Threshold Training : Run Faster to Run Further
Threshold training (often called tempo running, or even lactate, anaerobic or ventilatory threshold training) consists of running at your maximum aerobic output in a ‘steady state’. Because threshold training requires you to run at your maximum aerobic ‘steady state’ it is an excellent way to train for endurance running and races which require this type of running. It is also a great way to add variety to your workout and give you that ‘fast running’ feeling that is so easy to lose if you are constantly pushing out long distances.
Whatever you choose to call it, threshold training is a proven way to make you a faster and stronger runner. It will also make you more efficient so in endurance events you can go the distance on less energy. By ‘endurance’ I’m talking about 10k or longer, but threshold training is not a training method which revolves around distance covered, it’s about working at your maximum aerobic steady state to elevate your threshold, so will give you the same benefits for whatever distance you call ‘endurance’.
What does ‘threshold’ mean?
The term ‘threshold’ refers to the point where your body reaches its maximum aerobic output (energy derived from converting glycogen and oxygen). Beyond this point, any additional energy requirements must be met by your anaerobic metabolism (energy derived from converting glucose and glycogen without oxygen).
As with most thresholds, there is a danger if you cross the line. If you work too hard you run the risk of too large a contribution of anaerobic metabolism to your energy supply, which leads to an accumulation of lactate and also rapid fatigue. It’s not really the lactate that is the issue, it’s the rapid fatigue. Once you go over the threshold, the amount of glucose you need for the extra pace goes up rapidly. This has an immediate negative impact on your endurance, but can also deplete your glucose stores so much it hurts your recovery. The flipside is that if you go too easy you may not be training hard enough to gain the maximum benefit to your aerobic capacity, by not elevating your threshold level.
How do you avoid going over the threshold?
It’s about control. And the best control is your heart rate monitor.
Many people advocate speed as a control, however I prefer heart rate as ‘pace’ doesn’t account for environmental factors such as where you’re running and in what conditions, nor does it take account of your condition. You might be fatigued from a bad sleep or a hard session the day before, or conversely an extra rest day means you’re in better shape and could go faster. As I said earlier, threshold training is about being at your maximum aerobic steady state, not about distance or speed. Using a HRM takes the guesswork out.
How do you use your HRM for threshold training?
The most accurate way to find your max heart rate and your threshold rate is on a VO2 max machine, but seeing as most of us don’t have one sitting in the spare room, you can do the following ‘self tests’ which are pretty accurate. For these tests, you will need to find your maximum heart rate which is pretty hard going, like ‘flat-out-running’ hard, and should only be done if you’re fit and healthy. If you’re in doubt, then speak to your doctor first.
Test 1: The Conconi test
The Conconi test is very accurate, and will result in a graphical representation of your performance. This test requires a treadmill or track. The basics of the test are to increase speed at 200m intervals until you can’t run any further, while at the same time your HRM measures heart rate and your assistant measures the time taken for each 200m segment. However if you don’t have an assistant or think Excel is some form of Voodoo, then it’s a bit hard to do and it’s likely you’ll end up with incorrect readings.
Test 2: Maximal heart rate test
This is a three part exercise:
Step 1: Find your resting heart rate. You can do this simply by putting on your HRM when you wake up and resting for a few minutes, noting the number.
Step 3: Determine your threshold training zone. You are looking to be at about 85-90% of your maximum heart rate for threshold training, and I used the RunnersWeb.com heart rate zone calculator to determine mine.As it turns out, I happen to know a cardiologist and she was able to get me a session on a VO2 max machine. I did this after having done the above maximal heart rate test and it was only 2bpm out. Not a bad result, and shows that this test works well enough for us recreational runners!Gadget free but still want to try threshold training? If you’re gadget free and the above tests can’t be done by you, then a rough rule of thumb is to run at a pace 10 seconds per kilometre (15 seconds per mile) below your 10K race pace, however as I said before, running to pace doesn’t take into account your environment or your physiological state so can lead to errors in your workouts.
Now know your threshold heart rate. What do you do with it?
Your threshold sessions can vary, but typically it’s advised to do between 20-40 minutes of threshold running in a single session. If you’re experienced you might do this in a single ‘steady state threshold run’, but if you’re new to running or threshold running you might want to try repeats. These are best done to time, like say 4×6 minute threshold runs, with 3 minute recovery jog in between repeats. If you’re someone who needs distance targets, try mile repeats, or some distance that equates neatly into your run. As with most things running, the key is to build up slowly. Increase your distances over time, as your pace and fitness improves.
Regardless of which type of session you choose, the pace you are aiming for is one which gets you to your threshold rate (but not over) for the distance you are running. It is important not to start off too hard, as you will have to lower your pace in the latter stage of the session/repeat. It is about being a steady state and bringing your heart rate up to threshold level and holding it there. As you get better at knowing your body, you will be able to gauge this pace for the distance you are running, and also be able to track your improvements.
How do you use threshold sessions in your training schedule?
If you’re just running for fitness or enjoyment without a particular race or goal in mind, then you can use threshold running simply to break up your workouts and add variety. In this case one threshold session a week, perhaps only totalling 10% of your mileage, would be sufficient.
If you’re working towards a race or just trying to improve your pace or endurance over longer distances, then you might think about 1 or 2 threshold sessions, totalling up to 15% of your weekly mileage. Don’t forget, if you are peaking for a race then your mileage will go up, as will the total miles run at threshold. Don’t be tempted to do loads and loads of threshold miles, as this will limit other types of training. Threshold training is also hard work, so too much and you risk overtraining.
Keen to give threshold training a go?
Great!!! Here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind for your workouts:
- Threshold training is a tough workout and you need to complete a thorough warm-up and cool down. Start your workout with some Dynamic Stretching, followed by slow jogging to gradually raise your heart rate. Follow a cool down routine after your workout, and don’t forget your static stretching
- Doing repeats? Recovery breaks between repeats should either be walking or slow recovery jogging. These breaks are also a good time to refuel/rehydrate.
- Want to use threshold as part of half or full distance marathon training. Try a TLT workout to combine the effects of threshold training and your long-slow run.
- Threshold sessions are hard work, make sure the following day is a rest or recovery day so you can continue with quality workouts and avoid overtraining issues.
- Make sure you’re having fun doing it! You have to want to do these sessions otherwise you’ll just start skipping them. Focus on the improvement they bring to your fitness and speed!
Hopefully you will enjoy adding threshold training to your schedule, along with the pride that comes with challenging yourself, the freedom a threshold run gives your mind, and the improvements that threshold training has on your longer runs and races!
Get Going, Get Running!