Lactate Threshold Training for Athletes

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Lactate threshold (LT) training is a popular method of improving high-intensity endurance performance. While V02 Max may indicate an athlete's genetic potential and natural ability, their lactate threshold can be increased substantially with the right training program.

Athletes often use their lactate threshold to determine how to train and what sort of pace they can maintain during endurance sports. Because the lactate threshold can be increased greatly with training, many athletes and coaches have devised training plans to increase this value.​

What Is the Lactate Threshold?

The lactate threshold is a point during exhaustive, all-out exercise at which lactate builds up in the bloodstream faster than the body can remove it. Anaerobic metabolism produces energy for short, high-intensity bursts of activity (lasting no more than a few minutes) before the lactate build-up reaches a threshold where it can no longer be absorbed and, therefore, accumulates. This point is known as the lactate threshold.

Lactate threshold is the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the body. It is usually reached between 50% to 80% of an athlete's VO2 max

During moderate exercise, lactate can be absorbed quickly, but with high-intensity exercise, it is produced faster than the body can absorb it. This lactate threshold is marked by a slight drop in pH (from 7.4 to about 7.2) that is thought to cause fatigue and reduce the power of muscle contractions.

At this point, the athlete is forced to back off or slow down. Presumably, having a higher lactate threshold means an athlete can continue at a high-intensity effort with a longer time to exhaustion. Because of this, many consider LT a great way to predict athletic performance in high-intensity endurance sports.

Lactate Threshold Values

  • Average person: 60% of VO2 max
  • Recreational athlete: 65% to 80% of VO2 max
  • Elite endurance athlete: 85% to 95% of VO2 max

Measuring the Lactate Threshold

In the lab, lactate threshold tests are performed in a similar manner to VO2 Max testing, using either a treadmill or a stationary bike. The exercise intensity is increased in periods of about four to five minutes. Blood samples are taken with a finger stick at the end of each period. Along with blood lactate concentration, heart rate, power output, and VO2 are often measured.

This process continues until the blood lactate concentration increases significantly. There tends to be a fairly obvious spike in the data. Because lactate threshold occurs sooner than VO2 max is reached, it is often measured as a percentage of VO2 max. Athletes and coaches measure the power output (usually in watts/kg) at the lactate threshold in order to design training programs.

Estimating the Lactate Threshold

While not many people have access to a lab to measure their lactate threshold, there are tests that provide estimates. One simple method is a 30-minute time trial at a high, sustained pace. This test is suited to experienced athletes and should not be attempted by anyone who is not in top shape. The goal is to exercise for 30 minutes at the highest effort you can sustain and monitor your heart rate throughout the test.

30-Minute Test for Estimating Lactate Threshold

During this test, you'll complete a 30-minute time trial. You can run, cycle, swim, or do another endurance sport that you can sustain for that duration. You will need a heart rate monitor and a stopwatch or other method to time splits.

  1. Warm up for 15 minutes.
  2. Begin exercise and work up to your peak, sustained intensity within the first 10 minutes.
  3. Record your heart rate each minute for the next 20 minutes.
  4. Cool down.

Calculate your average heart rate over the 20-minute period. This figure is your estimated heart rate at your lactate threshold.

Increasing the Lactate Threshold

Debate continues regarding the science of the lactate threshold, whether there is such a point, and the value of trying to measure it at all. Although these questions have not been answered definitively, we do know that with training, athletes are able to tolerate higher intensity exercise for longer periods of time. To increase your lactate threshold, you need training and nutrition.

Proper Training

LT training means increasing your exercise intensity so you train at or just above your LT heart rate. This training can be interval training or steady-state training.

  • Interval LT training sample plan: Twice a week, perform three to five 10-minute high-effort intervals at 95% to 105% of your LT heart rate with three minutes of rest between intervals.
  • Continuous LT training sample plan: Twice a week, perform one 20- to 30-minute workout at high-intensity effort (95% to 105% of your LT heart rate).

Proper Nutrition

To boost your LT during training and racing, you need to make sure you can exercise at a high intensity without running out of glycogen stores. This requires careful nutritional planning in both the pre-exercise meal and post-exercise meals.

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Article Sources
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