• Mark Turnbull

What is Lactate Threshold?

Lactate threshold is probably the most used training term by coaches and athletes worldwide. However, there is wide controversy as of what lactate threshold really means as well as to what is the exercise intensity that elicits it. Lactate threshold is commonly known as the exercise intensity or blood lactate concentration where the athlete can only sustain a high intensity effort for a specific period of time. The problem is this is where the controversy begins: What is that period of time? What is that blood lactate concentration at? How long can we sustain that given exercise intensity for before we crack?

For years numerous authors and coaches have been trying to answer these questions. There are multiple theories and hypothesis among the scientific community and not a common consensus of what “lactate threshold” is.

The bottom line to understand what lactate threshold means is that as muscles get more metabolically stressed there is a higher lactate accumulation and H+. Mitochondria in contractile muscles become more stressed to clear lactate in a timely manner and at some point, if the exercise intensity continues, contractile muscle mitochondria become saturated and therefore cannot keep up with lactate clearance, then exporting it to the blood and this is when we see a rise in blood lactate levels which correspond to the metabolic event when it is not possible to maintain that given exercise intensity. In my opinion it is important to look at the lactate threshold concept from a different angle. In the first place unfortunately, many athletes and coaches don’t perform lactate testing so they can never find out about their lactate metabolism despite they still talk about lactate threshold training.

“Many athletes and coaches don’t perform lactate testing so they can never find out about their lactate metabolism despite they still talk about lactate threshold training.”

Furthermore, I tend to describe lactate threshold efforts to those high exercise intensities which can be sustained for relatively short periods of times without “blowing up” and this is where there is a lot of confusion. Where do we define that exercise intensity and period of time at the one we can sustain a high effort?. Is it 5, 10, 30 or 300 min? Is it at 3, 4 or 6 mmol/L of blood lactate concentration? Climbing a 5km Cat-1 climb during 25 minutes without getting dropped requires a specific “lactate threshold”/maximal steady state which could represent a blood lactate concentration of 4-6mmol/L and a specific individual power output (or fractional threshold power/FTP). This intensity however is different than climbing a 10km Cat-2 climb without getting dropped, which may take 40 minutes and therefore a different threshold/maximal steady state which could represent a blood lactate concentration of 3-5 mmol/L and a different FTP which at the same time is different than that threshold or maximal steady state of a 40km TT. Running a marathon at goal pace requires a very important effort at maintaining a maximal steady state which is actually a truly lactate threshold for the entire marathon which elicits a blood lactate concentration of ~2-2.5 mmol/L. This threshold is different and elicits a higher blood lactate concentration for a ½ marathon, a 10K or a 5K race. It seems that each endurance sport has different “lactate thresholds” which are key in order to perform successfully.

Evolving Lactate Threshold

All this seems too confusing and for this reason I believe that it is time to evolve the lactate threshold concept in a more pragmatic manner. We may need to consider different terminologies, for example a concept of a maximal metabolic stress that can be sustained for a given amount of time (“maximal metabolic steady state”/MMSS). Depending on the sport and event, there would be different MMSS which would represent the maximal metabolic stress that can be sustained for a specific distance and discipline like a marathon, 1500m, a 10k run, a 40km TT or a 5km Cat-1 climb. Then I can translate this MMSS to a blood lactate concentration to get our lactate threshold or to other different parameters like heart rate, power output (FTP) or running pace. This is not just a useful way to predict performance but also to track progress. Ioffer this testing service to athletes who use FTP or goal pace all the time. In conjunction with the INSCYD performance analysis software, we take into account, and connect to one another, the most important metrics for training purposes:

VO2max – maximum aerobic capacity

VLamax – maximum glycolytic (anaerobic) capacity

Anaerobic threshold and how it is composed

Accumulation of Lactate and how quick you can recover from it

Fat combustion rate and FatMax

Carbohydrate combustion during training & racing

Economy – how much energy you need at a given speed.

Each of the above metrics is measured by INSCYD and is critical for your performance. Remember: each sport performance is predictable and can be broken down into these fundamental elements. Get in touch today and book your consultation and test session.

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