This article should be read in
conjunction with its bigger brother, Lactate Testing & Training.
There are many contradictions and inconsistencies to the understanding
of lactate definition, production and flushing. Confusion
surrounds this subject like no other.
Please read this factsheet to
buy in to the concepts, then read the follow on factsheet for more
in-depth and factual based content. It's not to say that what is
here is wrong, it's just that this factsheet feeds certain stereotypes
and analogies that need further clarification if you are to get the best
from your training.
Lactate Threshold is a term used
to loosely describe the point at which it begins to hurt more than it
should. Think of it as the transition from comfortably hard to
hardly comfortable. Loads of people have loads of different interpretations of
what it is and what it should be called but for the sake of this
we will call it your Lactate Threshold and describe it as:
"the point at
which your lactate production overcomes
your body's ability to flush it away".
One of the commonly accepted scientific definitions is
when the measurement of lactate within the blood passes 4millimols/litre.
This is a very simple explanation for a very complex
process but it's the concept of what's happening that we need to
understand. So, imagine this two-part scenario:
As we ride our bike at a moderate pace, we breath moderately and in doing
so supply a moderate amount of oxygen to our muscles, which produce
moderate amounts of lactate. At the lower
end of cycling intensity we take in more oxygen than we really need.
This under utilized oxygen makes itself useful and
carries away the by-product of our muscle activity, commonly called
As we increase our pace our
muscle's demand for oxygen increases. Our breathing rate rises to
meet our body's demands and lactate acid production begins to escalate.
This is where our troubles start. As lactate acid increases and
the oxygen availability to carry it way decreases. There comes a time when
the oxygen flushing capacity is overwhelmed by lactate acid production and pools
begin to form within our muscles. This is often called our
It's been recognised that once
the blood concentration passes the 4millimol barrier many
physiological issues arise. There's no need to concern yourselves
with them too much, all you are worried about is the outcome.
Basically it's this; power and speed drop ~ hurt and suffering increase.
Where's my threshold?
The point in all of us
where lactate acid begins
to accumulate rapidly, to a point of debilitation happens
before we reach our theoretical aerobic ceiling or VO2max. It's at
what point of our VO2max this rapid accumulation starts, our lactate threshold, that determines how well we race. A graphic example of people
reaching their lactate thresholds can be seen on a hill of any race when the
hammer goes down. The one's that have hit it are the ones going
For less well trained athletes,
lactate threshold is around 60% of their VO2max. For the better
trained, it's around 65-80%; and for elite riders and the Pro Tour boys,
it's 85-90% of their incredibly high VO2max. So they have a double whammy
over us. Not only do they have a greater capacity, they can use more
of it before hitting their thresholds.
do I do with it?
If you knew exactly your onset point
of debilitation you could vary
your racing strategies and tactics to suit your strengths.
In a time trail you could
cruise just below your threshold and maintain the same power output or
heart rate for the
duration of your time trial. This is infinitely better than going over your threshold, dropping back when the legs give out
and then trying to go again when, or if, the
feeling came back. I really recommend you check out our
Time Trial Strategy factsheet for a better explanation of this
In a road race or criterium you
could attack and maintain a sustained charge right on your threshold
limit. If you didn't stay away at least you'd know you gave it
everything you safely could. And if you were caught you'd at least
have enough left to jump back on and go again later. Without the
knowledge of your threshold point; you attack, you wildly crash through
your lactate power threshold, you blow, you get caught, you get dropped.
You can change all this, and
vastly swing the odds in your favour, just by knowing your exact lactate threshold
power or heart rate point! All it takes is
a simple test.
Realising your potential
VO2max (blue line) is best
described as our ultimate aerobic potential. Our lactate balance
point (red line) is the physiological factor that defines how much of that
potential we are allowed to use. VO2max is genetic and plateaus
after a couple of seasons training. The one real inhibitor we can
all successfully train to expand is our lactate .
Once the base building phase of
the season is complete, finding the lactate threshold, working on it, and
improving it, should be the ultimate aim of every athlete. The blue
line is, to all intents and purposes, genetically fixed. The red
line can be driven up quite dramatically and quickly once you train at the
right intensity, duration and effectiveness.
Lactate acid is produced constantly by your body .
Even while you are sitting there reading this your body is producing
lactate acid; because we aren't exercising and have loads of oxygen
going spare we never even notice. But once we start exercising
production ramps up. By carrying out a
Lacate Performance Test we can
determine the individual power output, speed or heart rate at which point our
lactate threshold is reached.
Once we know where our lactate threshold is we can do something about
improving it. It isn't easy but then if it was easy everyone would
be doing it!
Developing your threshold
To develop your threshold you obviously have to exercise hard,
in the right training zone, for the right amount of time with the right
amount of recovery. You also need to fuel the engine.
Undertaking lactate threshold training while dehydrated or with depleted
glycogen stores will seriously affect the quality of your sessions and the
To maximise the benefits of
your lactate threshold development programme you should have spent a
significant time during the building phase of your training riding at a
low intensity. Riding at a speed you would consider to be too slow
to train provides the potential for the development of the following
▼ a higher density of muscle mitochondria
▼ a developed
fatty acid oxidation system
▼ an increased muscle capillary density
▼ the conversion of
fast twitch muscle fibres to slow
Also, with the correct attention being paid to
pedalling techniques it's possible to recruit more muscles in to the
pedalling action. A large muscle mass working moderately will create
less lactate per watt generated than a smaller muscle mass working
So when the time comes to do your lactate
development intervals; using more muscles, with a higher density of
mitochondria, that have the ability to spare glycogen, and have a greater
proportion of muscle fibres ready to fire will obviously bring spectacular
Developing your mitochondria production gives
two benefits for the price of one. Not only does the oxygen get to
your muscles quicker, due to the higher density, once they've dropped off
their power giving oxygen they are then free to remove the debilitating
lactate acid. All this just from riding slow!
Lactate Threshold Test is extremely useful but only if you do something
the information you have.
Devising a training plan with the specific
requirements of increasing your lactate threshold is a fantastic investment in
your training time. But only if you know where your threshold is to
begin with; otherwise how will you know how hard to go and how will you
know if you've improved it?
Through increasing your cycling
economy, lactate tolerance and power output you can make significant
improvements in the efficiency of your aerobic engine thus allowing you to
cruise at a faster speed. We haven't raised the ceiling but we've
increased the percentage of the level we can use before lactate pooling
begins. And that's what wins races.