Any successful training plan has to start with the right fitness test to benchmark where you stand now. An individualised programme cannot exist without being underpinned by a valid and reliable assessment and it’s this personal data that ensures the right intensities for the various training components.
Fitness assessments can range in specificity from a timed distance run to comprehensive breath-by-breath gas analysis via a full metabolic assessment as described in a previous article. However, for the most cost effective assessment that still enables you to define your training intensities and know your predicted marathon time, a lactate assessment is the best fit:
What is lactate?
Lactate is the by-product of the anaerobic energy system.
What does this tell us?
Broadly speaking there are two pathways via which the body generates energy. One uses oxygen (aerobic) and the other does not (anaerobic). The aerobic energy system has the highest energy yield and can keep working indefinitely. On the other hand, the anaerobic energy system, although it has the ability to supply energy more immediately, is a finite energy source which needs topping up and also creates a less tolerable environment within the body.
Why is this important?
The characteristics of the aerobic energy system suit endurance exercise perfectly. However, as exercise intensity increases, so does the shift in energy production from the aerobic system to the anaerobic system. The point at which this change occurs is known as your lactate threshold. In order to improve your lactate threshold, you need to do the majority of your training at the training intensity of your lactate threshold.
What else will it tell me?
It will show how your body copes at intensities beyond your lactate threshold and help define the training intensities for the other training components. It will give you a lactate profile, from which you will find out if you are better suited to long or shorter distance events. For example, someone like Mo Farah would have a good base fitness where the lactate level remains at baseline until near maximum intensity where it would increase very sharply. On the other hand, someone like Usain Bolt’s lactate level may start drifting above baseline at a much lower intensity but never increase that sharply as his muscles are better trained to cope with higher levels.
Why can’t I just use a heart rate monitor to find out how fit I am?
Heart rate monitoring is a very useful tool for measuring cardiovascular strain. It shows us how hard the heart is working to assist with the delivery of oxygen to the working muscles and therefore gives us an idea of the relative exercise intensity. However, heart rate is influenced by a number of factors (i.e. psychological and environmental) as well as physical activity. Whereas the cardiovascular system plays an invaluable support role in physical activity, measuring lactate gives us an insight into what is going on at a molecular level in the muscle in terms of energy metabolism and therefore relative intensity.
What does the test involve?
Exercising at increasing intensities and having your lactate measured at the end of every stage using a pinprick sampling method.
How long does it take?
Allow an hour but the exercise part should not take any longer than 25 minutes.
How will I know what the data means?
You will receive a full follow-up report containing a breakdown of your results and your one page lactate profile report. The data can then be used to accurately identify your training zones which you can build in to your training programme.
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