Part I: Lactate – What is Lactate?

Fun with Lactate!
Fun with Lactate!

Your Lactate Threshold (“LT”) is the single biggest determinant of endurance race performance (Kravitz & Dalleck). In addition, it is the most reliable way to track your progress. Beginner triathletes come into the sport from different backgrounds and may respond differently to various types of training. The best way to know whether it’s working is by testing it “in the lab”. “The lab” represents a consistent atmosphere that is repeatable and controls for variables such as wind, hills, stops lights and heat. The test will tell you which energy systems you need to work on and can play a major role in determining your next training cycle. Testing this directly from your blood is testing it at its source.

You reap the benefit of this in training, since it allows you to train efficiently and effectively. Now that you know your LT, your “Threshold workouts” will be perfectly tailored so you train just below it, which allows you to adapt and increase it. You can then tailor your anaerobic workouts (above threshold) to teach your body to learn how to flush out the “acid” (we’ll define acid in a little bit) effectively so you can recover quicker and are ready for the next hard effort quicker. Finally, your recovery workouts will be exactly that, recovery. There is no more guesswork, you have your zones.

An example on the opposite side of the spectrum is a common challenge that new triathletes face when coming in from other higher intensity sports. They train with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. In other words, they train too hard too often. These athletes may be very physically fit but produce too much “acid”. In these cases, once identified, it may be beneficial to set a training program where they will get better by keeping their workouts aerobic and detraining their anaerobic system! Yep, I said it! Detrain the anaerobic system. Before I explain why, it is useful to know how your anaerobic system works:

Science Alert (although this is somewhat simplified, skip ahead if you aren’t into the technical stuff): Upon digestion, carbohydrates and sugars turn into glycogen. Glycogen fuels the anaerobic system. As it releases energy, Pyruvate fuels the aerobic system while lactate and positively charged Hydrogen ions (H+) are released into the blood stream. Blood is responsible for carrying oxygen and other nutrients to your muscles. The harder your effort, the more lactate and H+ accumulates in your blood and muscles. Eventually, you are going to reach a point where you cannot flush the lactate and H+ from your muscles faster than you are producing them. That is your Lactate Threshold (“LT”).

Energy and lactate production system.
Image thanks to Jerry Kosgrove at www.lactate.com

Now that we have covered that, there is an important distinction to be made between Lactate, Lactic Acid and the H+ ion. Although lactate is released into the blood at the same time as H+, it is NOT lactate or Lactic Acid that causes the burn in your muscles. It is the H+ ion that is the “acid” mentioned above. Lactic Acid is actually a fuel source. It easily travels through cell membranes to the liver and converts back to glucose for more anaerobic fuel. The reason why we measure lactate and not H+ is that this is much easier to do. They are directly correlated; they are produced at the same time and lactate is actually the buffer that helps deliver H+.  It is common to hear people say that lactic acid causes the burn. Unfortunately, this is inaccurate. If it were true, it would certainly be easier to explain, but ultimately for us athletes (ie, nonscientists), it means the same thing, just replace lactic acid with “positively charged Hydrogen ions”.

Speaking of Hydrogen, did you know that pH stands for the power of Hydrogen? So when you flood your muscles with positively charged Hydrogen ions, you are making them more acidic. In other words, your pH balance gets more acidic. Per WikiPedia: “in chemistry, pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution. Solutions with a pH less than 7 are said to be acidic and solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic or alkaline. Pure water [is completely balanced and] has a pH very close to 7.” The pH range goes from of 0 to 14, with 0 being very acidic and 14 being very basic (alkaline). The pH balance of human blood usually stays around 7.365. Even with an extremely hard workout, our pH does not go very far outside of the 7 range. Thankfully, we are limited on how acidic we can get. Lactate is the base (alkaline) and lactic acid is the acid. Although hard exercise increases our acidity, consuming alkaline food while we are exercising will not have an effect on our immediate recovery. But consuming alkaline food as a regular part of our diet is very highly advised. There is some debate about whether it is the alkaline that helps or whether alkaline foods also tend to be more nutrient dense that is what helps. Regardless, try to limit highly acidic foods, like processed foods (stripped of nutrients), or wheat and sugar that do not have many (or any) nutrients. Fruits and veggies, on the other hand, are high in alkaline and coincidentally have a lot of nutrients. So although your blood remains pretty stable (slightly alkaline), avoiding acidosis is important to keep inflammation under control and eating a nutrient dense diet is extremely important to fuel your workouts.

Coming up in Part II, how this all relates to better performance.

Special thanks to Jerry Kosgrove and the plethora of information at www.lactate.com.

USAT Nationals Race Report

usatagnc14 finish shoot
Calm before the storm
Standard Distance Duathlon Nationals – St. Paul, MN

Not really being one to write up race reports, I didn’t make one for the Du championship three weeks ago. Nothing major happened, except for my phone flying out of my pocket to start the first run, costing me 15-20 seconds. The bike was a three loop course with two steep hills, which means 6 steep climbs. One of the downhills was a last minute course change that had us go down a tunneled hill with potholes. Precarious indeed. My second run was slower than the first by a wider margin than I had hoped (30 seconds/mi), but it was enough to get the job done. Finishing 13th earned me a spot on Team USA for next year’s Duathlon World Championship in Australia. Not to be confused with the Olympics, this is the amateur Age Group championship 🙂 I’m lucky it wasn’t as well attended as Milwaukee…

Sprint Triathlon Nationals – Milwaukee, WI

The best Sprint and Olympic race on US soil. The energy is electric and the talent is top notch. Last year, I did the Olympic Distance race, which was my A race for the year, so everything I did last year led to that race. I was well-coached, well-trained and well-rested. As a result, I had PRs in my swim (1:35/100) and bike (24.1 mph), but my run was a little on the slow side, at about a 7 min/mile. If I cut my overall Olympic time in half last year to estimate my time for the Sprint, I would have qualified for Team USA then. Using that math, I opted to try the Sprint this year. However, when a qualification race repeats at a venue, it tends to get faster, so I wasn’t going to take anything for granted. Plus, the World Championship next year is in Chicago, so there was definitely going to be a bigger draw this year.

Given all the possibilities, I was not nervous about this race like I was before last year’s big races. I did have a few things working against me this year that kept me from training like I was able to in the past. The only thing that directly affected this race for me occurred four weeks prior to it: I had another minor fall. This time, my bike skidded out from under me when going around a slick roundabout. My elbow tapped the ground and the shock went to my shoulder. It has kept me out of the pool since then. The bummer is I was just starting to get my swim endurance back and was ready to really step up my intensity.

That being said, I am in good shape and  I was ready to lay it all on the line and try to qualify for Chicago. I had a little over an hour between the transition close and the start of my wave, which allowed me to relax on the grass before the race and visualize everything I was about to do. Although I hadn’t thought about last year’s race much, it all came back to me in detail for this race. With about 30 minutes left, I jogged over to the swim exit and back, and then found a long stretch of soft grass to start my run drill warm up. They allowed us into the water to warm up, which I definitely took advantage of. For a Sprint distance race, I would’ve liked to have swum a lot longer than I actually did, but I cut it short because I felt some tension in my rotator cuff.

Swim

When the horn blew, I was off with the rest of them. I lined up near the far left and breathed to my right, which was the same side the buoys were on heading out. I did not start as hard as usual, but I did put in some effort to stay in the draft of those around me. I held the draft for about 150 meters -not quite long enough. I had people somewhat close to me, but the first half of the race wasn’t my best drafting period. That would have been last year’s race. I did follow someone in for much of the second half. I got out of the water with some decent energy, which means I didn’t go hard enough for a sprint. But I got through it and my rotator cuff seemed like it wasn’t much worse than when I started. Win. (Swim pace 1:42/100)

T1 was a long transition. I did it pretty efficiently, except for two extra steps getting out of my wetsuit. I jumped on my bike with cleats already clipped in. This year, my shoes were clipped in on the correct pedal… (lesson learned from the previous year. Doh!) But this year, my power meter didn’t pick up. I opted to try the lower maintenance version of race monitoring than using my iPhone and so a few days out, I got a Garmin Fenix2. The jury is still out; I need to ride my bike with it more before I decide. One thing to note: I opted to have the display on the inside of my arm, which seemed to work pretty well for the bike and the run, but the display only shows 3 things at once. I need at least 4!

Bike

The initial ride out is a very slight incline. Enough so I was averaging about 22 mph. I knew there was a hill before the U-turn and then it would be a fast slight decline. Sure enough, I hit the 30 mph mark and focused on staying aero and light pedaling down the slight decline. This is where I really wish my power meter worked! My heart rate monitor did work, so that’s something, but once you have power, it’s hard to go back. There were just two more climbs, one on each side of the bridge. Climbing is not one of my strengths (yet), so the fact that the Olympic is twice as long, with only a few flats removed did not work in my favor. Plus, not one person passed me on the bike the entire race. The guys I should have been riding with all got out of the water before me and I couldn’t catch them by myself. I tried recruiting a couple of guys but to no avail. (Bike pace, 22.4 mph)

Run

I flew off of my bike and into T2. I threw on my shoes and ran out just behind a transition neighbor who got there before me. He was running about a 6 min/mi pace and I could not catch him. My heart rate on the bike was above my threshold heart rate, but I felt like I could’ve sustained that for a lot longer. However, it did take a full mile for my heart rate to come down on the run. Unfortunately, my legs did not turn over automatically like I had hoped. I attribute this to not doing enough bricks leading up to the race. My heart rate did settle down for the second mile, as I typically allow to happen when I race – breaking it into threes. I didn’t realize it, but we were jogging into a slight headwind. Not enough to affect my run, but after the first U-close to the first mile mark, it suddenly became dead silent. It was erie, but began to make sense. We were now running with the breeze, which was the same speed that I was going. It definitely a mental push and my heart rate dropped soon after. Aside from the guy I couldn’t catch out of transition, no one passed me on the run, until the last mile. This was perfect, I had enough energy for a final kick, but barely. I was able to stay on the heels of the guy who passed me. When we had about 300 meters left, my Loncar teammate, Chance, was waiting for me, as I knew he would be. You see, the day before, I was in about the same spot and I did everything I could to get him to go as fast as he could for the final sprint. He got started running hard a little earlier than he would’ve otherwise, so mission accomplished! But then he one-upped me and stood 20 yards deeper into the course. Either way, it helped. I passed two guys before getting to the finishing shoot and was still able to hold the sprint to the end. (Run pace, 6:41)

Loncar Nationals sprint run
Thank you this guy for the final mile push!
Summary, Shout Outs and Conclusion

So again, no PRs set here, but I did leave it all out there and I felt like I raced hard. Overall time of 1:11:46.5 but up against a fast crowd! Other than the power meter not working, I didn’t make any mistakes, like putting the shoes on the wrong pedal or bringing my wife’s wetsuit (and spending 10 minutes trying to put it on before realizing it). I am privileged to be healthy and to be able to race. I supported when I could – even when I saw some Cambridge guys running 😉

Mark, Chance, Ben
Loncar StrongArms: Mark, Chance & Ben

Loncar represented with three podium finishes and Team USA performances from Stephanie Bassin (2) and Ben Drezek. Chance Dorris tried his luck and gained valuable experience. He’s a young buck, you’ll see a lot more of him going forward.

The DFW Tri Club was well represented as well, with Danny Faulkner, Aaron Lundberg, Victoria Repice, Annemarie Martin, Teresa Anderson, Veronica Schnitzius and Paul Oliver. (Am I missing anyone?) I saw most of you out there! Next year, I predict we’ll see more!

All we can do is try to improve. When life throws a little adversity at you, how do you deal with it? There is not one “right way”. In my case, I wasn’t able to repeat my performance from last year, but I felt like I did improve after factoring in adversity. I learned some new things along the way and I hope to adjust for next year. Although I have been focusing on Sprint distance training this year, I have 11 weeks until Austin 70.3. Challenge accepted. I’m signed up. I’m going to do it.