Nobody knows why running at or near lactate threshold makes the body’s lactate processes more efficient. But training at this level can shift the entire lactate-increase curve to higher speeds.
Most coaches say the key is to run at what feels like the right effort level (see Find Your Threshold, below.) ‘It would be hard to find definitive studies that said this is the one true way,’ says Halliwill. ‘What we can say is that when people train through a variety of approaches, whether it is lactate threshold or interval training at higher intensity, we see that critical pace – threshold – shift to higher intensities.’
‘I believe in threshold running,’ says Bob Williams, distance coach at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, US. ‘It helps the athlete feel that sense of toughness they experience when they compete. I think it’s a process of adaptation, psychological as well as physiological.’
Some coaches talk more in terms of progression and effort than trying to dial into a specific pace. Scott Simmons, coach of the American Distance Project in Colorado Springs, US, says that traditional threshold runs don’t mimic racing anyway, because in racing you’re rarely running precisely at threshold. ‘Whether it’s the mile or the half marathon, you’re pushing through that threshold because that’s what the competition demands,’ he says.
Simmons is a fan of progression runs. Such runs, he says, might start out a minute per mile slower than 10K race pace, then increase mile by mile until the final mile is at goal pace, or faster. Simmons says that such runs should not be too intense. ‘It’s not that extreme a workout,’ he says. ‘We want to incorporate the specific demand of the race, but we don’t want the training to be a race.’
If you do the same workout over and over, you may become very good at it, but your overall progress will stagnate. In other words, the blurry definition of ‘threshold run’ can work to your advantage. The nice thing about the confusion over threshold is that it offers a huge variety of workouts, so there’s something for everyone.