All You Need To Know About Lactate Threshold and Cycling

As a cyclist, or even a triathlete, there’s a big difference between allowing your body to perform at its peak and just simply doing your best.

Knowing your limit can be the key to surpassing it. For athletes, this is very important. That’s why every endurance athlete like a cyclist or triathlete needs accurate physiological data to guide and monitor their training.

One of those commonly used markers is lactate threshold. This is an effective performance markers used by many athletes and coaches. The logic to this performance marker is to learn the highest intensity at which you race and train before hitting the wall from high levels of blood lactate.

Elite endurance athletes and coaches know the key to success is to increase sustainable power (in other words, surpassing your limit) on the bike and speed while running at lactate threshold.

What Is Lactate Threshold?

To put it simply, lactate is your body’s buffering agent. It neutralizes the acid that builds up in your legs and allows your body to burn them during heavy exertion.

So the harder you push the pedal, the faster the acid accumulates. So as you keep doing that, your muscles will generate more acid than you can neutralize and your searing muscles will force you to ease up or stop. So technically, the point at which you begin to accumulate acid more quickly than you can dissipate it is your lactate threshold.

Your body also has the ability to reuse the lactate and it is converted back into reusable energy within the liver. You can increase your lactate clearing capabilities by using the right exercise pattern which I will get onto.

Why Does Lactate Threshold Matter?

As you can see, your lactate threshold essentially defines the upper limit of your sustainable efforts in training or even in competition.

Once you reach the point where you rely more heavily on your glycolytic system for energy, then you’re exercising on borrowed time. You should try and save precious gylcogen and carbs for the sprint finish or defining moments of a race. The winner of a race usually isnt the strongest but is the one with the most energy left at the end. The longer time you can keep with the pace under or at your threshold the better chance you have of winning in the end. Therefore increasing your LT is like  the holy grail of cycling.

When blood lactate accumulates, it will hinder your muscles’ ability to contract and forcing you to slow down or even stop. So naturally, the more work you can do before you reach your lactate threshold, the better. That will translate into better results.

Think of it this way, if the pace you can hold at your lactate threshold is higher than the pace your competitor can hold at his or her lactate threshold, then you will go faster and reach the finish line first.

You could say that it is the scientific formula to winning endurance races. Also, when you are able to do more work at lactate threshold, you will be able to maintain a lighter pace a lot easier. All the while, your rivals will be burning energy fast, riding at their limits, while you are keeping pace with them and relying primarily on your aerobic system.

This will allow you to save valuable energy that you can use for the final push of the race, where your competitors are all gassed up and you are just preparing to move a gear higher.

How Do You Find Your Lactate Threshold?

Now that you know what lactate threshold is, of course you want to know how to find your lactate threshold. It is the first step to improving. You can find your lactate threshold by doing a DIY time trial.

To find your lactate threshold you have 2 options

  1. Go to a Performance lab and perform a ramp test where you will have samples of blood taken at the end of each test increment of the test. Usually these tests increase in 30 watt blocks and for me started at 120 watts.
  2. Go out on open road and ensure you will not be interrupted for 30 minutes or use you turbo trainer in the house, I prefer this method because it is more controlled and you will not have to deal with and cars or traffic. You need to cycle as hard as you possibly can for 30 minutes and when you are analysing your data you should exclude the first 10 minutes of the test and take the average Heart rate for the final 20 minutes.

My Lab tests

You can notice how on my lactate curve in the first graph the lactate level increases significantly early on from around 180 watts but after winter training you can see that there is no significant rise until around 270 watts

lactate threshold
Unfit and results after 6 month break – new baseline
Post 12 weeks winter training

How Do You Increase Your Lactate Threshold?

Now that you know what your lactate threshold is, the next step is to improve or increase it. Even though lactate threshold is partially genetic (just like all things body related), it’s also quite trainable.

You can increase it by systematically pushing your limits. By doing so, you will allow your body to become more efficient at clearing and buffering lactic acid.

The secret to this is riding that very thin line between the point where you can ride comfortably for hours and the point where you can sustain only a few minutes before frying.

These drills are designed to raise your lactate threshold. You can choose one drill per workout and do the training no more than two days a week and not on consecutive days, to avoid burn out.

Steady State Intervals (3 x 20 minutes at Lactate Threshold with 5 minutes easy between each interval) 2-3 times weekly

Do a warm-up ride for 10 minutes at zone 1/2

20 minutes at Lactate threshold but don’t go over your Lactate threshold. Try to stay a bit below it and bounce off it and back down. If you can try stay within 5 beats of it.

now do 5 minutes easy at Zone 1/2 (your body will be clearing the lactate during this time and recovering and its highly important that you use this time to recover and try and use the entire zone 1/2 range so the body becomes efficient at clearing the lactate through this range)

20 minutes at lactate threshold and higher but stay within 5 beats don’t go higher if possible. I always found this to be the most mentally demanding stage of the workout and you will be breathing very heavy and you body will be screaming at you telling you to stop but you must keep going.

Now easy riding for another 5 minutes remember to float through zone 1/2 (for example my zone 1 was 130-140 and my zone 2 was 140-154 so during the 5 minutes easy I would reduce heart rate to 130 and gradually bring it up to 154 before starting the next 20 minute interval)

20 minutes just below your lactate threshold

do a cool down around 10 minutes easy riding and relax eat and rest 🙂

Lactate clearance ( once per week) 9 min easy 1 min sprint x 6

To improve the bodies ability to clear and reuse lactate use the following exercise

On the turbo or out on the road (does not need to be quiet although it is preferrable) do a normal warm up around zone 1/2 for 15 minutes.

This exercise in total will last for approximately 1.5 hours.

after you warm up do a 1 minute sprint as hard as possible (you will feel like vomiting at the end of it)

Reduce effort to zone 1/2 for approximately 10 minutes and then complete another 1 minute sprint. AGAIN  it is essential that you ride easy when completing recover intervals.

Repeat this exercise 6 times before completing your warm down.

Easy Spin 4 hours

Often over looked but I found this one so beneficial and gives the body time to recover and improve. Don’t exceed zone 2 on this ride

Once per week you should go for a long spin 4 hours plus. This is great to get the body used to running on fats and used to longer rides in general, if you are trying to lose some weight you can have the first hour of the spin fasted this works very well. I was able to get my body fat % down to 7 percent using these exercises and that’s pretty good for an rookie with a full time Job 😉

So there you go. These are all the basics about lactate threshold and cycling. Remember, the higher your lactate threshold, as a percentage of aerobic capacity, the faster you will be able to ride a bike. So, as a cyclist, it is important to gradually increase your lactate threshold to improve your performance.