Increase Your Lactate Threshold

If you want to run faster, focus on increasing your lactate threshold. This “threshold” is sometimes also referred to as a person’s anaerobic threshold or the point where the lactic acid builds in the muscles due to the body’s inability to process it. Through proper training, we can delay the onset of this lactate build-up and extend our endurance and performance in the process.

When you exercise, your muscles produce a by-product called lactic acid. Under aerobic conditions (walking, light jogging, etc..), the muscles can store and burn this at a faster rate than it is produced. As the intensity level increases, so does the production of lactic acid. And when we reach our lactate threshold, the accumulation of lactic acid increases dramatically and can stop an athlete in their tracks (i.e. the infamous “wall” or “bonk” for marathon runners, or that lead legs feeling at the end of a sprint).

The reason for this increase is the body’s inability to keep up with the waste processing. For a typical sedentary person, they may reach their lactate threshold at a point that’s 60% of their VO2 Max. With training, we can improve that threshold to a point that’s closer to 65%-80% of our VO2 Max. It’s estimated that elite endurance athletes’ threshold is closer to 80-90% of their VO2 Max. What does this mean? By training our bodies to deal with the stress of speed workouts, our muscles can adapt and process more oxygen thereby lowering the lactic acid build-up.

Finding our lactate threshold pace is a key component to maximizing the effectiveness of our workouts. If we run too fast, our bodies will take a longer time to recover and we risk the chance of injury. If we run too slowly, we won’t provide the stress needed to prompt the physiological improvements that we desire (speed).

Many experts estimate our lactate threshold to be our approximate race pace for a 15k, but that’s hardly a common running event. Some other guides suggest that our threshold pace is approximately 10-15 seconds slower than our 10k PR pace. Some other guides equate this threshold to a range of 80-85% of our maximum heart rate (Max HR). If you wear a heart rate monitor while running, you could try to run your tempo runs and intervals at a pace that’s 80-85% of your Max HR if that’s consistent with your abilities and speed workout experience.

Below are 2 types of running workouts to help increase your lactate threshold. Try adding one of these workouts per week initially with the possibility of building up to 2 of these workouts per week at the peak of your training plan. The key to these running workouts is that you get sufficient rest in between. Rest is when you your body heals, rebuilds and grows stronger so that you may run faster. Also, many experts recommend that the mileage from these threshold workouts not exceed 10-15% of your total weekly workout mileage.

  • Intervals: To maximize the benefit for these threshold intervals, try running longer intervals (800m-1600m) and run them at a pace that’s brisk but not all out (see pacing discussion above). Galloway’s Book of Running recommends a pace for mile intervals that’s 20-30 seconds slower per mile than your marathon goal pace. Make sure that you have a proper recovery walk / jog in between intervals of 2-3 minutes, and build up the number of repetitions through your training program. For a marathon, I try to build up from 5 to 12 one-mile intervals over a period of 3-4 months.
  • Tempo Runs:Tempo runs are a nice way to get the feel for the increased pace of races over 10k. Start off by running a 1-2 mile warm-up and then increase your pace to your lactate threshold pace. Try to sustain this for at least 20 minutes. Conclude with a 1-2 mile cool-down jog. As you progress in your training, you can increase the length of the tempo portion for further training benefit.

Lactate threshold workouts can be very effective over the course of the speed-phase of your training. As with any speed work, be careful not to do too much too soon, as this added stress can lead to injury from over-training. If you add this element to your workouts and gradually increase the volume and intensity of your runs, you should experience faster running times. Good luck in your training...see you at the track!

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