Testing Blood Lactate Threshold

Fitness in the Blood
The Gear Junkie goes under the needle for a Blood Lactate Test
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
published June 3, 2008

A vein in my forehead is about to burst. Sweat streams off my nose. I’m on a stationary bike, hooked to cords and monitors, a hamster on a wheel, legs spinning, lungs gasping, heart-rate racing to 168 beats per minute—dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit—and climbing higher still.

“Come on, let’s hit 170!” shouts Ben Popp, founder of Endurance Athlete, a fitness-training company in St. Paul.

My fingertip is bloody, perforated already with a half-dozen pricks. My head is woozy. Then the three-minute session ends. “OK, give me that finger,” says Popp, grabbing my wrist, a medical needle in hand.

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Popp is searching for my blood lactate threshold, a point where lactic acid floods muscle cells too fast for the body to metabolize the excess. This threshold is where athletes “feel the burn,” a physiological parameter at which speed, power and efficiency start to suffer under the pain of anaerobic stress.

Professional athletes, notably Nordic skiers and endurance-sports competitors, have sought blood lactate tests for more than a decade. Alongside fitness identifiers such as body mass index, VO2 max (aerobic capacity), heart rate and body composition tests, a blood lactate profile helps prescribe workout regimens individualized for the physiological makeup and fitness level of each athlete on a roster.

Indeed, blood lactate readings can distill the efficiency of exercise to a cellular level, providing a peek at the inner workings of millions of muscle cells, where oxygen, enzymes, glycogen, lactic acid and other infinitesimals mix to pound out movement and power. Trainers and coaches take test results and apply them to heart-rate-based workouts structured for maximum physical efficiency.

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Popp, founder of Endurance Athlete, analyzes Regenold’s output via video and performance metrics including heart rate and lactate level on the lab’s trainer bike.

“It’s about training smarter, not harder,” said Popp, a former semi-pro skier who coached college athletes for five seasons before founding Endurance Athlete in 2001. “The goal with any workout should be to do the minimal amount of work possible to elicit the physiological response that you need to make a difference.”

With such claims, blood lactate tests are just now entering the mainstream fitness vernacular. Popp says everyday exercisers, recreational athletes and dieters can benefit from the precise fitness plans generated by a lactate profile.

“People who work 50 or 60 hours a week and have just a few hours for fitness can increase their productivity,” Popp added.

Piotr Bednarski, founder of the personal-training company Go! Training in Minneapolis, Minn., said lactate tests help athletes to ensure that they are not overdoing it. “Some citizen athletes train too hard, which is detrimental,” Bednarski said. “I can monitor somewhat scientifically when people need to cut back, or when performance is suffering.”

At the pro level, Bednarski offered Caitlin Compton, a 27-year-old U.S. Biathlon Team skier, as example: “Compton never got sick, never showed signs of stress,” Bednarski said. “But by analyzing her lactate level I could see when she was overworked and in need of a break from training.”

Bednarski, who trains skiers, runners, mountain bikers and triathletes, measures lactate levels in the field, pricking a finger after a short session then plunking a drop of blood onto a handheld analyzer. He gets an instant read on lactate levels in the blood. Then, based on a client’s past lactate levels, Bednarski can better formulate a workout regimen.

“If a client runs a 6:20 mile at a certain lactate level, then a month later it’s dramatically different, that gives me something concrete to work with,” Bednarski said.

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Popp cues in readings after a session to develop a customized training program based on each athlete’s blood lactate threshold and other parameters.

But a lactate profile is just one piece of the fitness puzzle, Bednarski said. Like any physiologic test, each person brings unique anatomical factors and life circumstances that are weighed against the cold numbers.

“A lactate profile is simply a physiological descriptor like height and weight,” said George Brooks, an exercise physiologist and professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Brooks, an expert in the field since the 1970s, is known for studies that identified lactic acid as a cellular fuel, not just a waste product, as it was historically seen.

Handheld blood monitors now sell for $250 or less, putting lactate testing in the realm of the common exerciser. But Brooks said the area of study is complex and ever-developing. “There’s no silver bullet test,” he said. “You do a dietary assessment, body composition, max heart rate, and lactate—it’s all part of an overall look at the athlete.”

Dr. Shannon Sovndal, founder of Thrive HFM, a training company for athletes in Boulder, Colo., administers blood-based tests to only 20 percent of his clients. He said there is a cachet developing around knowing your lactate level. “For some recreational athletes it’s another bell or whistle,” he said.

Sovndal prefers to measure physical output with a power meter on a bike and with heart rate checks in the field. “The [blood analysis] lab tests are useful for the elite athletes who follow a precise training plan,” he said.

Other coaches apply the test more liberally. Reid Lutter, program director for the Minnesota Valley Ski Team, said members as young as 18 undergo frequent lactate tests. “When these kids are training 500 or 600 hours a year, we want to make sure they are making the best use of their time,” he said. “Lactate levels are one indicator.”

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Test room at Endurance Athlete in St. Paul, Minn.

For Chad Giese, a former pro skier who’s long promoted training based on lactate levels, blood readings dictated his monthly, weekly or even daily interval workout regimens. Giese, 31, sometimes trained with a lactate monitor in his water-bottle belt. He’d ski a lap or do an interval, then stop to prick a finger. “It was an instant picture that let me train at my most optimal level,” he said.

My test with Endurance Athlete—a $200 procedure performed over two hours on a Thursday evening—established a framework for Popp to draw up a personal fitness plan. He pushed me at six increasingly difficult levels on a bike and then a treadmill, pricking my finger to take blood after each session.

From there, Popp charted my lactate levels alongside my heart rate. A graph slowly began to develop, revealing a profile of where my cells began to flood with excess lactate.

Popp identified my lactic threshold as corresponding with a heart rate intensity of about 154 beats per minute. He noted a “dead zone” around 140 to 147 beats per minute where training for me is highly inefficient.

I left with a general idea of my physical shape. Two days later, Popp e-mailed me a personalized fitness plan:

“Based on our tests, you are a generally fit guy,” the plan’s introduction read. “You are slow compared to a bike racer, but you aren’t a bike racer. You are slow compared to a 5k runner, but you aren’t a 5k runner. You are fit for what you do—ultras, orienteering, etc. With some guided training and planning you will see great improvements in your competitive results.”

Sounded all good to me.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

Posted by Clyde Soles - 06/03/2008 08:10 AM

Lactate “threshold” is an old school concept that has been debunked in the past few years. Lactic acid does not cause the burn and it doesn’t even really exist in the body (immediately converts to lactate); lactate is an energy source not something to be feared. At best, lactate measurements are secondary indicators of what is actually going on in the muscles. It is highly debatable if these blood tests (particularly when administered via pin pricks every few minutes instead of continuously during the workout) are any more valuable than simply monitoring breathing and heart rate (power is great for cyclists). Probably for 99% of serious athletes, the lactate testing is a waste of money.

Posted by Ben - 06/03/2008 12:48 PM

I’d beg to differ. I work with numerous professional athletes as well as leading researchers and coaches in the US, all who use lactate testing to monitor athlete progress and physiological response. While some of what you mention is semantics (yes we do have lactate dehydrogenase that allows lactate to cross into the cells mitochondria and act as a fuel for instance), the results from many years of testing and thus results have shown to be very accurate and helpful to athletes and their coaches.

Posted by Kelsey - 06/04/2008 07:58 PM

But remember to much of anything can be painful. Just like starting to run…. push to hard and go to fast or to far and you will pay the price. Lactic threshold is just the point when you body can’t deal with what is going on and tells you to slow down. If I was serious about training for competition I would like to know at what point I meet this threshold. With this knowledge I could design a work out to take me past it. Isn’t that the point in training?

Posted by Seth - 09/07/2008 07:00 AM

Ok, the issue here is that he says that lactate threshold testing is looking for lactic acid build up in the BLOOD. It is accurate, and it does work. All of the pro’s use it and so do amateur athletes.
This is and outstanding scientific analysis that give merit to lactate testing and supports that the variables present do make it inaccurate, but it IS a better standard than heartrate

Posted by susan - 07/01/2009 04:36 AM

Just a question…I had my blood lactate tested again today as a follow up and the anomaly that occured in my first test happened again…my level dropped an entire mmol during the middle of the test, then the subsequent readings progressed as normal again to the end of the test, raising steadily as I increased my wattage on a computrainer. Can anyone explain why this would happen or what it means?

Posted by Shar - 01/04/2010 04:06 PM

Susan, it is very possible that where you are noticing the drop in lactate levels is simply where you are most comfortable. It may be the pace that you tend to ride at the most….the stage where your body cruises and is most adapted to.

Posted by Henry Drockton - 02/12/2010 09:54 AM

Ski fitness trainer with a cross trainer. Elliptical trainers target specific muscle groups and can help and benefit you before and after skiing break.

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