Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max: Part 2


by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

As we discussed in Part One of this article, the importance of knowing your Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max is key to improving your fitness and performance capabilities. But how can you use them to your benefit? VO2 Max, while being an excellent measure of physical fitness particularly cardiovascular endurance, is not necessarily a great predictor of athletic performance. Any athlete with a VO2 Max of 50 mL/kg/min could very well outperform an athlete with a VO2 Max of 55 mL/kg/min. VO2 Max is important because the greater efficiency you have in oxygen utilization, the greater capacity you will have to sustain exercise over a period of time and in theory you should be able to produce a greater amount of ATP, the energy needed for muscular contractions. The reason you should concern yourself with knowing your VO2 Max is because it gives you measurable data allowing you to track any improvements in your aerobic endurance. Yes, you can use times or distances to gauge your performance, but there are other factors that can influence those measurements. Maybe you only improved in those areas because you are lighter, or you’ve learned to better control your breathing patterns, your technique has improved, better weather conditions, better shoes, etc. VO2 Max tells you very concretely whether or not your cardiovascular fitness has improved. You can increase your VO2 Max by increasing your training volume and/or training intensity. This applies primarily to cardiovascular exercise such as running, biking, or swimming. By accumulating longer distances or completing your exercise bouts at a faster pace, you can make strides to increase your VO2 Max.

VO2 Max is also an important metric in determining your lactate threshold, which is arguably the more important of the two. Given that your lactate threshold is a percentage of your VO2 Max, you must first know your VO2 Max to determine your lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is the main factor in determining how long you can maintain high intensity exercise and at exactly what intensity you will start to fatigue, the metaphorical wall you hit where performance levels drop, making your lactate threshold a greater predictor of overall performance. Being able to know your limit and know how you can ride that line without crossing it is extremely important to maximizing your performance level. Knowing this will allow you to find a pace you can maintain for an extended period of time while still having just enough for that final push across the finish line.

How do you improve your lactate threshold and your performance at or near your lactate threshold? You will need to accumulate a lot of training volume just below your lactate threshold. Since you cannot work above your lactate threshold for very long, the best way to accumulate volume is to workout just below your lactate threshold. These workouts should typically be interval based at intensities as close to your lactate threshold as possible and with  recovery time in between your working bouts so you can maintain that level of work. This recovery time should be about half of the length of your interval. Begin with multiple short intervals and work your way up to fewer longer intervals at around the same pace as your shorter intervals. This allows the muscles to gradually increase the stress they can handle and decrease the amount of blood lactate they produce at the same level of work. This will help increase the amount of work you can get done before “hitting the wall” and allow for you to perform at a higher level for longer periods of time. Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max are vital to your aerobic performance. You can always strive to improve both metrics especially if you're competing in aerobic-heavy races (Triathlons, running, cycling, rowing, etc.) so you can reach peak performance.