Lactate threshold – Ultra running essential

Check out the long-run and the Maffeton playlist if you wanted to learn more about these two crucial subjects for long distance success:

Controlling heart rate and effort and not just controlling but dialling back, is the most important factor to build deep endurance and resistance. This is also a key to ensure that you will continue to train day after day and month after month towards your goal endurance event. Of course, year after year too, towards a better health and better body and as the age comes down on you, you should be actually more and more motivated and interested in bettering yourself.

High Intensity

To be the best ultra runner you can be at the moment of the race means to be the most complete human you can be too. This shifts more and more towards a truth and reality with the distance increasing. To achieve that, you should be able to tap effectively into any physiological system in the body and recover from it. Anaerobic lactic and alactic efforts, critical velocity, VO2max, high and low end threshold, muscular and general tissue resistance, torque and rotation, impact, strength, power and explosiveness and much more.

In case of race specificity, the closer you come to your event, the more specific you should be with your training and the least risks you should be taking. Engaging in high intensity crossfit, moto-cross, downhill sprinting and explosive tyre pulling will not be any of those things you should to do. Neither too regular VO2max repeats and critical velocity intervals. As periodization goes, you should be cutting completely out anything else than specificity at least 2 but better 4 weeks out. You can maintain strength and functionality with just little stimulating and priming work.


There is one range however year around and actually lifelong, what is brutally effective. That is lactate threshold. Starting from the high end of aerobic development and touching to the low end of VO2max. You always actually produce lactate, you always create all type of byproducts and stimuli, you always train all your physiological systems. Nothing is separated and isolated. However science helps us to understand the benefits of certain rhythms effectively applicable to correct problems popping up during the preparation process.
Lactate threshold is basically a heart rate range where you produce the most lactate, but you can eliminate the most lactate too, so you recover very fast from these workouts. If you go over and well over in case of speed, you do not produce basically lactate at all (not literally !!!) , like an all out 60m dash. If you went over with heart rate, you produce tremendous amount of lactate in case of brutal VO2max sessions for instance, but the damage you cause will create a lot of fatigue and long recoveries ! If you trained exclusively low-aerobically, you would cause a lot of fatigue, as the volume has to be way too high, to benefit as much, as you do from specific LT sets. What I am saying here is that if you trained for the ability of producing, eliminating and resisting lactate, you are able to have a high intensity workout every second day for even months on end. Like this you can create a brutally great fitness and little to no fatigue.

I recently relistened an old episode of the Real Science of Sport Podcast. They were talking about the physiological differences between athletes. Well, in my opinion as we are all humans, there is no real difference in case of genetics, but the lifestyle and training type applied. Especially true for athletes having 2 decades or more training history. 
They were particularly talking about swimmers if remember well. So, normally when you produce 4mM of lactate, this is when you step over the lactate threshold. Untrained people if experienced 7-8mM would not be able to stand, literally.
So what was observed by scientists comparing multiple high level athletes at the same level of performance, that some athletes had only like 12mM while the others had well over 20mM of lactate in their blood. This did not mean that one athlete produced more than the others. They concluded, that some athletes were able to eliminate a lot of lactate to push their body as hard as they can. The others were producing the same amount of lactate, however instead of eliminating and recirculating, he was resisting. This of course can only happen in mid distance events. I can relate only to running, well away from the pool. Especially if you were a 400m runner, as this is one of the most controversial distances in case of aerobic and anaerobic beliefs. I recently had a good chat with a fellow runner about his observations in the depth of 400m field in the over 50 age-group. The 400/800m runners in general are faster than the 200/400 runners. This is simply because of aerobic capacity. They have been subjected to less stress, higher volume of relatively lower intensities, less byproducts, less injuries. It is said that HR applies to technique and the lower your heart rate the most perfect your technique is.
In my opinion, this all comes down to long term training history and the way athletes were trained. One is in an aerobic school, while the other one in a high intensity anaerobic sprint style system. To create champions and olympic gold medalists, probably both approaches are great. However to create long lasting performance, longevity in the sport itself, a functional body and so, the aerobic approach is way more intelligent. Most likely the shredding of a training group is way less too under a big-base style approach and most likely a lot more athletes would stay with the sport of running.

How to determine and train in the LT zone ?

1st of all, you need an HR Monitor. I highly recommend to anybody who wants to understand how the body and the mind work, to do at least 3 months of Maffetone method. This is a complete lifestyle, but it has a training section of running in a 180-your age-10, 10 beat heart rate range. For this three months, no periodization should be applied and no stepping out from this 10 beat HR range. You feel great, you run on the top of the range, you feel average you run in the midrange and feeling okay means running on the low end. Not feeling it, meaning not running.

This will totally make you understand how your body works, how your recovery functions and how minuscule changes in HR can affect your recuperation and workout absorption already at relatively low heart rates. Simply stepping over a certain HR zones by 2 beats for the integrity of 60min run can reduce your performances for the next real goal workout. Stepping over by 10 to 15 beast for a couple of seconds have the same effect. Your brain will not control you and not tell you the reality.
Also there are really just a few runners I met, who feel the power of the low intensity aerobic zones.

You feel great and run by feel for 2 days. Except that instead of hitting a totally aerobic workout, you step over to the lactate threshold realms for a couple of minutes and if a hill comes in, you charge up and step into the VO2max zone. You have the music on, you finish fast. Next day you repeat. You feel great, powerful and fantastic. EZ done. Third day comes and the coach writes up the routine. You now feel flat and underachieve the goal times. If you simply flattened out your heart rate for those 2 days and lowered it, now you could have performed excellently in the track session. You could have triggered a recovery effect instead of a workout stimulus.

Lactate threshold works the same way. You start producing slightly higher amounts of lactate just a couple of beats over that aerobic threshold. Over the top end of the MAF range. Over Z2.
When stepping into real huffing and puffing, you might dig too deep into the CV and VO2max realms, so you compromise the recovery you would get from a simple LT oriented set.
When we talked about ultra-marathoning, we are and should be aerobic animals. While a short distance runner might run repeats to achieve 10 to 20min of total work, we should aim for 30 to 90min of threshold work, I believe.
I find that when trained for the capacity of handling lactate, uphill running is the way to go as HR can be kept stable outside of a controlled environment of a treadmill. This also further reduces impact. If I planned out 2 or 3 lactate threshold sets for an athlete a week, for sure two of them would be up a hill.

Directions + Example

How to start out lactate threshold training ? As I said, you always train all your physiological systems. Even if you just jogged around your whole life, you are not starting from zero.

We talk about ultra running here and expecting to have solid volume of regular running from athletes. 100km weeks for months and years on end or higher. That is about the limit for healthy ultra running. You got questions on why is that, just ask.

Find your Zone 2 or Max Aerobic Force zone. Try using the “180-your age-10” to get a 10 beat range. Train in it for at least 3 months. Adjust it as you go through the weeks. You might even end up with a 20 beat zone.
The first workout you add in would be an LT workout. Maybe as you progressed through this 2nd microcycle, you will do even up to 4 LT workouts weekly.
When entering first specificity phase and adding in workouts targeting other systems, you cut them back to one a week. In case of ultra running, the volume is high, so actually the LT routine of 1 to 3 workouts stay all the way in. The rest of the high intensity zones should be used sparingly.

As an example, I am 38, I use 130 to 140 as my full on aerobic range (Z2). 140 to 150 as a high end aerobic range. Call it Zone 3 if you wanted. I use 150 to 165 as an LT training range.
(I have been observing myself for over 15years so I kind of understand my body. Also these ranges and heart beats are shifting all the time. )

I always have quite okay volume and some sort of speed training going in. If you did not, neither did you do high weight strength and conditioning, start out with no more than 15 minutes. When you wanted to improve on it, start intelligently. Instead of pushing the LT, you can add some higher end aerobic miles previously.

  • 2 x 7min LT low
  • 15min LT low
  • 5 x 7sec uphill sprints + 5min high Z2 + 15min LT low
  • 5 x 12sec uphill strides + 10min high Z2 + 15min LT low
  • 10min mid Z2 + 15min high Z2 + 20min LT low
  • 20min LT mid
  • 5min LT low + 5min LT high + 10min LT mid
  • (…)
  • Progression comes from regularity and not necessarily from pushing the envelope. Somebody having 2 years of weekly 25min mid LT going on will be better equipped than an athlete completing 45 increasingly difficult sets, then quit doing it cause it is too hard and too risky. Should be cycled and maintained to stimulate and for growth.

Even if they were not fatiguing as a workout, do not try doubling and tripling in, while doing Tuesday / Thursday track or trail intervals. The LT routine is still counting as a high intensity workout !!! In some cases it can be part of the long run. We can see also as a post speed-set routine, many times in Jack Daniels book. ‘6 x 800m + 3mile Tempo’

Once you developed the ability to focus and dial in, you can start playing around. Flat, downhill, rolling hill and full on courses. When I trained for the La Bonnet uphill climb, I ran the entire course 2 times. Adding in more LT each time. This is a 26km long road climb gaining 1600m to arrive to the highest mountain pass in Europe at 2800m. 
I also recently had an injury, stepping on a sharp rock and jerking back my second toe, completely demolishing my aponevrose. I had 6 weeks of very very slow aerobic training. Low Z1 and walking a lot. I really ran a lot in that 90 to 105bpm zone with. When I hit the track first time, I was not able to complete the final set and was destroyed straight after the first few repeats. I still had speed and power, but no resistance at all. (400 + 600 + 300) x 4 was the actual set. What I did is I went out 2 days after on Thursday and ran a 7k hill at 150 to 155bpm. On Saturday at 155 to 160. On Monday morning again at around 153 to 158. Same hill. Actually that previous Tuesday workout destroyed me so much that my times were getting worse on each LT run. In Saturday 3 and on Monday I was actually 6min slower than on Thursday. Took Tuesday very easy, slept in and jogged and mobilised twice. Arriving to Wednesday afternoon, I was still not able to pull moves, but I completed the workout to the end just fine and was staying in the group.
(This is just to show, that if your lifestyle is correct, you can use planned and controlled relatively easy workouts to have a near immediate positive effect on your physiology. ) Just to keep on going, I recovered so well, that Friday I pulled a 5 x 4km @ (4:30 / 4:15 / 4:45 / 4:00). I had a couple of minutes of LT here and there. I followed up with a 41km long run the next day.

LT is not complicated. You do not need ear lobe pricking or blood tests. That is just to annoy the high performance olympic team. Understand your body first. Feel the effects or training in different heart rate zones. Feel the positive and negative stimulus on your stride. Use your HR for observation on the run itself. Do not overthink afterwards, but still have a look. Take notes on sleep, food and how you feel after each run. Write splits and HR and cadence. I do not note and mark every workout, neither I put all of them on strava as I run often with no watch. I however had streaks of filling in books with workout journals and naming and using online apps to follow up. These are all great tools to understand and learn.

Got any questions on application, periodization and planning ? Drop it here, we can discuss and I’ll find and answer for you !

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