Lactate Threshold: What It Is And How Do You Leverage It In Training?

A watch and a heart rate monitor make it easier to train using your lactate threshold. Photo:

When you break it down, it’s not as complicated as it first seems.

The concept of lactate-threshold training sounds complicated, but if you want to make improvements as a runner, then it’s worth learning about this important zone and how to successfully train in it.

Competitor recently sat down with Team Running USA head coach Dennis Barker to hear his thoughts on the subject. Since 2001, he’s been at the helm at Team Running USA Minnesota, a Twin Cities-based training group that has produced over 20 national champions and one Olympian since its founding. Barker argues that being able to run for longer periods of time at or near lactate threshold in training was a factor in the success of Carrie Tollefson, who competed in the 2004 Olympics.

What exactly is lactate threshold?
It’s just a line between aerobic and anaerobic running. You’re aerobic right now, because you’re taking in enough oxygen to meet the demands of what you are doing. But you’re not getting training effectiveness as it applies to being a better distance runner. For most runners, the aerobic zone doesn’t begin until around 120 [heart] beats per minute. That’s the beginning of your aerobic training zone. The end of your pure aerobic training zone would be your lactate threshold.

There are some additional aerobic benefits beyond that. I think this has to do with heartbeat. It can get a little bit dicey, because of the differences with different heartbeats for different people, but if someone’s maximum heart beat is 200 beats per minute, then their lactate threshold would be around 180 beats per minute, so that means your pure aerobic training zone would be around 120 beats per minute to 180. You can get aerobic fitness at 120, but that is more low-quality training. Your recovery runs would be in this area — around 120 to 130 beats per minute, and that’s the conversational pace where you can talk comfortably during the run.

High-quality aerobic training is about efficiency, which will make you a better runner. So you should be training right at your threshold or slightly below that. This means your threshold workouts need to be right at 180 beats per minute or slightly below that.

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Since this is so tied to heart rate, does that mean you have your athletes wearing a monitor during their workouts?
Yes. We use them quite a bit — mostly because like I said earlier, there are individual differences with heart rate. Some people might naturally have higher heartbeats, and some lower. Not everyone’s lactate threshold is the same. You kind of get to know people’s differences. The example I used is pretty close — at least in trained individuals. If someone is just beginning then their threshold will be lower than that. But lactate threshold is a pace that someone can keep for several miles and doesn’t feel like they are going all out.

What kind of pace should people use as a rule of thumb for these workouts?
I’d say something like a 10-mile pace. So, for a lot of people, it feels really easy. They are used to doing intervals hard. To give you an example, we trained Carrie Tollefson. She made the Olympic team in the 1500m. When she first started doing lactate-threshold intervals, she thought they were pretty easy and wasn’t getting anything beneficial out of them. The benefit of doing lactate threshold workouts is that you get better conditioned so you can do more work. You can recover better, so that your more-intense workouts end up being even better, and that’s what eventually made her better.

What’s a good specific lactate threshold workout to try out? Should folks do longer intervals?
When we have people who are just starting out after a break from running, like at the beginning of a season, we’ll do some easy running and then lactate-threshold workouts. I’ll have them do intervals with short rest. As I said, they kind of feel really easy, and so the short rest keeps the heart rate from dropping very much, but at the same time, for example, the pace would be anything that a runner could do from 8 miles to maybe a half marathon.

The lower end, the 8-mile range, would be someone who’s maybe not trained as well. A more-highly trained athlete can hold that pace for up to the half marathon. The goal with these workouts is to eventually get to the point where you can run that pace for a long time, but at the beginning you can’t run that pace, so I start out with intervals, like 1200s. We’ll do 1200s at lactate threshold with one-minute rest. If you can’t recover in one minute, then you’ve definitely gone too fast. The intervals are still aerobic, but high-quality aerobic. So we’ll start and do maybe a few weeks of those. We will gradually build up the volume of those.

We’ll start with maybe 4 x 1200m at 180 beats per minute with one-minute rest. We’ll get up to 8 x 1200m at 1800 beats per minute with one-minute [rest]. Once you get to that point, you are able to add additional things. Like I said, the goal is to lengthen the amount of time that you are doing that pace. So then we will start longer intervals — like 10 minutes. We will do something like 3 x 10 minutes and keep the rest short with a minute or two. Eventually, I’ll have them get up to 15 minutes or 20 minutes — maybe two times that or three times that, depending on what someone is training for — whether it’s a 10K or a marathon. Then, we will also add some straight runs like 8 miles or 10 miles at threshold. At the beginning, it’s hard to do that straight run. The other thing is that when you are doing the intervals, it allows you to recover a little bit better, like if you go out and get an 8-mile threshold run, you are going to need more recovery, but a lot of times, when you break it up into shorter intervals like 1200s, then you don’t feel too bad the next day and you can come back with a big aerobic effort as well.

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Do you find that as a coach you have to hold your athletes back on these lactate-threshold workouts? Do they typically go out too fast on these?
Yes, definitely — especially if they haven’t done this kind of thing before. I find that a lot of college athletes are this way. I had Carrie Tollefson and Katie McGregor. They had been competitors. Katie went to Villanova and Katie went to Michigan. Suddenly, these former competitors in college were now training together. I had them doing one of these threshold workouts and they just went out hard. We were going to do 6 x 1200. After three of them, they were just running way too fast. I told them to stop, because they were way anaerobic. I waited a couple days and I came back to them. I said, “Listen, you guys just need to relax and run these at the right pace. Eventually, they got that and were able to do more of those. I find that just about every athlete goes to hard at the beginning.

How do you do these without a heart rate monitor?
If one of my athletes doesn’t have one, I’ll have them stop … that’s the good thing about doing intervals like 1200s: if you are going for a straight run, you don’t want to stop and take your heart rate. It’s kind of hard to do that. You’re in trouble before you even know it. The workout can go south very quick. With intervals, you can take a six-second-pulse check and add a zero, so if it’s 18, then your pulse is around 180, which is about where you need to be.

It’s good to monitor that way, because if you go through in your first effort a little big higher than you were supposed to be, then you can relax on your next interval and be able to continue the workout as opposed to a straight run. We like to do these intervals on the grass. You certainly can do them on the track. The feeling of lactate threshold is where your breathing is not too elevated. Your heart rate is up, but you’re not feeling the lactate build up in your upper chest and arms.

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