Some Thoughts on Training the Lactate System
Discussions of energy system training have been raging as of late and with the importance of the aerobic system being talked about more and more many are getting confused about how to structure programming or how all the pieces fit together.
One of the biggest misunderstandings seems to come when discussing the lactate system as numerous coaches are under the belief that lactate training is the most important type of energy system training and that this is where many sports are played at. I have had numerous discussions with colleagues who call or email me asking me questions like, “But sport “x” is more of a lactate sport so we need to train with high intensity intervals to improve that and don’t need to do as much aerobic work, right?”
Now, I am not going to say that performing intervals that produce lactate is a bad thing or wrong (it’s not actually bad at all and it can be extremely beneficial and important to enhancing the individuals buffering capacity when used appropriately at the right time in the training program and in the right amount of volume/frequency). What I will say however, is that when an athlete is in shape and fit to play their sport and their aerobic system is well developed those same intervals or those same work to rest ratios of the sport should not require them to rely so much on the lactate system to produce energy as their lactate threshold will be at a higher percentage of their max HR.
There really aren’t any sports (that I can think of) that are truly “lactic”. Even sports that we often consider to be “lactic” events, such as a 400m sprint or some of the short duration rowing events in the Olympics, will have a lower contribution from the lactate system in those that are at a high level and fit to perform the event. The only reason they would ever be very “lactic” would be if you were out of shape to perform that event and thus you would rely more heavily on your lactate system for energy production and instead of running the race you would suffer through the race.
The key to improving an athletes sport specific work capacity or sport specific energy system is to understand what the requisite competencies of that energy system are. For example, many colleagues understand the Functional Movement Screen and its hierarchy as far as choosing exercises and correcting the tests. If an individual has a really poor Overhead Squat Test but they also have an asymmetrical Active Straight Leg Raise Test then you would not begin by attempting to “correct” the overhead squat without first spending time addressing the active straight leg raise and making sure that it is symmetrical and at the least a “2″ on the FMS grading scale.
The same concept could be applied for energy system training. If an athlete is unfit, has a lactate threshold that is relatively low compared to their max HR, and fatigues at a faster rate when playing the sport, you wouldn’t just start doing a ton of high intensity interval training (IE, high volumes and very frequently in the training week) right out of the gate to make them better as the requisite competency for improving the above qualities is to enhance the aerobic system and the individuals lactate threshold so that they can produce more high intensity efforts with less fatigue and without relying on the lactate system – a system which happens to be inefficient for energy production in the long term and also an energy system that requires the body a longer period of time post game, post practice, or post training to try and recover from as it can be pretty taxing stuff.
The goal in this situation really comes down to three key factors:
- How you sequence your training session/training qualities within the training week
- Applying your anaerobic training methods in the correct training phase
- Choosing the right amount of anaerobic work – the right aerobic to anaerobic ratio within each specific training phase - which would depend on the athletes fitness level, the sport, the goal of the phase, and where you are in your training program
When used appropriately some lactate intervals can be beneficial for raising the lactate threshold in a team sport athlete, however, that type of work should be chosen wisely and done at the correct time to ensure the requisite competencies are first developed and appropriate recovery time can take place between these workouts to allow the athlete to reap the biggest benefit.
Furthermore, when thinking about the sequencing of training within program design/planning it should be considered that having a sound lactic capacity is really a product of having a well developed aerobic system, which would allow you to work at higher percentages of your max HR (higher lactate threshold) and buffer hydrogen ions more efficiently.