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Getting Faster Part III: Threshold Training

This is the third in a series of articles on Getting Faster.

The first article explained Repeat Training and stressed the importance of taking full time to recovery between repeats.

Puzzle pieces The second article on Interval Training stressed that the "interval" is not the distance we run but the amount of recovery time and how essential it is to limit the amount of recovery between runs.

Slowing we're unraveling the puzzle of speed work. 

Another way of talking about Getting Faster is improving our ability to not slow down.  One of the best ways to not slow down is through threshold training.

While it’s considered speed work, threshold training is actually endurance training.  Threshold training extends our body’s ability to hold a higher level of intensity for a longer period of time.  It’s known as "threshold" running because we run near our “lactate threshold,” the rate at which lactate acid—the stuff that makes us slow down—builds up in the blood stream faster than we can eliminate it.

Before we can understand getting faster we also have to know a little about what slows us down.  We’ve all experienced those moments running when everything seems to be clicking.  Breathing, let turnover, and overall comfort is going great.  We think to ourselves, “Wow, if I can just hold this pace, I’ll be rocking!”  Then, unexplainably, things go wonky.  We start to feel a little slower, but we try to fight off the wonkiness.  Then, we try applying even greater effort only to slow down more.  We’re working harder, moving slower, and it feels like someone handed us a piano.

All this slowing down happens because lactic acid accumulates in our bloodstream faster than we can get rid of it through respiration and blood flow.  We feel sluggish because our bodies can’t produce energy as fast as we’re consuming it. That level of lactic acid build-up and elimination is our “threshold,” and it’s the threshold that we are trying to increase in training.

So the goal is to increase the “threshold” or level that we can run without accumulating so much lactic acid that it grips our muscles and cardio system.  If we run at or slightly higher than our lactate threshold, we expand our ability to hold a strong pace.  

Our lactate threshold is roughly the pace we could run for about an hour, or as some call it, “comfortably hard.”  The most common form of threshold training is a tempo run, a run ranging from 20 – 45 minutes.  

To stretch our ability to hold a pace, we have two options.  Option one: Repeat the same tempo run distance once a week for several weeks and increase our ability to run it more comfortably, confidently, and with easier recovery.  Option two: increase the distance each week by half a mile or by 3 – 4 minutes. Both approaches to tempo runs accomplish the same benefit—stretching our ability to run at threshold pace.  Plus there is a huge psychological benefit.  After a well-executed tempo run, we should feel tired, but not spent, challenged but not as if we just finished a race. After my best tempo runs, I actually feel that if I had needed, I could have run faster or longer.

With the right threshold training, we should feel energized.

To effectively do a tempo run, most runners head to a track and wear a watch to monitor their time, making sure they don’t run too fast.  There are no rewards for finishing a tempo run faster than the goal pace. Like in racing the challenge of tempo running is to not go out too fast.  The early part of a tempo run should seem very manageable. The negative outcome of threshold training comes in trying to run tempo runs above or below the threshold.  If we under or overdo it, the benefit is missed.

Daniels Run Formula Again the critical question is how fast do I run tempo runs?  To learn what pace to run your interval workouts, check out this training pace calculator.  You'll be advised precisely which pace to run tempo runs based on the research and expertise of Jack Daniels, recognized as “the world’s greatest running coach."  As for how much, threshold training is typically limited to no more than10% of weekly mileage. Begin with a warmup of easy running and strides.

An alternative to traditional tempo runs are "cruise intervals," which are runs covering 5 - 12 minutes or one to two miles with about 3 minutes recovery between runs.  They accomplish nearly the same benefit but offer a break to look forward to between runs.  There are plusses and minuses to recovery in cruise intervals.  The biggest plus—they make the difference in completing the workout at the appropriate pace.  The biggest minus—they're  unlike races, which don't offer a recovery break.

Next in the series: Where to Hills and Fartlek fit into speed training?  And when do we schedul all these different elements of training—repeats, intervals, tempo runs—into our training routines?


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Bob Allen

Another really good article on speedwork. Tom, this series is the best thing I've seen on Runner's Lounge (maybe because it's the most relevant to me at the moment). That's not dissing anything else on RL because almost everything has been good -- this is just good+.

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