A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of popping into the Marjon Sports Science Lab to do some tests. I had just taken on a new coach (Charles Miron of Solo Sport Systems) and he likes his athletes to get their Lactate Threshold checked out. He then uses this to precisely set training zones. I’m a total numbers geek, so jumped at the chance to gather some more stats. I booked myself in straight away with Ben Anniss at Marjons, on the recommendation of a friend (Fin Saunders – Team GB Sprint Triathlete, and all around nutter that just raised over £3000 for charity by doing a 24 hour non-stop indoor triathlon.)
I shall tell you a bit about lactate threshold (LT) and VO2Max testing first, but if you want to find out more about my experience then scroll down a bit.
Incidentally if you live in the Plymouth (UK) area and want to go through something similar then Ben is most approachable and you can find his contact details on the Marjons website here.
Why do I need to get my lactate threshold tested?
If you want to simply know why, as an amateur athlete you should do this then it is pretty simple. I’ll use myself as an example: My optimal heart rate for aerobic training is in a window just 7 beats per minute wide. Too hard and I am needlessly exhausting myself. Too slow and I will get sub optimal results, especially considering I will be going slower and spending even more time running! The testing is not expensive, doesn’t take long and will mean that you are getting the most out of your daily run. Personally I can’t believe I didn’t get this done sooner!
Lactate Threshold Testing
Lactate threshold testing is the science of testing blood lactate levels while an athlete exerts themselves at gradually increasing efforts. The level of lactate in the blood increases with exercise. Lactate is a waste product created by your muscles and the more you exercise the more of it there is in your blood. The thresholds measured in this testing (LT1 and LT2) show firstly where there is a sustained increase in lactate above resting levels (LT1) and secondly where there is a rapid rise when your body can no longer deal with the lactate as fast as you are creating it (LT2). LT1 and LT2 are then indicators of marathon and 10km pace respectively.
The key for me was identifying the heart rate at which these thresholds occur so that they could be used for training purposes. My coach has since laid out some specific training zones for me to work in to optimise my fitness gains specifically considering the discipline that I race in (ultramarathons.)
Over time these thresholds will change with fitness, which means my training zones will shift too. Ben was keen to stress that if I feel that this has happened I should return to the lab to figure out the new LT1 and LT2. My intention at the very least would be to return once or twice over the next 8 months to get a feel for how my training is progressing anyway.
In short knowing your LT1 and LT2:
- Help you to identify your optimal training stimuli
- Gives you an indication of endurance performance
- Indicates training adaptation (if tested regularly)
All pretty good things if, like me, you have limited training time, enjoy racing and want to get the most out of your body.
VO2 Max testing
VO2 max used to be a number that a lot of athletes worked off. It shows your maximal level of oxygen consumption and is heavily influenced by genetics. Essentially the higher the number the more Oxygen your body can process and the faster you can go. In recent times lactate thresholds have become more important than VO2 Max for endurance athletes as the further you run/cycle/swim the less likely you are to be limited by your capability for maximal oxygen consumption.
I had a chat with my coach beforehand and he said that as an ultramarathon runner my test would need to be subtly different to that of someone that prefers shorter distances. This is due to the way ultramarathon trained bodies react to the test. Essentially I just had to warm up for a bit longer, but nothing excessive. 12-15 minutes would be enough. The test itself took the following format and was all done on a 1% incline to simulate the effort required to overtake wind resistance:
- Warmup (12-15 mins)
- 3 mins at X kph (my starting speed was 9 kph, yours may be different)
- 1 min rest while Ben took blood from a fingertip to put into the lactate analyser
- 3 mins at X+1 kph
- 1 min rest for blood
- Repeat, adding 1 kph each time until blood lactate values achieve a certain value
All in the test took about 40 minutes, and it is sub-maximal, which means you are pushing towards the end but not going flat out. The mask contains a small turbine so that Ben could measure how much air I was sucking and blowing as I ran. The mask is quite oppressive, but did not at all hinder my breathing. It did strike me though how much emotion it hides as I ran harder and harder while staring at my reflection in the mirror opposite the treadmill.
The process of blood taking was pretty much painless as Ben just took it from a fingertip. After the first couple of pricks, and as my blood pressure went up with the effort, it pretty much just kept on dripping.
After my lactate threshold test Ben said that if I wanted to do a VO2Max test as well then it would be best to do it on a different day. The VO2max test is a maximal test and it basically gets harder and harder until you can do no more. It holds less relevance to an ultra runner, but does give a general measure of overall genetic capability by showing how much oxygen your body can process while exercising. It is a limiting factor of performance at shorter distances. I, of course, went back a week later to give it a bash.
Before the VO2Max test I did a short steady run to warmup and arrived at the lab sweating. I grabbed a mouthful of water and was straight on the treadmill. Ben put the mask back on me and after a couple of minutes to loosen back up the test started. Ben put a crash mat behind the treadmill which was mildly disconcerting, but thoughts of it went out of my head as I started running. My pace for the test was 13kph which is about 7.5 minute miles. The treadmill started flat and the difficulty was added via incline with it increasing 2.5% every couple of minutes. I lasted a whopping 8 minutes, topping out at 183bpm with a VO2 max of 55 which is not too bad considering I’m 40 this month. VO2 max decreases with age as you can see byt he table above.
What did all this mean?
The ultimate result when the stats were returned to my coach was some very specific training zones for me to work in. I was slightly disappointed with some of my numbers until I put them into context. Based on the test results my current marathon pace would be 8.77 minute miles and my 10km pace would be 7.26 minute miles. That equates to 3 hours 49 minutes and 45 minutes respectively which is 20 minutes off my marathon PB and 2.5 minutes off my 10k PB.
Thinking about that for a second I’m actually really happy with it. I am coming out of a large rest period and I’m at the start of an 8 month training block which will take me into The Dragon’s Back race next May. I have a lot of time to make improvements, and with a new coach, access to the Marjons Sports Science Lab, and a mass of my own enthusiasm , I have a strong belief that come next year I’m going to have a good result or two. And by that I don’t mean wins, although I wouldn’t turn one down. 😉 My aim is to simply do what I can and do it to the best of my ability, with maximum enjoyment along the way 🙂
Have you emailed Ben at Marjons yet to get your numbers dialled in? It’s not just for the pro. Any of us can benefit from knowing precisely what zones we should be training in. As an example my window for optimal aerobic capacity is just 7 beats per minute wide (146bpm to 153bpm) http://www.marjon.ac.uk/marjon-sport/facilities–services/sports-science-lab/