Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Threshold (Part 1) by Chris Puppione...

1) What is threshold pace?
Threshold pace has become a topic of great discussion, confusion, controversy, and glorification as the years have gone by. People talk about aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold, respiratory threshold, and so on. What are all these terms? Are they the same, different, or irrelevant?

In truth, the names don't matter much because they are all misnomers to begin with. In fact, there are no real thresholds to speak of, but merely areas where blood lactate accumulation is greater than others given different levels of exertion. Because no other term has been offered that can sufficiently describe this simply, the use of "threshold" or "lactate threshold" has continued to be a part of the vernacular.

It is kind of like how coaches continue to tell their athletes when they get that refrigerator-dropped-on-the-back feeling in the last segment of a tough race that it is caused by lactic acid--not true! It is not lactic acid that causes legs to rigor and the body to slow down, like was previously thought for years. And no, it is not even necessarily the H+ ions that accompany the lactic acid that does this either. No, it is something completely different that coincides with these two events, but at this point, it is still easier to just blame lactic acid, so that's what coaches do. (And it is for sake of brevity that I cut this discussion off here to stay on topic!)

What did you ask me again?

Sorry about that--I just feel compelled to let people know that blaming lactic acid is not right, just as I want people to know that there really isn't a true lactate "threshold" or "turnpoint" per se. There is no set, fixed, quantifiable spot that we can directly target to train, but merely an area to enhance and strengthen through consistent training.

That said, lactate threshold pace (LT pace) has been generalized as being half-marathon pace, or the pace one could sustain at full effort for an hour, or 87-91% of VO2max, or so on and so on depending on who you ask.

What people have argued in several scientific studies and field tests and through coaching trial and error (where the real work is done) is that improving an athlete's lactate threshold most positively impacts distance race performance than any other training. I am not saying race pace is not important--don't get me wrong. But race pace doesn't matter much if you cannot hold it for the full length of the race. This is where LT training comes into play.

LT pace is an aerobic support pace that improves an athlete's extensibility--the runner's ability to carry a greater pace over a greater distance. The legendary Joe Vigil (longtime coach at Adams State and coach of Deena Kastor) has referred to this as fractional utilization of VO2max--training an athlete to race faster at lower percentage of VO2max for a given distance.

Most people have the necessary speed to run a great mile. How many people can run 100 meters in :15? A ton, right? How about a 200 in :30? Still a lot, right? That is about 1/8 of the race distance. What about a 400 in 1:00? Sure, lots of folks still in the game. But could they do it 4 times in a row without stopping to run a 4:00 mile? Uh, not likely. But why?

Simply this--lack of aerobic strength and extensibility. They have the speed, or the turnover, to do so. Therefore, speed is not the problem. They just can't sustain that speed because their engine is running too hot too fast and producing too much gunk in the gears to continue.

Threshold training stretches the body's capacity to do work at greater speeds with greater ease, improving extensibility, and allowing us to run faster over every distance race from the 800m on up.

2) How does a coach determine the right pace for their athletes during workouts?
I just shoot for :24-:32 slower per mile than current 5k race pace--this seems to be a safe bet. I have even just thought of it as being 92% of 5k pace (5k pace divided by .92) so I can determine it fairly for runners of differing abilities. This only works, however, if the race results are a fair assessment of current fitness, meaning the athlete was healthy and gave their best effort.

The one thing you do not want to do as a coach is force a threshold pace on an athlete. What I mean by this is if you have a varsity guy racing at 5:20 pace for 5k but you want him to race at 5:00 pace, you do not give him a threshold workout calculated out for the 5:00 5k pace runner--this would be a killer! Here is the math:

5:20/mile for 5k = 5:44/mile for LT workouts
5:00/mile for 5k = 5:24/mile for LT workouts

So if I am doing a standard LT workout of 5-6 x mile @ LT pace with 1:00 rest with this guy, and I tell him he needs to hit 5:24 for each mile of the workout, I should be sure I have the local hospital on speed dial, because this dude is not going to make it! That is only :04 off his flat out 5k pace, and I am asking him to do this 5-6 times with only 1:00 rest!

No--with LT work, and with any other work (until the end of the season), stick with date pace. You are training the person, not the performance when it comes to LT training. Save the goal pace stuff for race pace training only.

3) Where does a threshold workout fit in during the week? (let's say a Saturday race)
Some sample weeks with LT training included preceding a Saturday race:

Option #1

SUN - Long run
MON - Aerobic run + speed development
TUE - 4 x 1000 @ LT w/ 1min rest + 2 x 500-300-200 @ 1600 pace
WED - Medium long run + strides
THU - Easy run + 6-8 x 200 race pace cutdown
FRI - Pre-Meet Day

Option #2

SUN - Off
MON - Race pace fartlek
TUE - Recovery run + strides
WED - 3 x 1000 @ LT w/ 1min rest + 2 x 500-300-200 @ 1600 pace
THU - Easy run
FRI - Pre-Meet Day

Option #3

SUN - Long run
MON - Aerobic run + speed development
TUE - 4 mile tempo run + 5 x 300 @ 1600 pace
WED - Medium long run + strides
THU - Easy run + 6-8 x 200 race pace cutdown
FRI - Pre-Meet Day

With either option above, you are getting in some LT work the week of a race--it just depends on what you are looking for as a coach. Option #1 shows only one TRUE workout for the week on Tuesday, with 4000 meters done at LT pace. This is effective, but light, and is followed by a good dose of quick stuff to wake the legs up a bit when fatigued a tad. Option #2 allows for an earlier workout in the week, and the LT workout is reduced and placed on a Wednesday, and again is followed with fast stuff. Option #3 is one of my favorite workouts--a 4 mile tempo run followed by some zippy 300s at mile pace.

This is important I feel--this finsihing with fast running on tempo days. I always want to finish an LT workout with something quick--you never want to put your race car in the garage without really opening it up during a training session. Plus, as I mentioned before, I like being able to train the athletes to run fast when some residual fatigue is in their systems. It is a great test for the body and spirit, and I feel it is very effective.

The key, I feel, is this--you never want a tempo workout to be too close to a race, and you do not want the last piece of quicker running prior to a race to be LT pace.


Because the body has incredible memory, and it will fall into step with the last thing of substantial measure that it can recall. LT pace should feel "comfortably hard" or "pleasantly tiring", right? Well, do we really want to be in or comfort zone come race day? Do we want pleasantries on race day, or do we want to get ugly and get after it? The last thing we are looking to do is settle into a rhythm that is slower than race pace, and so I feel that by running LT pace to close to a race (or having it be the last bit of uptempo work done in a training week), you risk having athletes get "rhythm locked"--stuck at a sub-maximal race pace and running flat.

Do I have science on my side here? Can't say that I do or don't, really. Like I said, the real tests of such training ideas are done by trial and error by the coaches, and this is what I have found in my experience.


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