Understanding lactate threshold and how it impacts runners
Running can be as simple or as complex as you make it. Some runners are content with completing a few miles every other day. Other runners like to take a deep dive into their data and analytics. They want to understand their bodies and improve their performance. One frequently used term in the running community is “lactic acid.” But what exactly is that and how does it impact you? Ascension Seton Sports Performance’s Dr. Jakob Allen explains lactate threshold and how it impacts runners. To get tested, email Dr. Allen at Jakob.firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to schedule your appointment. Their goal is to help you become a better runner!
Lactate threshold explained
The burning, aching sensation that accompanies intense efforts is all too familiar to athletes. This feeling can also occur when runners begin to increase their mileage and running pace. Most athletes have probably heard the terms lactic acid or lactate threshold thrown around by coaches. What do these terms actually mean? Lactate was originally believed to only be produced when the body lacks oxygen. It’s now known you produce lactate even at rest. Far from the cause of fatigue, lactate is shuttled around the body to areas where it is needed as a fuel source such as the heart, muscles, brain, and liver.
During high-intensity training, muscle contractions result in a build-up of metabolites and depletion of glycogen (the fuel inside muscles). This is when lactate is associated with fatigue. At rest and during low-intensity activity, lactate doesn’t build up in the muscles. It is shuttled to areas where it is needed faster than it is produced. Lactate threshold is the point at which the rate of production of lactate is greater than the rate of removal from the muscles. Athletes can only sustain exercise above this threshold for a limited amount of time before exhaustion. Pro tip: this is great information for boosting your mental toughness.
Why you should know about this
While lactate does not directly cause fatigue, it is still the best metric available for detecting when the body shifts away from mostly aerobic metabolism to rely more heavily on anaerobic metabolism. Anaerobic metabolism can only be sustained for a short period of time before fatigue occurs. Studies show that lactate threshold, or the point at which this transition occurs, is the best predictor of overall endurance performance abilities. If two athletes have the same VO2max, but one athlete can maintain a higher fraction of that VO2max without build up of metabolites (i.e. lactate, hydrogen ions), the athlete with the higher lactate threshold will always win. It’s an objective performance metric that gives invaluable information about your endurance abilities.
Dr. Allen recommends athletes measure their lactate threshold at the beginning of the training season to get a baseline. This can be used to establish training zones unique to their individual physiology, optimize performance, and avoid overtraining. Additionally, he recommends athletes come in for testing once every 3-4 months. This allows the team to monitor training progress and reestablish training zones. As the racing season approaches, the lactate threshold pace can be used to determine exact pacing strategies, no matter the distance. For example, marathoners usually set their race pace right around their lactate threshold. Measuring your lactate threshold gives you the ability to establish your race pace while knowing it’s truly what you’re capable of. Pro tip: learn how long it could take you to finish a marathon with this helpful pacing chart.
How the measurement is performed
Lactate threshold can be performed in a clinical setting or in the field depending on the athlete’s preference. Ascension Seton Sports Performance adheres to the most stringent COVID-19 policies. They are also happy to offer the service outdoors if athletes would prefer that. The test involves either running on a treadmill or outdoor track or cycling on a stationary ergometer. As you exercise at increasing intensities their team measures the changes in various physiological parameters. This includes changes in lactate as measured from a drop of blood from the finger or changes in expired gases collected from a mask over your mouth.
About Dr. Jakob Allen
Dr. Allen received his Doctoral training from the nationally ranked University of Texas at Austin. He was an 8x All-American collegiate swimmer at Stanford, American Record holder, NCAA and Pac-10 Champion, and 2x Olympic Trials qualifier. Dr. Allen is now an avid cyclist and triathlete, frequently placing in the top-5 overall amateurs in Central Texas triathlons. He is driven to bring about the greatest potential of all athletes whether you are a weekend warrior or an Olympian.
Dr. Allen currently serves as the Sports Scientist for the Austin Bold FC team in addition to his work in the clinic. He believes that exercise remains one of the best ways to improve every physiological system in the body throughout the lifespan. Whether it’s helping prevent changes in mental acuity or improving muscle function, the benefits of exercise continue to be supported by scientific studies. Dr. Allen specializes in designing exercise training programs for improving muscle and cardiovascular health for aging wellness and masters athlete performance.