic system for energy, you’re exercising on borrowed time. The accumulation of blood lactate will hinder your muscles’ ability to contract, and you will be forced to slow down or stop. The more work you can do before reaching lactate threshold, the better. If the pace you can hold at your lactate threshold is higher than the pace your competitor can hold at his or her lactate threshold, you go faster, reach the finish first, and win.

Being able to do more work at lactate threshold also means maintaining a lighter pace is even easier. While your main rivals are burning energy fast, riding at their limits, you can stay right with them and rely primarily on your aerobic system. This saves valuable energy for hard efforts later, like the run leg of a triathlon, a long climb to the finish line, or a sprint.


Lactate Threshold Testing

Lactate threshold (LT) testing can be utilized to determine an appropriate training intensity and monitor progression in athletes of all levels. This test is similar to the VO2 max test, although consists of slightly longer periods of time between changes in workload. This test does involve several blood samples taken from the finger for the assessment of blood lactate. It is not considered a maximal test but does require a high intensity effort.
Lactate Threshold and Training
Gathering information about your body and lactate threshold doesn’t do you much good unless you incorporate it into your training. Working on improving pace or power at lactate threshold typically occurs after you’ve already laid down a strong foundation of aerobic work. For the summer-time competitor, this usually means performing lactate threshold work in the mid spring. Following several training blocks devoted to targeted interval workouts, you’ll progress to even harder, yet shorter, workouts as you approach your goal event.
Consistency is the key to improving performance at lactate threshold. You have to accumulate a lot of work at a steady workload to place the appropriate amount of stress or load on the system. Since you can’t spend a lot of time working above threshold, these training intervals have to be at an intensity just below your threshold.


Through training, the body learns to contract muscles repeatedly with force and quickness without too much buildup of blood lactate. If the muscles can increase workloads or stress while maintaining a faster pace at aerobic levels, you can spare muscle glycogen while at the same time decreasing the amount of blood lactate produced. When you have increased the work you can do before reaching lactate threshold, and the power you can produce when you’re there, you can move on to training that very specifically sharpens your event-oriented skills and begins the taper towards your goal event(s). During this training period, you generally keep a little intensity going in order to stay fresh and powerful, but you also need to make sure you have plenty of recovery to restore and replenish all of your energy systems.
You want to make the most of the time and energy you have available. You can wander through various books and pick up new ideas and try new trends, but the reality is that the fastest and safest way forward to peak performance and everything you what from your sport, is through methods proven through years of success. Lactate threshold testing is one such method, and it’s becoming more readily available to the public every day. Give it a try and put some precision into your training this season.

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