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What Is the Lactate Threshold Test?

“Lactate threshold” is an interesting term. It has been assigned many different definitions, and people disagree about what the correct definition is. There may be no universally accepted definition, but it is possible to understand the concept and why it matters. Understanding what causes the lactate threshold and how to improve it will benefit you by making your workouts more effective and making your body work more efficiently.

In general, the lactate threshold is the maximum consistent effort you can maintain without lactate levels continuing to increase. Lactate threshold is one of a few factors that matter when it comes to improving your physical fitness level, along with VO2 max and economy of movement.

What makes lactate threshold important?

There are two key facts to know about lactate threshold. First, maximal lactate steady state refers to the level of effort that an athlete can maintain for an extended period – as long as an hour or even longer – without needing to slow down. While the athlete stays at this level, his or her lactate level remains constant. If the athlete increases his or her effort level even just a little, the lactate level will increase, and he or she will have to stop, sometimes relatively quickly. Above the maximal lactate steady state, the progression to exhaustion is usually rapid. So, the threshold at which you can maintain this state is your lactate threshold (also called the anaerobic threshold).

Second, it's important to understand that the lactate threshold is a vital predictor of performance, perhaps the best predictor. Generally speaking, an athlete with a higher effort level will be faster and perform better. When your lactate threshold increases, improvements in endurance almost always increase as well. Because lactate levels are such a good indicator of fitness and provide a clear picture of results from regular workouts, regular lactate threshold testing is an excellent way to know whether you are making progress or not, and what you need to do to see results (or continue to see results).

So how do you test your lactate threshold?

The lactate threshold test reveals important information about your metabolic activity, your economy of movement, and your general fitness level. The test measures aerobic power and, by extension, aerobic capacity. Lactate testing provides valuable information, including:
  • Physical fitness and performance level
  • Which forms of training are working or not working
  • What to focus on to maximize performance

The test itself is a lab test performed on blood samples taken from the finger. There are different ways to conduct the test, but typically, the athlete first goes through a warm-up on an indoor bicycle or treadmill. The workout begins fairly easily, and the intensity level is gradually and incrementally increased as the athlete’s heart rate, the rate of perceived exertion, and blood lactate are measured at each stage. Once a breakpoint in the blood lactate is found, the test is over; this is the lactate threshold.

Your first lactate test provides an important baseline measurement of your lactate threshold. This gives you an indicator of your level of fitness as well as a starting point for training. Depending on the protocol used, a lactate test also provides:
  • Maximum sustainable power
  • Recovery heart rate
  • Power and pace at lactate threshold
  • Relative fitness index

You’ll walk away from your lactate threshold test with a wealth of useful personal information. However, the real value of testing becomes apparent with repeated tests over time as you continue to work out. As long as you keep training and pushing yourself to work harder, lactate testing will show you concrete evidence of improvement, and this is extremely encouraging and motivating. If a test does not show improvement, you’ll know you need to work a bit harder. Either way, you’ve gained valuable information. As you continue to train and have your lactate threshold tested, you’ll develop a history of lactate tests that will show you gradual changes in your fitness level, by way of improved recovery heart rate, increased power at threshold, a higher heart rate at threshold, and a higher power-to-weight ratio.

Improving Your Lactate Threshold

Once you have the results of your test, how do you start increasing your lactate threshold? There are several ways to do so, including:
  • High-volume training: Increase the amount of time you spend working out.
  • Steady-state training at the lactate threshold: Spend time working out at the lactate threshold (but don’t overtrain).
  • Interval training above the lactate threshold: Engage in high-intensity training for short periods of time during your workout.

Armed with information about your personal lactate threshold and with time and consistent effort, you can make improvements to your health and your performance. And improving these means looking and feeling great – the main reasons you’re probably working out in the first place.


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