Lactate Threshold Training – Lactate Turn Point and How to Improve It

By Rick Morris

You just passed the 5 mile marker in your 10K race. Your legs are feeling heavy and non responsive. You’ve lost most of the “pop” or power in your stride. It’s getting difficult to maintain your race rhythm and stride rate. You’re beginning to lose your mental focus. That “big ole bear” has just jumped on your back again. Does that situation sound familiar? If you are an experienced 5K or 10K runner you have certainly felt those unpleasant sensations during the final miles of your races. Why? – Because you’ve crossed that vague and imprecise barrier that is known as lactate turn point, lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold. You need lactate turn point training.

During running, or any other physical activity, one of the ways your body produces energy is through a process called glycolysis.  During this process a substance called lactic acid is produced. At low running speeds your body will process and use that lactic acid to produce even more energy. When you increase your running intensity, more and more lactic acid is produced. Eventually, lactic acid is produced so fast that your body can no longer keep up. The lactic acid begins to build up. This point is your lactate turn point or lactate threshold.

Lactate turn point will vary from runner to runner. A fitter, more efficient runner will have a higher lactate threshold, as a percentage of their VO2 max, than a less fit runner. There is a strong association between race paces and lactate turn point. Generally speaking, you will hit your lactate turn point at a running pace that is just slightly lower than your 10K pace. For most runners then 10K pace is about 2.5 percent faster than their lactate threshold and their 5K pace is about 5 percent faster. It follows that if your improve your lactate turn point you will also improve your race performance.

Not too long ago it was believed that the accumulation of lactic acid was the cause of those unpleasant feeling of fatigue in 5K and 10K races. The latest research has disproven that theory. Now it’s thought that lactic acid actually helps prevent fatigue. There are other changes that take place in your body at your lactate turn point that contribute to fatigue. Hydrogen ion build up, extracellular potassium accumulation, calcium leakage and central nervous system protective mechanisms are all fatigue inducing process that take place at your lactate turn point.

Do You Still Need Lactate Turn Point Training?

If lactic acid isn’t the primary cause of running fatigue, do you still need lactate threshold training? Yep – you absolutely do. While lactic acid accumulation may not be the direct cause of running fatigue, the processes that cause high intensity running fatigue still take place at the same point – right at your lactate turn point. At this point science still doesn’t have a concrete answer to the precise causes of running fatigue – just a lot of theories. But they all agree on one thing – the best way to improve your race performance at all distances is to raise your lactate turn point. And the best way to improve your lactate turn point or lactate threshold is by training at paces that flood your body with lactic acid. That means training at 10K pace or faster.

Today’s researchers believe that running fatigue is not caused by one event. It’s a complex reaction to the stress of running with both peripheral and central mechanisms contributing to feelings of fatigue. Peripheral fatigue is related to muscle damage and metabolic changes within the muscle cells. Central fatigue is associated with your central nervous system and its desire to maintain a level of safety and balance in your body. Regardless of the cause, the training to improve your body’s response to stress follows the old “use it or lose it” theory. If you want to improve your race performance and your body’s response to stress you need to train at levels that create the stress. So even though lactic acid is no longer the culprit in fatigue, you still need to train at your lactate turn point or faster to improve your conditioning and fitness.

Tempo Training or Lactate Threshold Training?

A common mistake made by many runners is lumping together tempo training and lactate threshold training. True tempo training is performed at paces between 45 to 15 seconds slower than 10K race pace while true lactate threshold training is done at paces faster than 10K pace. So why are the two often lumped together? There are a couple of reasons for that.

First – because for many years, tempo training was considered the best way to improve lactate turn point. The tempo run became the staple workout for lactate threshold improvement. Habits are hard to break, so many runners still rely too much on tempo training.

Second – because tempo training still is a form of lactate threshold training albeit at the lower end of the lactate threshold spectrum. The slower pace of tempo training is not an ideal running intensity for lactate threshold improvement. Running at 10K pace or faster is required to maximize your lactate turn point improvement. But the high intensity of lactate threshold training makes it impossible or at least inadvisable to perform long repeats on a consistent basis. That is where tempo running becomes an extremely valuable workout. The more moderate pace of tempo running will allow you to complete longer training runs at a pace that still gets your glycolytic system operating at a high level. So you need both tempo training and lactate threshold training to reach your peak as a distance runner. Tempo training will improve your stamina and your ability to hold a quality pace for long distances while lactate threshold training will maximize lactate turn point improvement.

Lactate Threshold Workouts

One of the great things about distance running is you can design an unlimited number of different workouts. You should never be bored! While there are an endless number of lactate threshold workouts, nearly all of them fall into one of two workout types – interval runs and compound sets.

Interval runs are workouts that are made up of short to moderate distance repeats with a recovery interval between each repeat. Compound sets are groups of different repeats performed without recovery. If you perform more than one compound set you would use a recovery interval between each set. Here are just a couple basic examples of each type of workout.

One Mile Repeats

This is a very basic lactate threshold interval run using mile repeats. You could do this workout on the track, trail or road. After a warm up, run 6 x 1 mile repeats at 10K race pace. Recover between each repeat with 2 minutes of rest.

800 Meter Repeats

This is a classic lactate threshold interval workout that is best done on a 400 meter track because it allows you to precisely monitor your distance and speed. Do your standard warm up and then run 12 x 800 meter repeats at 5K race pace. Recover between each repeat with 1 minute of rest.

1000 Meter Repeats

Here is a more advanced lactate threshold interval workout for experienced runners. You should do this one on a 400 meter track. After a warm up run 10 x 1000 meter repeats at 10K race pace. Recover between each repeat by jogging diagonally across the field from the 1000 meter point to the starting line.  As soon as you reach the starting line begin your next repeat.

6 x 400/1200 Meter Compound Sets

This is a very basic lactate threshold compound set. You could do this on the road or trail, but it will be easier on the track because of the ability to judge distance.

Warm up and then run 400 meters at 5K race pace. With no recovery, slow down to 10K pace for 1200 meters. Recover with 2 minutes of passive rest. Repeat 5 more times for a total of 6 compound sets.

3 x 200/2000/200 Meter Compound Sets

Here is a tougher lactate threshold compound set that will improve your finishing kick. After your warm up run 200 meters at nearly full pace. Slow down to 10K pace for 2000 meters before speeding back up to nearly full pace for 200 meters. Take no recovery between the distances, but recovery with 3 minutes of rest between each compound set.

2 x 400/800/1600/800/400 Meter Compound Set

This is a lactate threshold compound set that is sometimes called a pyramid workout. Warm up and then run 400 meters at about 15 seconds per mile faster than 5K pace. Slow down to 5K pace for 800 meters and then run 1600 meters at 10K pace. Now start back up in speed with 800 meters at 5K pace and finish with 400 meters at 15 seconds per mile faster than 5K pace. Take no recovery between the components of the set. Recover with 5 minutes of rest between each set.