What is VO2 max, running heart-rate zones and lactate threshold?

Want to run faster? Running wearables can help you understand your VO2 max, running heart-rate zones and lactate threshold

What is VO2 max, running heart-rate zones and lactate threshold?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With the now-virtual London Marathon 2020 looming just over the horizon, we are reminded yet again that top running athletes are way better at running then us. this is partially because they just spend more time practicing, of course, but also because they understand terms such as VO2 max, lactate threshold and running heart-rate zones, so they can train more efficiently.

It is not a secret knowledge, however. Wearing the best running watch or best heart rate monitor can help you understand all of these and even make you a more efficient runner in the process. Adding a pair of the best running shoes to the mix might help too..

Once you got the essential hardware, it's time to delve deeper into running theory. Don't get too alarmed, though; it's not rocket science. It is worth mentioning that in order to get the most accurate VO2 max readings or to know your exact lactate threshold, you would need to be tested in a running lab. Assuming you haven't got access to one, we will use the data available in running watches and other wearable running devices to calculate these.

Without further ado, let's find out how to make you run faster.

What are running heart rate zones and how do they work?

Running heart rate zones VO2 max lactate threshold: men running on treadmill

Exercising in the correct heart rate zone can help you reach your fitness goals quicker

(Image credit: Zwift)

The harder you work your muscles, the more oxygen they will require to work efficiently. To supply your muscles with oxygen, you need to breathe, which probably doesn't come as a surprise. Breathing correctly is one of the fundamental skills a runner needs to master in order to be more energy efficient.

What is your maximum heart rate? The easiest way to calculate this is subtract your age from 220. That will give you a rough estimate of your max heart rate. It's only a rough estimate because this method doesn't take some crucial details into account, like your fitness levels, for one. Eliud Kipchoge is 35, yet not many 35 year old can run a sub-2 hour marathon. No one can, to be fair.

Once you have your max heart rate, which a running watch would determine anyway once you set it up, you can forget about it, because you never really want to any workout anywhere near that number. Depending on your goal, let it be weight loss or to build endurance, you will have to perform exercises by keeping your heart rate in the correct zone. 

• Between 50-60%, you have the warm up zone, and as the name suggests, exercising in this zone will have a low-impact on heart health. You should be able to run a long time in this zone and it is great for recovery runs, too.

• Between 60-70%, you have the fat burning zone, and the name is a giveaway here, too: doing exercises in this zone will encourage your body to burn fat more by improving your metabolic system. This is still a low-impact zone.

• Between 70-80%, you have the low-aerobic or endurance zone. This heart rate zone is ideal for medium to long distance runs and can help your body improve its endurance levels as well as increasing aerobic power.

• Between 80-90%, you have the anaerobic or threshold zone. This heart rate zone is high-impact zone and can only be sustained for short to medium distance runs only, especially if you are a less experienced runner. Running in this zone can further increase endurance levels.

• Between 90-100%, you have the VO2 max or maximum effort zone. If you are not a sprinter, you won't be running in this zone often, especially not during your training. You might end up bringing your heart rate up this much at the end of longer races, just before the finish line, as you try to squeeze out the last little bits of your energy left. Be very careful and don't try to sustain this level for too long.

What is VO2 max and how can you improve it?

Running heart rate zones VO2 max lactate threshold: people running on the street

Interval training can help you improve VO2 max levels

(Image credit: Nike)

In recent times, VO2 max became one of the most commonly accepted way to measure general cardio fitness levels and many fitness wearables can give you an estimate as well, so no need to trying to work it out yourself. Garmin watches measure VO2 max as you exercise while Polar watches can run a 'Fitness test', which measures it while you lay down and stand still for a few minutes.

VO2 max is short for 'maximum oxygen uptake' and the higher it is, the better. A high VO2 max level indicates that your body can deliver a lot of oxygen to your muscles which means your muscles will tire out later.

Your VO2 max level change as you get older (it gets lower, mainly) and it also depends on your biological parameters too. On the other hand, VO2 max can be improved by performing targeted exercises and interval runs.

To perform a VO2 max interval training, after a 10-15 minute warm up jog, run very hard for 30-60 seconds, then slow back down for another 30-60 seconds. Repeat this for 10-20 times, depending on your fitness levels. Doing this frequently, but not at every session, will gradually improve your VO2 max level.

What is lactate threshold and how can it help?

Running heart rate zones VO2 max lactate threshold: people running on mountain road

Improving lactate threshold levels can help you sustain a higher pace for longer

(Image credit: On Running)

Lactate threshold is the intensity, or more like pace, after which your muscles start to build up lactic acid with a higher rate than your body can get rid of. Lactic acid is the chemical released by muscles when they’re working without enough oxygen. Knowing your lactate threshold pace is essential for long distance runners, because that is the pace they can sustain for longer periods of time without excessive muscle fatigue.

The easiest – but not necessarily the cheapest – way to estimate your lactate threshold pace is to run a lactate threshold test, using a high-end Garmin watch, like the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro or the Garmin Forerunner 945 and a Garmin heart rate monitor, like the Garmin HRM-Run or Garmin HRM-Tri.

To peform this test, you have to choose run from the sport profiles and then go into Training (long pressing the middle button) then Lactate Threshold (Guided test). The test lasts for 20-30 minutes and after a 10-15 warm up, you will have to run 3-4 minutes in each heart rate zone, starting from the lowest, all the way up to the maximum effort zone. If it sounds pretty exhausting, let me assure you, it is.

There are other ways to measure lactate threshold levels but they involve more invasive methods, like taking blood samples and sending them off to a lab, which is not something many people would want to do I assume.

Lactate threshold levels can be improved by doing interval training, much like VO2 max. The key here is to run longer, high intensity intervals, like hill runs, for 3-4 minutes, with shorter cool down periods. Depending on your fitness levels, repeat 8-12 times each time.

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