Measure what matters

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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How useful are lab tests?

Would you believe that I, a competitive runner of 25 years, have never taken a VO2max or lactate threshold test?

It seems like everyone has taken one or both of these tests. I’ve been asked what my test results are and people are shocked when I say I haven’t taken them.

The question I’d like to ask, though, is what we get out of these tests. What do they tell you that will help you become a better runner? We now know that training right at VO2max and lactate threshold isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s better to train at a range of paces around but not necessarily directly at those paces.

For example, with lactate threshold, we now know that, by training below lactate threshold, we can improve our ability to produce less lactate while running at relatively high intensities. By training slightly above, we improve our ability to clear lactate from the bloodstream by reusing it as an energy source or shunting it to other muscles so they can use it as an energy source. These benefits are stronger when you’re not right at lactate threshold than when you are.

But don’t you need to know your lactate threshold pace in order to know what paces to train at in order to be above or below? Here’s the cool thing. You don’t have to be precise. It’s actually not a bad thing to feel your way into these paces. It’s not the end of the world if you’re a little off. There is leeway built into this.

Besides, if you train at race efforts which I’m a big fan of, you’ll get the physiological benefits of the workouts, plus you’ll be getting practice feeling race pace. That makes you better able to feel your way into the right race pace on race day instead of relying on external measures. I’ve covered the benefits of running by feel instead of relying on external measures previously.

So what should we be measuring instead? Performance measures. How fast are you running your races? Are your workouts getting faster (or easier) from month to month? These are the things that are going to tell you how your running is progressing. A VO2max or lactate threshold test, while it may be fun to know the numbers, doesn’t produce a lot in regards to actionable information.

Note: This was inspired by a post written by Steve Magness at his great blog. I thought it was a topic very much worth bringing up here.

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