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Threshold Run Guide: Everything You Need To Know

+ 5 challenging workouts to try out

Runners love their jargon. From DOMS to bonking, VO2 max to strides, there is undoubtedly a rich running vernacular, and knowing how to properly use the terms—both in conversation and in training practice—can help you feel like a real runner.

While not every term that could be in a running glossary is necessarily one you want or need to familiarize yourself with, one of the most important training terms you’ll want to understand and incorporate into your routine is threshold training. 

A threshold run is one of the key types of running workouts in your training plan. It is designed to help you run faster and increase your fitness. As a running coach, I feel it is truly one of the best workouts to improve performance.

Threshold runs should be a regular part of your training program, no matter where you are in your fitness journey, marathon training, or otherwise.

That said, many runners aren’t exactly sure what threshold runs are, their benefits, or how to do threshold training in general. This leads to ineffective runs or a reluctance to try these workouts altogether.

If you want to get faster and stronger, keep reading for everything you need to know about threshold runs.

Threshold Run Guide

What Is Your “Threshold”?

We used to think that the lead-like, burning, heavy feeling in your legs in the last mile of a hard 5K or the last lap of an all-out mile resulted from “lactic acid” buildup in the legs.

When your effort level and running pace reach a certain point, you’ll notice you suddenly become much more breathless. 

This point, called the ventilatory threshold, is the point at which your body is no longer able to get enough oxygen when you breathe and it is closely tied to what is called the lactate threshold.

The lactate threshold1Hoff, J., Støren, Ø., Finstad, A., Wang, E., & Helgerud, J. (2016). Increased Blood Lactate Level Deteriorates Running Economy in World Class Endurance Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(5), 1373–1378. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001349 is considered the tipping point wherein your body has to start producing energy anaerobically (without oxygen) through the metabolic pathway known as glycolysis rather than through aerobic metabolism.

Glycolysis produces an end product called lactate, and while the lactate itself isn’t actually what causes the heavy, burning feeling, lactate production is associated with the production of hydrogen ions and other waste products that do cause discomfort and muscular fatigue.

At the lactate threshold, your body suddenly shifts from being able to clear the lactate and deleterious metabolic waste products at the same rate they are being produced to becoming inundated with waste due to the increased reliance on producing energy without sufficient oxygen (anaerobic threshold).

Threshold Run Guide

Why Do We Care About Lactate Threshold?

The lactate threshold in and of itself isn’t necessarily helpful, but knowing your running pace at your lactate threshold tells you how fast you can run before tipping the scales past “the point of no return.” 

In other words, if you’re running a marathon or long-distance race and can keep your pace at or below your lactate threshold pace, you’ll be able to stave off crippling fatigue. 

What is a Threshold Run?

In simple terms, a threshold run is when you run at or just below your lactate threshold pace, where your body can still clear the lactate from your body so you don’t reach complete exhaustion.

Threshold runs are also often called tempo runs, as threshold pace can also be referred to as tempo pace.

How Do I calculate My Threshold Pace For Running?

There are several different ways you can find your threshold run pace. 

#1: Laboratory Testing

Of course, the most precise and accurate method is to get tested in an exercise physiology lab with blood lactate testing, but this is invasive and can be expensive.

If you’ve done a VO2 max test, your lactate threshold occurs around 83-88% of your VO2 max, so your threshold run pace would be the pace you are running at 83-88% of your VO2 max, according to your lab results.

Threshold Run Guide

#2: 60-Minute Effort Pace

Your threshold pace is roughly the pace you could hold at max effort for an hour of running.

In other words, if you were to enter a race measured in time instead of distance, and the goal was to run as far as you could in one hour, the pace you could hold for that one-hour race would be a good estimate of your threshold run pace.

#3: Approximating from Race Results

For most runners, the threshold run pace is somewhere between 10K-15K race pace.

You can also take the results of these races or run a 3K or 5K time trial at a very hard effort, and then pop those race times into Jack Daniel’s VDOT running formula.

Here, you will calculate all of your current training paces, including interval training paces, half-marathon paces, marathon paces, threshold paces, etc.

#4: Heart Rate Training

Threshold run pace can be determined by the pace you’re running when your heart rate is about 75-80% of your maximum heart rate.

#5: Rate of Perceived Exertion

A less precise estimate of your threshold training pace is to use the pace you’re running when your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is about 7-8 out of 10, where 10 is an all-out sprint.

Threshold Run Guide

What Are The Benefits of Lactate Threshold Training?

One of the best things about the lactate threshold is that research has demonstrated that it’s modifiable through training.

Threshold runs can push the lactate threshold to faster paces, meaning that you can maintain a faster pace while still relying on aerobic metabolism without accumulating the byproducts of glycolysis. This means you can run faster and for a longer period of time without fatigue.

Additionally, threshold runs improve overall aerobic fitness and VO2 max. They train your body to be more metabolically efficient and can improve your ability to use fat for energy at faster paces.

Related: What’s a Good VO2 Max? Average VO2 Max By Age And Sex

How Do You Structure A Threshold Running Workout?

Threshold training2Burke, J., Thayer, R., & Belcamino, M. (1994). Comparison of effects of two interval-training programmes on lactate and ventilatory thresholds. British Journal of Sports Medicine28(1), 18–21. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.28.1.18 involves any workout in which you maintain your threshold pace for a certain period of time. A threshold run may involve one continuous interval at the threshold training pace or several shorter intervals with slower recovery rest periods in between. 

However, because the threshold pace isn’t an all-out effort, rest periods should be short. Here are some sample threshold workouts:

  • Run a 1-2 mile warmup, 3-8 miles at threshold pace, and then a 1 mile cool down. 
  • Run a 1-2 mile warmup, then 3-6 x 1 mile at threshold run pace with one minute easy in between, and then 1 mile cool down.
  • Run a 1-2 mile warmup, then 3 x 10-15 min at threshold run pace with one-minute recovery in between, and then a 1 mile cool down.
  • Run a 1-2 mile warmup, then 2 x 20 min at 10K pace, or slightly faster than threshold run pace with 90 seconds of recovery in between, and then 1 mile cool down.
  • Run the last 2-4 miles of a long run at threshold pace.
Threshold Run Guide

How Do I Incorporate Threshold Runs Into My Training Plan?

Depending on your goals and current fitness levels, most coaches recommend doing at least one threshold workout per week. 

More advanced runners may choose to have one dedicated tempo run at threshold pace and a second weekly workout with intervals at threshold pace or incorporate threshold pace work into a longer distance long run.

Even beginners can safely and effectively incorporate threshold runs into their workout program, as threshold pace is individualized.

Moreover, less aerobically fit runners will experience more significant improvements in lactate threshold through threshold training than more experienced distance runners. 

As your become fitter, you’ll notice your threshold effort pace starts to feel easier. This is indicative of an increase in your lactate threshold, meaning your training is working! You will need to recalibrate your threshold run pace as you improve.

Threshold Run Guide

Threshold training improves your ability to produce energy without having lactate build-up in your muscles. In other words, threshold runs train your body to handle faster paces without producing the metabolic byproducts that make muscles feel like they’re on fire. 

Your threshold run pace is somewhere between your 10K-15K pace or about the pace you can hold for one hour. Threshold workouts involve extended intervals at your threshold pace. 

Calculate your threshold pace and add specific threshold training to your running program, and you’ll see how quickly you’ll reap the benefits!

To spice to your training plan with even more types of workouts, check out our interval training guide:

References

  • 1
    Hoff, J., Støren, Ø., Finstad, A., Wang, E., & Helgerud, J. (2016). Increased Blood Lactate Level Deteriorates Running Economy in World Class Endurance Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(5), 1373–1378. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001349
  • 2
    Burke, J., Thayer, R., & Belcamino, M. (1994). Comparison of effects of two interval-training programmes on lactate and ventilatory thresholds. British Journal of Sports Medicine28(1), 18–21. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.28.1.18
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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