To get a better understanding of the differences between Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max we really need to understand each one and what they represent.
VO2 max actually has quite of few names including maximal oxygen consumption, maximal oxygen uptake, peak oxygen uptake or maximal aerobic capacity. When performing a VO2 Max test, the object is to get a representation of a person’s aerobic physical fitness under peak exertion. The V stands for volume, the O2 stands for oxygen and MAX for maximum.
During testing a subject’s VO2 max is reached when their oxygen consumption plateaus despite an increase in workload. Today the most accurate testing of VO2 max is performed on a treadmill or stationary bike.
The Good News and The Bad News of VO2 max
First the good news. The higher your VO2 max, the more your body can take in oxygen and deliver it to your muscles.
Unfortunately genetics plays a major role in a person’s VO2 max. Some people are simply born better athletes, with a better delivery system. That said, a person can raise their own VO2 max threshold through high intensity training.
Ways Your VO2 Max Can Improve
- Economy Effect. As an athlete, you can become more adapted at a particular sport due to training. This adaption means you will be more economical allowing you to run, swim or bike faster then you could prior to training.
- Losing Weight – Since weight is a component in the VO2 max equation, losing weight can improve your performance at given speeds.
- Training Effect – Simply training may increase your Vo2 max by as much as 15%.
Workouts To Raise VO2 max
VO2 max training is tough work, because raising it can be painful and not all that much fun. It’s advisable before attempting VO2 max training you have a good solid base of 3 months in the sport that you are wanting to improve on. VO2 max training is hard on the body and should only be done once or twice a week.
- Short Intervals – These are short bursts of speed for 30 or 60 seconds followed by a 30 or 60 second recovery. The goal is to work up to 10 – 12 repetitions.
- Hill Intervals – These are short bursts of 30 – 90 seconds hill assents with a recovery back to the start. The goal is to work up to 8 – 10 hill repetitions.
- Track Intervals – These are typically longer workout sessions of 800 to 1,200 meter intervals with a 400 meter recovery. The goal is to work up to 5K worth of hard running using a combination of 800s, 1000s and 1200s. A typical workout might look like 4 x 800, 4 x 1,000, 4 x 1,200.
VO2 Max Testing
There are various protocols for calculating your VO2 max from treadmills to stationary bikes to track testing. By far the easiest one I have ever done was using a Polar M400 and laying down while the watch did all the work. Polar uses what they call Polar OwnIndex to give you a rough estimation of your Vo2 max. It looks at the following and comes up with a pretty good indicator.
- Resting heart rate
- Heart rate variability
- Body weight
- Self-assessment of the level of long-term physical activity (last 6 months).
While VO2 max is good to know, it really isn’t the magic number that can help you train smart. That is where lactate threshold comes into play.
Lactate threshold is the point during exercise when lactate begins to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. To understand lactate you will need a little biology lesson and an understanding of Glycolysis, Krebs Cycle, and Electron Transport Chain (ETC).
During exercise our cells produce ATP molecules, these are then broken down by our body to create energy. The energy is used to perform functions like muscle contraction. Without it we wouldn’t have the ability to walk or run. ATP is created at all stages of the Glycolysis, Krebs Cycle, and ETC cycles, but the bulk ATP is generated during ETC. At low level exercise, the majority of ATP needed will come from ETC. The problem is ETC isn’t very effective at producing large enough quantities of ATP during intense exercise spikes, so our body calls upon Glycolysis to make up the difference. The net result using this method is an excess concentration of Lactate in our blood stream. When the lactate gets to a certain level you may start feeling queasy and nauseous, the body basically forces you to slow down until the lactate is cleared to a tolerable point. That burning sensation during a hard bought is your brain telling you that lactate is building up in your blood, eventually getting to a point where your muscles scream out saying enough.
Realistically there are 2 actual Lactate Thresholds.
- LT1 – Aerobic Threshold – Your aerobic threshold is where blood lactate raises above baseline. Training at or near the LT1 enables athletes to increase their aerobic threshold allowing them to race or train longer aerobically without going into an anaerobic state.
- LT2 – Anaerobic Threshold – Your anaerobic threshold is where there is a signification rise of lactate in the blood. Training at or near the LT2 enables to increase their anaerobic threshold allowing them to push themselves harder before becoming too anaerobic and having to slow down.
Lactate Threshold Testing
Lactate Threshold Testing has been a very sore subject, literally. Tests usually involve getting a pin prick blood sample every 2-3 minutes during testing and analyzing the lactate results in the blood. As you can imagine performing these tests can become quite expensive and only gives you a snapshot of your fitness and lactate threshold at a particular point in time. Recently BSX Athletics came out with a wearable calf sleeve called the BSXinsight monitoring system. The really unique aspect of this approach is it doesn’t require the drawing of blood and can be worn during competition. The key component is a computer that slips into the sleeve which uses special LED lights that shine in the near infrared spectrum to continuously measure muscle oxygenation saturation changes (aka SmO₂) in athletes while they train. These highly specific wavelengths of light allow BSXinsight to precisely measure real-time dynamic changes in hemoglobin and myoglobin as it’s delivered to the exercising muscle. As these oxygen carrying molecules switch from an oxygenated to a deoxygenated state their physical properties change in a measurable way that produce actual color changes. The information can be relayed in real time to most ANT+ fitness tracking watches.
While I haven’t tested it out, the principles behind it seem sound and if it lives up to the hype, it’s a game changer. Ray over at DC Rainmaker has a pretty extensive write-up on the BSXinsight.
The whole concept of being able to measure Lactate while working out, without the need for blood sampling in the traditional sense, means an athlete can now train at, or just above their LT. There is no guesswork involved, and all this information can then be analyzed post workout by a coach or the athlete.
Lactate Threshold Vs VO2 Max Conclusion
So while VO2 max is a great indicator of a person’s overall fitness potential, lactate threshold is the key element that dictates why certain athletes dominate races given the same VO2 max scores. Of course there are other factors that come into play that aren’t as quantifiable such as motivation, training regiment and recovery. One thing is clear, given tools such as the BSXinsight means athletes can more effectively train over their non-BSXinsight counterparts.
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