Understanding The Lactic Acid Threshold And The Role It Plays In Endurance Training

So, if you have found yourself on your daily run and you feel a burning sensation when you are about to reach the end of your run then you are not alone in this. That’s right, this is something that we will have all experienced at some point.

Understanding The Lactic Acid Threshold And The Role It Plays In Endurance Training

It is super annoying because if you did not feel this burn then you would surely be able to finish strong at the end of every run that you do.

This burning feeling is especially common amongst runners, and if you train in the correct way then this can be very avoidable. 

In fact, there are some modifications that you can make in your training that will end up giving this burning sensation an extended delay. These alterations will ensure that you can not only run faster, but that you can run for much longer distances.

The key to doing this involves your body and its production of lactic acid. For the most efficient running, you will need to ensure that you can train your lactate threshold.

If you are not sure where to start with any of this, then you have come to the right place. Read on for more information on how to fully understand the lactic acid threshold.

Lactic Acid

If you are wondering what exactly lactic acid is, then you have come to the right place. Lactic acid is a byproduct that is produced by our bodies as an extra source of energy. What does this mean?

Well, this means that when you are working out your muscles will need a substantial amount of energy, and your body will in turn use oxygen as its main source of energy.

This energy is known as aerobic energy. When workouts are especially intense, your body can’t always produce sufficient energy through just oxygen, and this is just where lactic acid comes in.

This might all sound really confusing and complex, and in all honesty, that is because this is really confusing and complex. Especially if this is the first time that you are reading this…

There is a lot of science behind lactic acid and how it is used for energy. This can be best illustrated through using a real-life example.

So, picture this: you have been out and running for quite an extended period of time. You have reached a point where you are coming up to the end of your aerobic capabilities.

Or, in other words you are coming to a point where your body has run out of the capacity to utilize oxygen as a form of energy.

To be able to catch up to the demands of any kind of intense exercise, then your body will work to produce lactate – also referred to as anaerobic energy.

By utilizing lactate as an energy source, the body does not need to use oxygen as part of the conversion process. However, it is especially easy for excessive lactate to collect in your bloodstream.

This is due to the fact that your body will often produce lactate more quickly than it can actually be used. 

Let’s talk about this excess lactate for a second. This excess lactate will make its own byproduct of hydrogen ions, and in turn these hydrogen ions will make your blood a lot more acidic.

This will make it a lot harder for your muscle fibers to contract effectively.

So, this in turn means that you are much more prone to muscle fatigue… that, and the very familiar burning pain that you feel when you run.

You are not alone in finding this extremely frustrating, especially when you put all this into perspective.

Your body was merely attempting to assist you, but sometimes your body tries too hard to assist you.

You will be pleased to know that you can do something about this, and rather than allowing your own body’s good intentions to become too overpowering, you can train your lactate threshold. This will help you prevent lactic acid build up.

Lactate Threshold

This is a term that we have included within our discussion of lactic acid, but you might not be completely certain as to what this is referring to. You will be pleased to know that lactate threshold is not as difficult to understand as it sounds. 

Your lactate threshold is the fastest speed that you can run which in turn permits your body to produce and then to remove lactate at a constant rate. This will keep your blood levels steady.

To be slightly more technical, this is an indicator of the moment where your body moves from using aerobic energy to anaerobic energy.

For instance, if you are running at a much lower intensity then you will be training under your lactate threshold due to the fact that your body can continue to utilize oxygen as its main energy source.

However, when your body reaches the point where it has to rely a lot more on lactate for its energy source, then you have begun to train a lot over your lactate threshold.

When you are resting then you will have very minimal lactic acid production, however when you then pick up the pace lactic acid levels will then build up.

As a runner, when you surpass a specific intensity then the lactic acid will spike to a level that is unmanageable.

The goal for you is to hit your lactate threshold and to be able to keep at that speed without tipping the scales in any kind of favor of excessive lactate production.

By doing this, your body will subsequently be able to train at much higher intensities for longer periods of time – and you will not feel the same level of burnout.

Intensity Over Pace

It is much more important to maintain the fact that your lactate threshold is impacted more by intensity, rather than by the pace at which you run.

For instance, an individual can run a 10-minute pace and feel good, but if they were to then attempt to stay at this same 10-minute pace over the duration of an uphill part of their course, then they would hit a stage of fatigue a lot sooner.

This is due to the fact that they are training at an intensity level that is much higher. 

Take the example of distance runners to expand on this. The majority of coaches along with exercise physiologists will understand the importance of the lactate acid threshold for distance runners.

In fact, the threshold is an important aspect of training for any race distance that is greater than 400m, and it becomes even more important over distances that are longer than this.

To be able to get to the ideal running speed for your body, then ultimately, your body will need to practice getting to this level of control.

If this is something that you are really struggling with, there are supplements that you can take that will increase your endurance and an elevated anaerobic threshold which will ultimately result in a much better training performance, and you will end up seeing much better results due to this. 

Training The Lactate Threshold System

You will be pleased to know that after all this, there are ways that you can train your body into being more biologically efficient.

This seems odd to take into consideration, but it will make more sense when you take into account the purpose of training the lactic threshold.

This purpose would be to maintain a reasonably controlled level of your lactic acid production. This will enable you to keep a much faster pace with no spikes in your blood lactate levels. 

Fairly obvious to state, but, the best way that you can improve the way that your body uses lactate is to train right at your lactate threshold.

This means that your training should be intense enough to boost your lactate level right before the stage where it starts to spike.

This might seem like an especially specific point to hit, and that is because it is pretty specific. However, there is a specific workout that was made specially to assist in training your lactate threshold. 

These workouts are not referred to as ‘lactate threshold workouts’. They are usually referred to as ‘tempos’ or they might even be called ‘tempo runs’.

This just means that these are runs that are shorter and a lot more moderate when pace is taken into account.

‘Tempo runs’ will ensure that you run fast enough so that you can use up the excess lactate at the same rate that your body produces it. This makes sure that the lactate does not collect excessively in your bloodstream. 

Tempo Training

Tempo Training

There is more than one type of tempo training that you can do. You can either do one continuous tempo, or you can split up the tempo into ‘cruise intervals’. So, a continuous tempo can contribute to increasing your confidence with your running.

Alternatively, ‘cruise intervals’ split up a long tempo which in turn permits you to complete much more volume.

To make noticeable improvements upon your threshold pace you need to make sure that you perform tempos at least once a week, and we have some tempo variations for you to consult here:

  • Beginner – you could take on a 2-mile continuous tempo, or you could take on three 1-mile tempos with 30 second jog breaks between each mile.
  • Recreational – you can take on a 3-5 mile continuous tempo, or you can take on four 1.5 mile tempos with 30 second jog breaks between each of the reps.
  • Advanced – you could take on a 5-10 mile continuous rep, or you could take on four 3-mile tempos with 30 second jog breaks between each of the reps.

Naturally, the type of tempos that you decide upon are up to you entirely. Both of the types of tempos come with their own benefits so this really is your choice.

If you are particularly keen to push your lactate threshold, then it would suit you much better to train with one long, continuous tempo without having a break.

However, if you are new to tempos then you would benefit much more from the tempo being broken up into smaller slices with some recovery time.

Also, if you are wanting to increase the volume of your running, then you can split up the tempo into more reps as this will ultimately result in a larger distance.

It is also important to remember that tempo workouts can all vary in intensity based on each individual runner. However, the workouts that we have suggested to you are a concrete foundation to begin with.

There might be one aspect that you are especially curious about, and that aspect would be how exactly these aspects are really helping you to train your lactate threshold. 

Testing Your Pace

You will be pleased to know that there are numerous ways that you can test whether or not you are running at lactate threshold pace.

The method that is the most accurate is to run on a treadmill, and to have a specialist poke you with a needle so to draw a bit of blood.

In turn, this blood sample can let the specialist see whether or not your blood lactate is spiking as a result of your running intensity. However, as far as methods go, this is the least accessible because we do not all have easy access to laboratories.

The Talking Test

So, a much less invasive test would be to try out a talking test. What exactly does this involve? Well, to be more precise we should really call this the ‘7 word talking test’.

While you are doing a tempo run, you need to try and speak 7 words without gasping for air.

This can be a phrase or just random words, maybe even a song lyric.

Whatever you decide to go with, if you find that you are struggling to finish the phrase or if you end up out of breath, then you are running much too fast for your lactate threshold pace.

Well, this would not be your lactate threshold pace. How do you know this? This is all due to the fact that your breathing and your blood lactate levels have a direct correlation.

If your breathing is increased or if your breathing is erratic then your tempo will be too intense for you. 

It is important to know that running faster than your tempo pace is a very different level of working out to what you should be to improve your lactate threshold.

If you were to keep working out at this level of intensity then it is safe to say that you would be struggling a lot by the time that you reach the end of your workout.

You need to listen to your body as a way to ensure that you are not pushing yourself too hard. This can ultimately lead to unwanted muscle strain and can even end up causing you pretty severe injuries.

When it comes to tempo training this is especially important, because tempo training will not be effective if you are pushing yourself too hard, and also if you are not pushing yourself enough.

That burning sensation will creep up on you a lot quicker than you would want it to.

Calculating Your Tempo Pace

Additionally, it is good to note that there are some ways that you can calculate your ideal tempo pace. This is something that you can do by using a tempo chart, or by using a tempo calculator.

You can use an online calculator through Runner’s World which gives you an online calculator that will help to identify your tempo pace for you.

You just need to input your most recent personal best time and running distance, and this will calculate what pace you should train at for your tempos. 

You could always attempt running for an hour time trial which will then give you your tempo pace.

This all depends on where you are at with your running though, if you are a more advanced runner then your 10k will also help you to work out your tempo pace.

When you get to the point where you have worked out your tempo pace then you will need to make sure that you keep up with the correct pace at the correct intensity.

Basically, if you make sure that within your tempos you have consistency then you will be able to move in the right direction when it comes to helping your body clear blood lactate.

Putting Tempos Into Your Workout

It can be difficult to give an exact point as to when you should start including tempos in your daily workout plans.

There are a combination of different circumstances that can have an effect on whether or not it is a good time for you to insert tempos into your workout routine.

It could be a good idea to discuss this with a running coach, because there is a lot more to this than just working out when to include tempos into your workout.

There is also the type of tempo workout that you should include, along with the pace that you run at, along with the distance that you run for.

You can help yourself by working out when you should include tempos in your workout routine – you can start by establishing what exactly your goal is i.e. what the distance that you want to accomplish is.

You also need to factor in how much of an experienced runner you are along with how far you currently run. If you have a particular race goal that you are working towards then this is important to think about too. 

Overall, understanding your body’s lactic threshold might seem challenging but in actual fact it can be really beneficial. This would apply to endurance athletes especially.

Here’s the thing, your body can respond to really intense and really physical activity, but it cannot determine how much additional energy it should generate for you.

Additionally, it cannot determine how long it should generate extra energy for you. This is why your boy will end up overworking itself until eventually fatigue creeps in. 

So, thanks to lactic threshold training you will be able to have a much better grip on how hard you can push yourself when you are working out.

And, you can do this without having to force your body into a complete state of burnout. Improving your lactic threshold will allow you to run at your best ability.

Matt Williams