Lactic Training Basics

Last week, we covered a little bit about the lactic threshold and what it means to you as an athlete. We also talked about how you can find your own lactic threshold (the point at which your body produces lactate more quickly than it can use it) with an easy at-home test. For this installment, though, we’re going to focus on how you can improve your lactic threshold.


What’s The Point?

Just by means of review, let’s take a look at what a low lactic threshold means. Lactic acid is produced by your muscles all day, every day. Usually, though, it appears in small enough quantities that your body can get it away from your muscles and convert it back into fuel. During short bouts of high intensity exercise, though, like a sprint, lactic acid is produced at much higher rates. At this point, it can’t be shuttled away fast enough and your muscles become acidic. This is where that burning, cramping exhaustion comes in.

Now that you know what too much lactic acid does to you, and it’s probably a feeling you know all-too-well, let’s consider what you can do to improve the situation.


Lactic Threshold Training

Before you can start working to improve your lactic threshold, you have to know what it is. Refer back to last week’s post to read about the self-administered test. For lactic acid training, a heart rate monitor would be extremely useful. Or, if you don’t have one, you can use a 1-10 scale where 1 is very easy and 10 is your absolutely maximum effort.

There are several different approaches to lactic acid training but, the theory behind them remains the same: Flood your muscles with lactic acid for extended periods and force them to adapt.

  1. Interval Training – This includes the ever-popular High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and requires you to rotate between periods of high intensity with low intensity active rest. Since your lactic threshold is highly individual and cannot easily be measured without specialized equipment, fartlek training is a great way to improve your lactic threshold. The basic idea is to gradually increase the amount of time you’re about to spend at or just above your lactic threshold, at about a 7 or 8 out of 10. Start slow, with sprints of just one minute and work your way up.
  2. Tempo Runs – More clinically called “maximal steady-state exercise,” this approach has you run at your lactic threshold for the entire workout. Because of the inherently challenging nature of these runs, experts recommend that they should account for no more than 10% of your weekly total workout time. So, if you run for 200 minutes each week, your tempo run would only be 20 minutes long.
  3. Volume Training – This approach takes a longer view and involves gradually increasing your total workout time for the week. To do so safely, lengthen your runs by 10-20% each week and keep the intensity at about a 5 or 6 out of 10.

Ideally, all of these techniques should be used together to complement each other. For example, start out by increasing your volume. Then, add in a tempo run. Commit one day per week to be your interval training day and use it to work on your sprints.

What techniques for increasing your lactic threshold have you tried? Please share your experiences in the comments.





Test For Your Own Lactic Threshold

Anything that holds you back and makes you slow down – or, even worse, stop – your training can be a huge source of frustration. After all, as an athlete, you are all about pushing yourself past your limits. When you start to feel that burning exhaustion in your muscles, though, it can feel like your body is turning on you. What is that terrible internal roadblock and what can you do?


What’s Really Going On

At any given time, your body is using a mix of two different processes to create the ATP your muscles need. The first method, aerobic respiration, uses oxygen to break down glycogen and fat. The other approach, anaerobic respiration, doesn’t require oxygen at all to produce that valuable ATP.

When exercise intensity gets high enough, though, you start to use up more oxygen then you’re breathing in. For example, short but intense activities like sprinting generally fall into the anaerobic category.

But problems happen when demand exceeds supply.

At this point, anaerobic respiration becomes your body’s primary fuel source since it can’t count of a steady oxygen supply. As a byproduct of ATP production, lactic acid is also created. Usually, lactic acid is produced at a slow enough rate that your body can get rid of it without much fuss but things change when anaerobic respiration takes over. Lactic acid is produced too quickly and it quantities that are too high for your body to efficiently clean up.

This point, when your body switches to anaerobic respiration and lactic acid production speeds up, is called the lactic (or anaerobic) threshold. It’s this acidic build-up that your muscles start to burn and shut down because they can’t work as efficiently in the newly-created high acid environment.

The good news is that you can train for this and improve your lactic threshold, allowing you to exercise at higher intensities for longer periods of time.

But first, you have to know what your personal lactic threshold is.


Testing Your Limits

Traditionally, finding your lactic threshold was a big ordeal that required specialized equipment and trained operators. Usually, you would have to pay a laboratory to conduct the test for you.

To try to come up with a inexpensive and more accessible alternative, some coaches have come up with field test that are designed to estimate an athlete’s lactic threshold. While these tests have been shown to be fairly accurate, they also tend to be extremely difficult. For example, one test involves running as far as you can in 30 minutes and taking the average heart for your last 10 minutes of the run.

Fortunately, researchers at Munich Technical University have recently experimented with a test you can do on your own without completely killing yourself. Start out by strapping on a heart rate monitor and setting yourself up to run. You can also cycle if you prefer. After a 2 or 3 minute warmup, gradually start increasing the intensity of your workout. Each time you step it up, note your perceived exertion on a scale of 1 to 10. When you hit 6 on the exertion scale, note your heart rate. That’s your lactic threshold.

Knowing this number for yourself is key in designing endurance training programs. In a future post, we’ll talk more about how to improve your lactic threshold.