There are many concepts of training that endurance athletes have to become familiar with. A common example is VO2 max.
Another important physiological metric for runners, cyclists, triathletes, and other endurance athletes is the anaerobic threshold.
So, what is anaerobic threshold? How do you increase your anaerobic threshold, and why does it matter?
In this article, we explain the anaerobic threshold definition, how to measure it, and examples of anaerobic threshold training workouts to improve yours for better endurance performance.
We will cover:
- What Is Anaerobic Threshold?
- How to Measure Your Anaerobic Threshold
- What Is the Difference Between Anaerobic Threshold and Lactate Threshold?
- How to Improve Your Anaerobic Threshold: Anaerobic Threshold Training
Let’s jump in!
What Is Anaerobic Threshold?
Let’s first look at the anaerobic threshold definition to get a clear understanding of what it is:
The anaerobic threshold refers to the intensity of exercise at which your body shifts from being able to produce energy through primarily aerobic metabolic pathways to the need to produce more energy through anaerobic glycolysis, regulating a significant accumulation of blood lactate, metabolic acidosis, and increase in respiration rate to exhale excess carbon dioxide.
According to researchers, anaerobic threshold is one of the most significant physiological variables in endurance sports. It may also be referred to as Lactate Threshold, Ventilatory Anaerobic Threshold, Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation, Onset of Plasma Lactate Accumulation, Heart Rate Deflection Point, and Maximum Lactate Steady State.
All of these essentially refer to the same point in exercise intensity or pace from a practical perspective but are looking at slightly different physiological measures of what changes at this point.
Ultimately, when you cross the anaerobic threshold, you will experience a significant rise in blood lactate concentration, so you can generally only sustain efforts above this threshold for a short duration before significant fatigue sets in.
Typically, for most endurance sports such as long-distance running, cycling, and triathlons, your anaerobic threshold is the key predictor of your performance potential because the pace that you can sustain at or just below your anaerobic threshold is the pace that you will be able to maintain for endurance races.
Pushing beyond this pace, when you cross the anaerobic threshold, will result in rapid and significant fatigue, causing you to “crash“ or run out of steam, with your legs burning and your body screaming to stop or slow down.
According to research, the anaerobic threshold, a concept conceived by Karlman Wasserman, is determined as the deflection point in the sharp increase of blood lactate concentration with an excess pulmonary carbon dioxide output during a progressive exercise test.
The physiological principle underlying the anaerobic threshold is that when exercise intensity increases to a certain point, you are unable to take in and deliver enough oxygen to your working muscles at the rate at which they need it.
This relative lack of oxygen requires the muscles to increase the rate of anaerobic glycolysis.
This, in turn, increases the rate of lactate and hydrogen ion production and subsequent concentration in the muscles.
The presence of hydrogen ions decreases the pH in your muscles and blood, which requires more buffering in the blood and carbon dioxide release.
When carbon dioxide concentration increases, more must be exhaled, so you have to breathe harder and faster.
How to Measure Your Anaerobic Threshold
There are a few different ways to measure your anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold, some of which are estimations, whereas others are more direct laboratory assessments.
Here are some of the most common ways to assess your anaerobic threshold:
Steady-State Heart Rate
If you are a trained endurance athlete, one of the better ways to approximate your anaerobic threshold is to take the mean heart rate, or average heart rate, during a longer duration race such as a 10 km or half marathon running race or a 30 km cycling race.
Graded Exercise Test
The gold standard for measuring your anaerobic (lactate) threshold is to do a graded exercise test in an exercise physiology lab with blood lactate measurements. This is an invasive procedure that involves running on a treadmill at increasing intensity while blood samples are taken at different intervals.
Then, the lactate concentration in your blood is plotted on a graph relative to the intensity of your exercise.
The point at which the increase in blood lactate concentration is no longer linear but instead hits a more exponential rise would be considered your lactate threshold, or for all intents and purposes, your anaerobic threshold.
Variations of this protocol, such as the Mader Test, also exist where your lactate threshold is automatically “reached“ and determined once your blood lactate levels reach 4 mmol/L.
This graded exercise test doesn’t directly measure anaerobic or lactate threshold because no blood lactate samples are taken. Of course, this makes the test far less invasive and easier to perform, but the results will be less accurate.
Rather than relying on actual blood lactate concentration data, the Conconi Test just measures your heart rate at different intervals as the intensity of the exercise increases. The “anaerobic threshold“ is determined after plotting your heart rate versus workload on a graph and picking the deflection point where the trend switches from a linear relationship to one with a more significant slope.
A very rough estimate of your anaerobic threshold can be made by taking 85-90% of your maximum heart rate.
Theoretically, this method works well because the anaerobic threshold corresponds to this heart rate range for most trained individuals.
However, the accuracy of this method will really hinge upon how you determine your maximum heart rate.
If you have a true maximum heart rate measurement from a maximum heart rate field test, this will work well for getting a reasonably accurate anaerobic threshold estimate.
However, using maximum heart rate estimation methods like 220-age will inherently be much less accurate since there’s a large standard deviation or margin of error with these formulas.
What Is the Difference Between Anaerobic Threshold and Lactate Threshold?
Anaerobic threshold and lactate threshold are often used interchangeably and occur at about the same level of intensity, and they both represent the maximum pace that you can sustain for an extended duration before significant fatigue sets in.
The real difference between anaerobic threshold and lactate threshold mainly lies in the way that they are measured. Lactate threshold specifically looks at blood lactate concentrations during graded exercise, whereas anaerobic threshold looks at changes in oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide exhalation.
Most sports scientists and exercise physiologists take the lactate threshold to be the point at which blood lactate concentrations exceed 4 mmol/L.
How to Improve Your Anaerobic Threshold: Anaerobic Threshold Training
There are basically two arms that need to be addressed to help increase your anaerobic threshold.
Essentially, you need to reduce the production of lactate—directly increasing your anaerobic threshold—and improve your body’s rate of removing and using lactate and buffering the acid (hydrogen ions)—which is brought on by improving your anaerobic fitness and efficiency.
When addressing the first arm, the rate at which lactate is produced, you need to improve your aerobic efficiency such that you can take in, deliver, and utilize oxygen more efficiently and at a faster rate during higher-intensity of exercise.
Essentially, this involves increasing your VO2 max or aerobic capacity.
If you can better meet the oxygen demands of your muscles at a faster pace, you will be able to continue supplying ATP, or cellular energy, through aerobic metabolic pathways rather than needing to switch over to anaerobic glycolysis, which in turn produces the hydrogen byproducts that ultimately cause fatigue.
When training to improve your anaerobic threshold, you should focus about 85-90% of your training efforts on improving your aerobic capacity and about 10-15% on anaerobic-specific workouts.
The anaerobic workouts should be intense and involve repeats of the same length (rather than a ladder or pyramid) with full rest in between. These workouts should focus on increasing your anaerobic endurance over time but increasing the duration during which you can exercise at maximum capacity.
To ensure that you are targeting just the anaerobic system rather than playing around in the murky middle or “gray zone,” these should be super intense, fast, short-speed intervals.
For example, a great workout to improve anaerobic endurance is to find a short steep hill. After a warm-up, sprint at maximum effort up the hill for 10 seconds. Mark where you end on the hill at the end of the interval.
Take a full recovery and then go again.
Continue your repeats with full recovery until you can no longer reach your finish mark in the 10 seconds.
This signals that your workout is over.
Once you do a workout where you can hit 10 reps at your distance, you are ready to progress for the next workout.
Next session, increase the sprint time to 12 seconds but keep the intensity as high.
Again, once you are able to do all 10 reps at max effort and hit your 12-second max mark, you can increase the following workout to 14 seconds.
Separate these workouts by at least one week.
Many coaches suggest that performing longer submaximal intervals teetering just at or above your anaerobic threshold pace is the best way to improve the ability of your muscles to remove lactate and buffer acid so that you can continue exercising at a high workload.
With these types of anaerobic threshold workouts, the rest should still be about as long as the interval itself for beginners and about 75% for advanced athletes.
Here are some examples:
- 6 x 800 meters with 3 minutes rest
- 4 x 1000 meters with 3 minutes rest
- 4 x 1200 meters with 4 minutes rest
- 5 x 4 minutes with 3 minutes rest (4 minutes for beginners)
- 4–5 x 5 minutes with 4 minutes rest
Anaerobic threshold training should be incorporated into your weekly training (typically once a week), but don’t neglect the importance of building your aerobic base as well.
To read up on improving your aerobic base, check out our guide Run Slow To Run Fast.