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What is threshold training?

If you’ve ever felt your legs start to burn and get heavy during a race, then you’re intimately familiar with your lactate threshold, but what is it really and how can you improve it?

Generally, running is an aerobic activity. For any given runner, the muscles are fueled mostly through aerobic metabolism during low intensity efforts. As you pick up the pace and the intensity of your effort increases, the aerobic system cannot keep up with energy demands of your muscles. Anaerobic metabolism makes up for this deficit. Your body always uses a combination of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. The higher the intensity (i.e. faster you run), the more work your anaerobic metabolism will do. The byproducts of anaerobic metabolism (hydrogen ions and lactate) acidify the muscles. The body works to clear them from your muscles, but at some point they will be produced faster than they can be cleared. That point is your lactate threshold, and your pace at that point is your threshold pace.

Finding your threshold pace

Your threshold pace is generally right around the pace you can race at for an hour. So, if you race a 10K in an hour, then your threshold pace is your 10K race pace. If you race a 10K in 40 minutes, then your threshold pace is about 10-15 seconds per mile slower than your 10K race pace.

Threshold training takes two basic forms:

  1. Tempo Runs: A tempo run is a sustained effort of about 20-50 minutes at your threshold pace. In addition to their physical challenges, tempo runs can be a great mental workout. While the pace won’t be exhausting, it will be uncomfortable and maintaining it for a few miles may require some mental tricks.
  2. Long intervals: Long intervals (sometimes called “cruise intervals”) are runs of 3/4 mile to 2 miles at threshold pace with short breaks between. As a general rule, you should rest for about 1 minute after every 5 minutes of running at threshold pace. So, if your threshold pace is 8 minutes per mile and you’re doing 1 mile intervals, you should rest for about a minute and a half after every interval. The total time spent running at threshold pace should be at least 20 minutes.

The advantage of long intervals is that they’re not as mentally taxing as tempo runs because of the short breaks. They allow you to spend more time at threshold pace in a given workout than you could in a sustained tempo run. That doesn’t mean you should only do long intervals, though. You probably won’t be getting any short rest breaks in your next race, so the mental preparation the tempo run offers is important as well. I recommend starting with long intervals and working up to tempo runs, then alternating between them from week to week.

Here’s a sample training plan
(Threshold pace = 8 min/mile)

Weeks 1-3

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 1 mile in 8:00 with 1:30 rest (repeat 3 times)
  • 1 mile cool down

Weeks 2-6

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 2 miles in 16:00 with 3:00 rest (repeat twice)
  • 1 mile cool down

Week 7

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 3 miles in 24:00
  • 1 mile cool down

Week 8

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 2 miles in 16:00 with 3:00 rest (repeat twice)
  • 1 mile cool down

Week 9

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 3 miles in 24:00
  • 1 mile cool down

Week 10

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 2 miles in 16:00 with 3:00 rest (repeat 3 times)
  • 1 mile cool down

Week 11

  • 1 mile warmup
  • 4 miles in 32:00
  • 1 mile cool down

In subsequent weeks, continue to alternate between long intervals and tempo runs. As you gain fitness, be careful not to try to beat your times from the previous weeks. See if you can work up to a 5 mile sustained effort instead. If the pace feels easier, just enjoy it. Wait until you’ve actually raced a faster time before dropping your threshold pace in your workouts.

Written by

Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at ARunnersBlog.com

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