VO2 Max vs. Lactate Threshold vs. Maximal Lactate Steady State

EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer Matt Mosman discusses VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold, & Maximal Lactate Steady State and which one is the best indicator of endurance performance success.

Video Transcription:

Good morning, endurance friends. Matt Mosman, the endurance guru over EndurElite coming at you with another endurance fast fact.

Now, today we're gonna discuss three physiological terms that you as an endurance athlete may already be familiar with. These are:

So what we're gonna do is we're going to define each. We're gonna tell you how to test them. We're gonna tell you how to improve them.

And then we'll end with letting you know which of these three variables is considered the best indicator of endurance performance success. 



What Is VO2 Max?

So let's start with the one you are all probably the most familiar with, and that is VO2 max. Now, VO2 max is the greatest amount of oxygen that can be used at the cellular level by the entire body.

Simply put, VO2 max or maximal oxygen uptake is how much oxygen your body can use with each breath that you take in.

Now, what's the best way to test for VO2 max? There are a ton of equations on the internet that you can plugin, you know, recent race times or other variables and that will spit out a number at you. But those really aren't accurate. 

How to test VO2 Max

To get the most accurate measure of VO2 max, you're really gonna have to go into a lab and have a graded exercise test done while hooked up to a metabolic cart.

And what the researchers are gonna do or the lab personnel are gonna do is have you run on the treadmill or kill yourself on a bike, and they're gonna gradually increase the intensity over a period of time, whether that means running faster or increasing the incline until you get to the point where you either fall off or you barf inside the mask that you're hooked up to, which as an exercise physiologist, do not barf in the mask. I hate cleaning that up. It's disgusting. 

But anyway, once you're done with this VO2 test, that is gonna spit out a number that is going to be your VO2 max.

VO2 values can range anywhere from 30, which is basically a couch potato that hasn't done a lick of exercise in their life, up to 90, what would be your elite endurance athlete.

Now, these values are going to depend on a lot of variables. It can depend on sex. It can depend on age. It can depend on red blood cell count, mitochondrial density, capillary density. 

The upper ceiling of VO2 max is largely determined by genetics, but a lot of these variables that contribute to an increased VO2 max can be increased through doing endurance training which leads us to our next point.

What's the best way to increase VO2 max?

  • As a couch potato, all you have to do is get off your butt and start walking and you'll probably see modest increases in VO2 max. You really don't have to do anything specific except move.
  • As a novice endurance athlete, you can improve VO2 max by increasing the duration of your workouts or increasing the intensity of your workouts.
  • But at some point, you're going to notice your VO2 max will come to a plateau, and that's when you really want to start to incorporate interval training into your training regimen. 

How to increase VO2 Max

Now, the best way to do VO2 max intervals is to do three to five-minute efforts at a one-to-one work-to-rest ratio, meaning if you're doing a four-minute interval, you want to rest four minutes before you start your next interval.

And what is really, really key here is the intensities of these intervals should be as close to VO2 max as possible or as close to maximal heart rate as possible, and this is where you'll get the most benefits.

Simply put, it's gonna hurt like hell. It's not gonna be fun. It's gonna be painful, but that's what it's really gonna take to increase your VO2 max even further above that plateau when you hit it. So that's VO2 max. 

What Is Lactate Threshold?

Let's move on to the next variable, and this is lactate threshold.

Lactate threshold is the speed of movement or percentage of VO2 max in which blood lactate concentrations begin to increase above resting values.

Now, let's just talk about what lactate is real briefly before we go any further into lactate threshold.

  • Lactate is a byproduct or end product of a process called anaerobic glycolysis.
  • Now, this is an energy system that you use when you're really cranking harder, the exercise intensity really starts to up.
  • And basically through anaerobic glycolysis, glucose or glycogen is broken down and the end product is pyruvate. 


Now, if there's enough oxygen available, pyruvate can be basically transferred into the Krebs cycle or another energy system where it continues for energy production.

If there's not enough oxygen available, like again you're cranking really hard, there's not enough oxygen available, that pyruvate is converted into lactate, and then that lactate accumulation can still be used for energy but there's a certain intensity where that lactate accumulation can't equal lactate clearance, and that's when you start to see the increase of lactate in your blood.

And obviously, this will be your lactate threshold. 

How to calculate lactate threshold

Now, how do you test for lactate threshold?

Again, there are a lot of equations out there but the best way to do it is, again, go to the lab, but this time, you are lucky. You get to be a blood donor. So it'll be a similar process to a VO2 max test.

So they're gonna increase the intensity, increase the incline and really get you going, but at certain points, the researcher is going to plunge a needle into you or maybe prick your finger and get blood samples, and they're gonna test certain time periods and look for that point where blood lactate concentrations take a really good spike, and that point will be your lactate threshold. 

How to increase lactate threshold

Now, what's the best way to train your lactate threshold?

The best way to increase lactate threshold is through pace or tempo training.

If we're talking about running, that involves warming up for 10 minutes and then doing 20 to 30 minutes at your lactate threshold pace. Now, this generally correlates to about 80% to 88% of maximal heart rate or about 5 to 10 seconds slower than race pace.

And this has been shown to be the best way to increase lactate threshold. 

Now, if that lactate threshold pace is feeling too easy, you don't necessarily want to bump up the pace. That defeats the whole purpose of training in lactate threshold.

If it feels too easy, you would want to increase the duration of the workout as opposed to the intensity where you might be getting closer into like that VO2 max range. So that is lactate threshold. 

What Is Maximal Lactate Steady State?

The last one we're gonna talk about is maximal lactate steady state. Now, this one, you all might not be quite as familiar with.

Maximal lactate steady state is the point or the exercise intensity in which maximal lactate accumulation is equal to maximal lactate clearance.

Now, before, we said the end byproduct of anaerobic glycolysis can be lactate, and it can be used for energy production.

So when maximal lactate accumulation equals maximal lactate clearance, that is when the pyruvate is converted to lactate and the lactate can keep on be using for energy production as opposed to accumulating and then causing the buildup of hydrogen ions which can lead to fatigue or muscle acidosis, which if you wanna know more about that, we won't get into the details here, you can go to our blog and check that out. 

So maximal lactate steady state is when maximal lactate accumulation equals maximal lactate clearance. So you can just keep on going and going and going without accumulating that lactate and letting fatigue set in.

How to increase maximal lactate steady state

Now, what's the best way to train maximal lactate steady state? The best way is kind of similar to lactate threshold but a little bit different.

The best way to train maximal lactate steady state is through the use of cruise intervals. 

Now, cruise intervals are done slightly faster at race pace and they're usually broken down into 5 to 10-minute segments separated by a relatively short rest period.

So again going back to running, you would want to do a 10-minute segment slightly above race pace, rest 1 minute, either...usually active recovery, so slow jogging, and then repeat that process over again. And that is the best way to train maximal lactate steady state.

Which is the most important for performance? VO2 max, lactate threshold, or MLSS?

Now, the answer you've all been waiting for, which of these three variables is the best indicator of endurance performance success?

While all are very, very important, you got to look at it like this.

If you have two endurance athletes side by side with the identical VO2 max, the one with the better lactate threshold is probably going to be the better athlete.

But here's one caveat. Even if this athlete with the higher lactate threshold has a lower VO2 max than the other person, they'll probably still outperform the person with the greater VO2 max.

But it seems, and recent research suggests this, is that maximal lactate steady state is the best indicator of endurance performance success. 

So the person that can basically accumulate the maximal amount of lactate while still clearing it is going to be better than the endurance athlete with the higher VO2 max or the higher lactate threshold at the end of the day.

Now, there's a ton of other variables that come into endurance performance success, like mental strength and things like that, but from a strictly physiological perspective, it seems like maximal lactate steady state is the best indicator of endurance performance success. 

So we've geeked out on all these things today. So what I want you to do is I want you to share this video with your friends. Comment below with what you think about the content. And speaking of content, if you want a really in-depth explanation of everything we just talked about and a lot of other information, endurance-related from training, supplementation, nutrition, head over to the EndurElite website in the right-hand corner here, www.endurelite.com and get yourself lost for 10, 20 minutes and learn some new information. Also, let me know in the comments below what you want to learn about next. I'm here to provide valuable information for you that as an endurance athlete, you can incorporate into your training to make you better. So until next time, my endurance friends, stay fueled, stay focused, and stay fast.

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