I recently participated in a research programme conducted by two honours students at University of Johannesburg, who were testing the VO2 max levels and lactate threshold in female athletes.  

Disclaimer – I am not a qualified medical professional and don’t claim to know much about the science behind all of this and, to be honest, get lost in the stats sometimes…. I’m simply a fitness enthusiast who strives to get stronger, faster and fitter and wanted to share what I found interesting from the research, that other amateurs out there might take value in knowing.  

I always thought your VO2 max was the best way to measure your fitness levels, and potentially the more important measurement tool to focus on. For those who don’t know – VO2 max measures the amount of oxygen your body uses during intense/hard exercise. The more oxygen you take in the more energy your body gets, and the better you can perform.  

If you have a fitness device, you will have noticed your VO2 max somewhere down the line, and have some idea of your fitness levels. This may not be your true, or most accurate VO2 max reading, as your fitness device will measure your VO2 on heart rate alone, where a proper VO2 max test will measure your heart rate AND your oxygen levels.  For example, my fitness device measured my VO2 max as 54, where the VO2 max research test (which had me connected to a heart rate monitor, oxygen mask and run on a treadmill – like a little lab rat) measured my VO2 max levels, for that particular test period, at 46.

After participating in the research programme, I was enlightened to discover that knowing your lactate threshold level is far more important in increasing your endurance and overall fitness and performance. Lactate, or lactic acid, as you may know it as, is a very important fuel for your muscles. The more oxygen your body circulates to your muscles during training, the better you can perform.

Google explains – The point of lactate threshold testing is to learn the highest intensity you can sustain before high levels of blood lactate impact your performance. Increasing sustainable power on a bike or speed while running at lactate threshold is key to endurance success  – In simple terms, this means, the higher your lactate threshold, the longer you can perform at high-intensity, before lactic acid accumulates faster than your muscles can remove it, which will then affect your ability to perform.

For someone who is looking to increase their performance, endurance and get stronger, it would help to know what your lactate threshold and VO2 max is and then adjusting your training to increase your body’s ability to perform in that threshold zone.

Improving your lactate threshold can be done at any level of fitness, and would require an increase in the intensity of your workout. As you find your fitness and endurance increasing, you increase your intensity further.

A good place to start would be with interval type training. This is a form of training made up of alternating periods of high and low intensity. Depending on your level of fitness it could mean walking, running, cycling or even swimming  – and would require you to alternate the training session with short fast bursts of intense exercise, followed by slower easier efforts – and repeating those for that workout session.

As you get stronger you will notice your shorter bursts improving and your time to recover decreasing – resulting in a higher lactate threshold, increase in your VO2 max, and improvement in overall fitness.

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