Lactate Threshold Training Intervals for Cycling

Lactate threshold is a major focus of cycling training. This key metric determines our ability to hold tempo, endurance and the other training zones because the power zones are derived as a proportion of the athlete’s threshold power. Although your threshold will tend to rise as you gain fitness, workouts that directly train and enhance your threshold can kick start the process. Let’s start with the background on lactate threshold. Afterwards, we’ll discuss a set of intervals to boost your lactate threshold through dedicated cycling training.

An image of example threshold intervals for one of my cycling workouts.
A typical outdoor threshold interval workout. Your power (purple) should be consistent like mine, not jumpy or erratic.

What Is Lactate Threshold in Cycling?

Definition

Lactate threshold is a sports science term for the point at which lactic acid is produced too quickly within the body for it to be processed and filtered out. At lower intensities, our body only uses the aerobic energy system. During a typical non-maximal hard effort, some energy is produced aerobically and some energy is produced anaerobically (without oxygen).  The byproduct of the anaerobic energy production is lactic acid. This lactic acid accumulates in the muscle and reduces the muscle’s ability to generate force. Our body has a natural system to reduce the lactic acid in our muscles. If we are producing lactic acid too quickly for the body to remove it all, it starts to accumulate. Once this accumulation becomes too great, the athlete’s performance drops off to lower levels until the lactic acid is filtered out. This point is generally considered about 4-mmol/liter. 

Real World Use

That number is not useful to use because we don’t have access to blood lactate testing during our workouts. The theme, though, is readily apparent. An athlete is at lactate threshold when their aerobic system is maximally utilized and their anaerobic system produces lactic acid at the same rate the body can filter it out. Simply put, work done at lactate threshold is both an aerobic and an anaerobic effort. If you don’t know your lactate threshold or don’t have a power meter. It can be effective to use the RPE system to approximate the correct zone. It does take some time to learn what lactate threshold feels like. So, practice and get accustomed to the feel of the effort.

A typical threshold interval is not spiky or jerky. It’s common for new riders to increase their effort up a hill, only to slack off on the way down. This type of riding is not appropriate for threshold interval training. The goal is to maintain approximately the same effort throughout. The level of stress and exertion may slowly increase, but the amount of ‘push’ you put into the pedals should remain constant.

Threshold Intervals for Cycling

For our needs as athletes, our lactate threshold is about what we can do for an hour. It would be insane to recommend a workout where an athlete rides as hard as they can for an hour. The chance of injury is too high, the likelihood that the athlete can finish a workout the next day is too low, and the mental strength to complete the effort is too great. With that being said, the following workout is designed to train the athlete’s lactate threshold as much as possible, without completely exhausting them for the next week.

Classic Lactate Threshold Intervals

  • At least 10 minute warm up in zone 2 endurance (light)
  • 20 minutes at 95% of lactate threshold
  • 5-10 minutes in zone 1 recovery
  • 20 minutes at 95% of lactate threshold
  • 10 minute cool down in zone 2 endurance (light)

This ‘Classic Lactate Threshold Intervals’ workout is the golden workout for many cyclists. It’s incredibly simple, easy to complete on a trainer, and lasts only just over an hour. The purpose of this workout is simple: let’s maximize the time we spend at threshold. Commonly referred to as “2 by 20s”, our goal here is to get in and get out with the training stimulus we need. Start with a simple warm-up to get the blood flowing through the legs and the muscles loose. You can also consider completing a simple 11 minute dynamic warm-up exercise routine as well. For the 20 minute intervals, knock off about 5% from your threshold pace in order to save the legs for your other workouts in the week. The resulting different in training stimulus is negligible. 

In conclusion, adding two Classic Lactate Threshold Intervals to your weekly training routine can give a big boost to your cycling performance.

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