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Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Over the past few years there has been a lot of hype around “lactate threshold”’ training. Running training styles (not unlike running shoe styles) go through trends. Rather than these trends being backed up by solid exercise science, they are often based on how the best athletes in the world are training. Is the lactate threshold training fad any different? As the Norwegian track superstar, Jakob Ingerbritsen, continues to run blazing times on the track, the buzz about his lactate threshold style training has amplified. Let’s take a dive into lactate threshold training. What does scientific research actually tell us, and how can you benefit from the training structure being implemented by the world’s top athletes?

What is Lactate Threshold?

Let’s start with a definition.

Lactate threshold is defined as the level after which waste products (lactate) begin to accumulate at an unsustainable rate, faster than your body is able to clear them out of your tissue. As a result, your muscle function starts to decline, and you feel a significant increase in fatigue. Once you have surpassed this threshold, the speed you are running at is no longer sustainable, and your pace ultimately slows.

Why Should I Train at Lactate Threshold?

Unlike some training trends, the efficacy of lactate threshold training is not merely anecdotal. There is some scientific data to back up the use of this training method.

Lactate threshold has been shown to be closely related to running performance. Here are some of the benefit of lactate guided threshold training:

  • Quicker recovery between sessions.

This type of training results in less central and peripheral fatigue compared to higher intensity interval training. In theory, the athlete can perform a greater amount of their weekly training volume as “quality” work since the post workout fatigue is reduced.

  • A larger portion of the muscles are getting worked.

Despite the lower training intensity than other types of workouts, working around the lactate threshold results in more motor units (parts of a muscle) turning on. This means mitochondria (you know it, those powerhouses of the cell!) multiply. As a result metabolic adaptations are being driven across more of the muscle tissue.

  • Training workloads can be measured more accurately.

There are many ways to calculate training load, or how much stress accumulates in your body as a result of training. It is important to keep tabs on this to ensure you are training at a sustainable level that is not putting you at risk of injury or burnout.

  • Externally, training load can be calculated via metric such as speed and volume (aka mileage)

  • Internal measurements include variables such as heart rate and blood lactate levels. Research has shown that these internal measurements tend to be more accurate than the more visible parameters runners are likely more familiar with.

  • Improved tolerance of blood lactate.

Lactate guided threshold training has been shown to result in a decrease in blood lactate levels at increased speeds, meaning this training, when properly implemented, directly drives improvement.

  • Improved running economy.

This training has been shown to drive improvement via boosting running efficiency. Thus, less oxygen is needed to sustain a given pace.

How to determine your Lactate Threshold

Now that you have been acquainted with the myriad of benefits, let’s get more specific.

If you were to walk onto a track where professional runners are performing lactate threshold intervals, you will likely see their coach pricking the athletes’ ear or finger with a handheld tool. During a workout, coaches can use a lactate analyzer to determine if their athlete is training in the right zone, or pushing themselves too far over the edge. Many of these athletes have undergone specific testing in a lab to determine their personalized lactate threshold.

However, fancy equipment and lab testing is not necessary for the everyday runner to get an estimation of their lactate threshold. One study methodically analyzed four different methods for determining lactate threshold, and found two methods to be most effective in measuring lactate threshold:

1. The 30 minute time trial.

Athletes can perform a 30 minute time trial, while monitoring their heart rate. Their average heart rate during the last 20 minutes of the effort is determined to be the target heart rate for lactate threshold work. This method corresponded well to higher tech testing.

2. The VDOT calculator.

The other method that corresponded well to lab testing was performing a 400 meter or 800 meter time trial. The time from the time trial was then plugged into the Jack Daniel’s VDOT formula to determine lactate threshold training pace.

In addition to monitoring your heart rate and pace after performing one of these time trial tests, rate of perceived exertion can also help guide your training. In trained endurance athletes, lactate threshold was usually represented by intensities between 75 and 90% of your max aerobic capacity. The effort should feel “somewhat hard”

What does a Lactate Guided Threshold Workout Look Like?

There is significant variation in how lactate threshold workouts are structured. Professional athletes may perform two lactate threshold workouts in a single day, and up to three to four sessions per week. Some opt for one high volume session instead. The common theme is that lactate threshold sessions consist of intervals at submaximal (lactate threshold) effort on a short rest, with higher volume than you would expect with a faster paced interval workout.

As a doctor of physical therapy, running coach, and high level track athlete, I am well versed in the ins and outs of training, and how it impacts our bodies. If you would like to learn more about training, are in need of physical therapy, or are interested in optimizing your running performance, feel free to contact me here.

McGehee JC, Tanner CJ, Houmard JA. A comparison of methods for estimating the lactate threshold. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):553-8. doi: 10.1519/15444.1. PMID: 16095403.

Slawinski J, Demarle A, Koralsztein JP, Billat V. Effect of supra-lactate threshold training on the relationship between mechanical stride descriptors and aerobic energy cost in trained runners. Arch Physiol Biochem. 2001 Apr;109(2):110-6. doi: 10.1076/apab. PMID: 11780771.

Støa EM, Helgerud J, Rønnestad BR, Hansen J, Ellefsen S, Støren Ø. Factors Influencing Running Velocity at Lactate Threshold in Male and Female Runners at Different Levels of Performance. Front Physiol. 2020 Nov 4;11:585267. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.585267. PMID: 33250778; PMCID: PMC7672120.

Faude, O., Kindermann, W. & Meyer, T. Lactate Threshold Concepts. Sports Med 39, 469–490 (2009).

Bakken M. The Norwegian model of lactate threshold training and lactate controlled approach to training. Published 2022. Accessed August 2023.

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