Functional Threshold Pace: New Training Zones for Running


Technology has assisted athletes and health-conscious people with their fitness goals. One of the current trends in sports is physiological testing (expensive but effective), done in a sports science or exercise physiology laboratory to test an individual using gas analyzers to get your blood lactate threshold, ventilatory threshold , and VO2max as a basis for establishing training zones. In the past, training zones were based on one’s maximum heart rate. But one of the more valid tests for endurance is the lactate threshold (LT).

First, let’s discuss some basic terms and principles.  When we perform high-intensity exercises, carbohydrates are the pre-dominant source of energy that our bodies use. Lactate, is an intermediate by-product of carbohydrates breaking down in the muscle. So, when we push too hard, our muscles use our stored carbohydrate (also known as glycogen) and lactate is one of its by-products. Therefore, LT can be defined as the maximum steady-state effort that can be maintained by a person without a continuous increase in lactate production. This means that you’re not running too lightly and not too hard that you’re hitting your red zone too early.  Majority of good training plans for running would include workouts that are planned to be done at LT intensity.

Why train in LT intensity? It’s because LT training is an effective and efficient way to build fitness. In running, LT is the fastest pace that can be sustained for 30 to 60 minutes (close to 30 minutes for less fit runners, and close to 60 minutes for very fit runners).

Stephen McGregor, PhD, director of the Running Science Laboratory of Eastern Michigan University, refers to Lactate Threshold as the Functional Threshold Pace (FTP). LT is a physiological phenomenon that happens when you run at a certain pace or effort. This pace or effort exerted in running is your Functional Threshold Pace. This is because pace is the unit of measurement, which is time in relation to a distance metric, either minutes per kilometer (min/km) or minutes per mile (min/mi) for running.

Knowing your FTP has numerous benefits. It helps you:

develop the right training zones based on your current fitness level;

train close to your LT to improve your fitness level gradually, effectively, and efficiently

pace yourself in a race which decreases your chances of pushing too hard too soon, going into the red zone, and not recovering;

and gauge your improvement (whether you’re plateauing, or your fitness level has decreased, or adjustments to your training have to be made).

A good test of your FTP would be the 5k and 10k runs. Test yourself by finishing a 5k or 10k as fast as possible. Perform such 5k or 10k test runs every four to six weeks and compare with your previous results. Always get a good night’s rest of at least six to eight hours or do a light training day before performing a test. Be well-fueled, hydrated, and perform the test at the same time and place to allow for validity and comparison of results.

In lieu of the FTP, getting a watch with GPS (global positioning system) that also has a heart rate monitor (HRM) is your best bet. Advances in timekeeping and watch technology mean easier and better ways of tracking improvements in fitness, along with the added value of giving feedback on our training session, and preventing overtraining. By having the GPS track your pace and the HRM check the response of your body, these let you know how well you are adapting to training.

This is where the “know pain, know gain” approach comes in. Joe Friel, a well-known endurance coach uses the term decoupling to describe the point at which your usual heart rate at a certain pace is not the same. When this happens, you’re now ready for a higher intensity training regime. Couple this with your Rating of Perceived Exertion, and you have a useful tool in assessing your current fitness status.

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