TRAINING: DYI Lactate testing–part 1

Lactate testing is something I practically ‘grew up with’ as a runner. My first coach, Emma Cutts of the PeakCentre, utilised these tests in combination with plans based on aerobic capacity building and fat adaptation. Elements which remain cornerstones of my philosophy to this day.

In latter years I worked with Romain Denis from UCD and the predictions estimated by both his tests, and Emma’s tests in earlier years, were very precise.

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Graph of my lactate results over the years – the curve moves right. In my case a stronger aerobic system caused this development.

Is lactate testing really useful though?

However, I have been in two minds about using this tool regularly in the last few years both for myself and for my athletes. There are two main reasons for this: 1) lactate testing is very misunderstood and focuses in on one variable (always a danger) rather than looking at training effects holistically and 2) lactate testing can be expensive because you can obtain very similar knowledge about your own capabilities simply by racing or doing tests that do not require equipment.

The absolute authority on lactate today is, in my estimation, the Dutch scientist and former elite swimmer Jan Olbrecht who wrote the ‘Science of Winning’. This is a fantastic book and a good example of how you often have to read outside your field (in my case running) to truly learn something new. His main contention is that most of the commonly used interpretations and protocols for lactate testing are flawed and therefore useless both to coaches and athletes.

Lactate pitfalls

I do not want to go into the science of lactate here as there are plenty of pieces on the topic and anyone interested should read ‘Science of Winning’ and go to Lactate.com. What you need to know is this main point: a high concentration of lactate in your blood shows you that your anaerobic system is dominating over your aerobic energy system. This can happen in numerous different ways, for instance if your concentration is 4 mmol/litre of blood then it could be the case that:

  • Your anaerobic system produces 12 MMOL and your aerobic removes 8 (strong ANAEROBIC, strong AEROBIC)
  • Your anaerobic system produces 5 mmol and your aerobic removes 1 (weak anaerobic, weak aerobic)
  • Your anaerobic system produces 7 mmol and your aerobic removes 3 (weak anaerobic, moderate aerobic)

Keep in mind those examples are simplified for easy reading here and the figures are relative to an event. The take-away message is that when reading a lactate test then you have to understand that a reading of 4 mmol or 2 mmol (or whichever figure) can mean many different things. Most of today’s tests don’t fully go into this.

‘You don’t need it’

So I was skeptical about using it further as a training evaluation tool especially as generations of runners have been trained very effectively without this information. Indeed our decline, in the West, largely began around the time such research really took off. I know correlation is not causation and do not suggest lactate testing caused our athletic decline. Merely that too much focus on isolated variables and a scientific approach divorced from practical experience has been one of many contributory factors. So I asked myself, can I use this testing for myself and my stable of athletes without risking making the same mistakes?

On reflection I decided that like any other tool – a watch, a shoe, a supplement – the damage is done by the person wielding it. Not the tool itself. A good coach can probably identify most of what a lactate test will show most of the time. But if interested in a ‘safety net’ beyond this then the right protocol in the right hands can prove valuable.

Getting ready for DYI testing

To test my theory, I began by purchasing the necessary equipment to conduct my own test:

  • Watch and heart rate monitor (I already owned this, of course)
  • Lactate analyzer
  • Lactate test strips
  • A lancet (for drawing blood)
  • Baby wipes (for wiping blood!)
  • Treadmill (I already own this for my biomechanical assessments in my practice as a BTR coach)

In addition, I had a clipboard handy and also filmed my test with my hi-definition 60 fps camera (for later technical analysis). I also weighed myself immediately before the test (in shorts) for later comparison.

The ideal protocol vs. my protocol

The full protocol I used as a basis for mine can be seen at Lactate.com. The key is that each pace is held for a significant period of time (the equivalent of running 1.2 km to 2 km) rather than the shorter bursts that, due to time constraints, a lot of gyms and laboratories have to use.

In order to test my equipment and how easy it was to do it myself I simply decided to come up with a loose test which would give a general idea and be practical to carry out on my treadmill:

Test stages
  • 11.5 kph for 5 min
  • 12 kph for 5 min
  • 13 kph for 5 min
  • 14 kph for 3 min
  • 15 kph for 3 min
  • 16 kph for 2 min
  • 16 kph with 15% incline to failure (as a max lactate control test)

The last stage was forced upon me because our treadmill will not go higher than 16 kph.  In this protocol the first speed should be a good bit below 4 mmol, ideally around 2 mmol, and by the 2nd or 3rd stage I should hit 4 mmol.

Changes for future tests

Ideally, this test is done on the track for a more realistic environment. A treadmill offers many variations from running outside that are relevant, so the protocol we will be implementing with ChampionsEverywhere will be based outdoors.

Before I go into the details of how this test went, here is the protocol I plan to use for myself on a track:

  • 6 x 1200m at ascending speeds:
    • 5:15 min/km
    • 5:00 min/km
    • 4:45 min/km
    • 4:20 min/km
    • 3:55 min/km
    • 3:30 min/km
  • 1 x 400m MAX effort

A very strong athlete, or an athlete for whom we expect that it will take longer for the ‘lactate to settle’ could use longer repetitions (Lactate.com suggest 2000m). These tests can be tailored and indeed for elite athletes this is the recommendation.

Each will be followed by maximum 1 minute turn-around time for drawing blood. This also doubles up as a mixed interval session for the athlete.

Preview and results

After the test I compiled the results and identified my lactate V4 (the stage where lactate hits a concentration of 4 mmol) at around 14.2 kph (4:14 min/km pace).

In 2012, 3 months prior to running 2:55 for my marathon in Copenhagen, my threshold was at roughly 16.5 kph (3:38 min/km pace). This regression, of 36 seconds/km, is not a surprise as anyone who has seen my recent race results will testify, and was in line with what I expected.

If you have a close look at the ‘pink line’ you can see that it is performing slightly better than my early years of training at the low speed below 14 kph. But after that it spikes. It is also worse than my ‘peak years’ (2011-2012) by some margin. So both the basic fitness is down as well as race specific fitness. Again the test merely confirms what I already knew. What I cannot see is whether I am producing more lactate (aerobic system unfit) or whether I am not clearing lactate sufficiently quickly once it starts to accumulate.

So what can I learn more from it and how did I arrive at this?

More in part 2….

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* Notice the 13 kph stage is missing. This is because I missed it in the test! For this and other errors to note, read my next post with the detailed results.

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