24-week 50-mile ultra marathon training plan (Block 2 Lactate Threshold)

Are you training for the Lakeland 50 with us this year? Don’t miss block 2, where we will focus on improving your lactate threshold ahead of the big race. Features a downloadable week–by-week PDF guide.

With just a few months to go to the Lakeland 50, for those keen to push their limits on the trail this year, your training will now be well underway! If you are following #TeamMontane ultra running coach Howard Draccups's training plan, well done for completing block 1, and welcome back for installment 2…

A quick overview

In recent times there's been quite a lot of controversy surrounding vo2 max and vo2 max training. The main problem with it is that it's not fully trainable and by that, I mean you can't keep on training it for long durations and expect to keep seeing improvements long term. This is because your vo2 max is influenced by genetics, so unfortunately you get what you're born with. If you were born with a lower amount of type 1 muscle fibres (slow twitch) than somebody else who was born with more slow twitch muscle fibres, naturally they will have a higher vo2 max than you. But as an endurance runner vo2 max isn't the only important metabolic marker that we can look at.

As a coach, I'm way more interested in my athlete's lactate threshold and their aerobic threshold, but I wouldn’t neglect their vo2 max. Like anything, if left untrained it can drop and fitness gains are all interrelated, so while you're working on one thing, for example, endurance, unfortunately, you may get a decrease somewhere else in the plan, probably speed. So you need to keep topping it back up regularly.

Another way to look at vo2 max is to compare it to strength training, vo2 max is a bit like your 1 rep max in the gym. When you go to the gym and strength train you don't just walk in and do 1 rep and then go home do you? So your vo2 max displays the maximal amount of oxygen your body can absorb and use during exercise, like the 1 rep max in the gym. It can be a good indicator of fitness but it's not the be-all and end-all. Athletes with a lower vo2 max have been known to beat athletes with a higher vo2 max because they have a better-running economy.

Elite athletes and well-trained athletes who follow a good, well-rounded training program will train in such a way that their vo2 max is always well maintained and not neglected, so you could say that they don't need to specifically train their vo2 max. But normal people and especially ultra runners who run mainly for enjoyment, will tend to do lots more long, slow, easy miles week in and week out, which is great! But at the cost of that, their vo2 max will have declined. So it is trainable but there is a limit and it's all to do with how many slow twitch muscle fibres you were born with.

So that’s the reason why I put in a short vo2 max block at the start of the plan, to get that vo2 max raised up. Raising the vo2 max up slightly, will also raise your lactate threshold, so when we go into this new block, you’ll now have a new, higher lactate threshold than you previously had… make sense? Let’s talk more about lactate threshold block then…

What is Lactate Threshold

Your lactate threshold is like an imaginary line in between running easy and hard. When you run easily, it's called running aerobically. This is when the body is primarily using fat and oxygen for fuel. When you go beyond this by running harder, you will go beyond running aerobically and your body will start to go into what’s called an anaerobic state (without oxygen). When the body does this, it starts to use glucose for energy and lactate appears in the blood. 

This lactate is easily used and cleared up to a certain point because the body uses the lactate as an energy source, but there comes a time and a point at which too much lactate accumulates and it cannot be processed and utilised fast enough. At this stage, it will start to back up in the blood, this is the threshold for that process, the lactate threshold. When you go beyond the lactate threshold, eventually you will start to fatigue.

So if you can imagine that sweet spot just underneath the lactate threshold, the point where lactate is being processed and utilised at a nice equilibrium, where it's being produced and used in equal measures. If we keep training at and around that sweet spot, what we can do over time is train the body to be more efficient and to be able to run harder at this intensity. We call this lactate threshold training. 

Training our body to be able to process and utilise more lactate efficiently for longer periods, will increase the time we can run at this intensity for. This in turn allows us to be able to run harder and faster for longer. Training at this intensity gives ultra runners the most bang for their buck.

Like vo2 max, it's still quite a high intensity though. You wouldn’t run a 50-mile race at this intensity, but by training your lactate threshold, this is where you will get the most significant fitness gains. You'll start to feel and notice the benefits, especially when you're doing your easy runs or on race day when you dial the pace back a bit.

Lactate Threshold Training

So in the last vo2 block, the workouts were quite specific. They were to be performed uphill, so that may have been tricky finding the right hill, or a long enough hill, or a hill that just so happens to perfectly appear at the end of the warm up! 

Well, you’ll be pleased to hear there is none of that in these blocks, you'll be glad to know, so you can now go back to your favourite trail routes. These runs can be performed on roads, or trails, so please feel free to mix it up. Personally I prefer undulating trails, but undulating roads can be just as good! If you're not lucky enough to have hills where you live, you can still do these sessions on flat trails, or a flat road no problem! You might even want to do them on a treadmill too if you prefer? It's totally up to you, i’d go for whatever is most practical.

With regards to the lactate threshold intervals and the intensity of them, these should be performed at an 8/9-10 on the RPE scale, so they are not all out at 10/10 like vo2 max style intervals. These intervals should feel comfortably hard. Imagine a pace that's somewhere in between your half marathon and 10km race pace, so it's comfortably uncomfortable! Remember you want to try and hold the effort or intensity at which lactate is being processed and utilised in sync with each other, or just slightly below that so that we can train the body to do this for longer over time.

Also, rather than focusing on a specific pace, try to go with how you're feeling instead. When running on trails the ground can change so much, that what your pace was for running at your threshold on a flat road or track, will be massively different and it will keep changing too, so learning to monitor how you feel is important.

In block 1, I made the intervals 2 minutes long with 1-minute recoveries x10. Please feel free to change this to something more appropriate. depending on your current fitness levels. For example, you may only do 6 x 2mins initially and build up that way. In block 2, I have progressed from 2 minutes to 3 minutes. Again, please feel free to change this depending on how fit you currently are.

Now that the intensity has dropped from 10-10 to 8/9-10, we can allow the volume of the long run to grow a little bit more in this block. If you remember in the vo2 max block the long run wasn't very long. I kept this short because if we mix too much intensity with too much volume, you may well end up burnt out or injured. 

This then leads me to my next point; why I kept the training blocks nice and short at 3 weeks each with an easy week at the end of each block. Again this was to help prevent injury and burnout. But now we are out of the vo2 max block, i’ve made the blocks 4 weeks long, with an easy week at the end of each block. The long runs have now gone beyond the 2 hour mark.

Strength training

For block 2 I’ve changed the strength training exercises too, so there's some new exercises in there. You may notice that the reps and sets have changed a little bit. This is because of the way we program the strength training plan for ultra runners.

In the vo2 max block you will do less sets and reps with a heavier weight, this is called a strength and power block. In the threshold block, you will move into a hypertrophy block. In this block, you will do slightly more reps and in turn, you'll need to use a lighter weight. I’d highly recommend setting the bar low to begin with, so start with a nice, light, easy weight. 

Over 8 weeks slowly build up the weight, so that by the end of the threshold block you are lifting close to your 5 or 12 rep max or whatever the reps are for the exercise. To go straight in on week one at your 5 or 12 rep max is going to leave you quite sore and fatigued and with not much room to progress each week, so you'll plateau very early on. Remember we don't want to be bodybuilders or powerlifters. This process wants to compliment your running, not set you back!

Long Runs

Now that the long runs are getting longer, use these runs to start experimenting with all sorts of things for race day. For example, running with your backpack -  is this comfy, can it fit all my kit in? Also, what will you wear on the day?  What kind of trail shoes will you wear? Will they be grippy enough, will they be cushioned enough, will you be able to wear them for 50 miles? Will they give you blisters? 

What will you eat and drink is one of the main ones. So start experimenting with different foods while out running on your long runs. Find out what makes you feel good and what works for you. Nutrition and hydration are also very individualised. So whatever you're thinking about going with, make sure that you start training with it now to see if it works. The best bit of advice I can give you about nutrition is to get in touch with a qualified sports nutritionist. 

When on your long runs, get used to carrying your food and water and mandatory kit. If you do all your training with a light pack or an empty pack, when race day comes and you have to fill the bag up with everything you need for the day, it’ll get quite heavy, so let the body get used to this extra weight by training with it on your back on the long runs. 

With regards to route choices for the long run, ideally, you want to be doing them on trails as similar as possible to the Lakeland 50. Now I know this may well be impossible for some people depending on where you live, but if you have trails with big hills, then get out on them! 

If you don't, then you're going to have to improvise. The Lakeland 50 is approx 80km long with approx. 3000m of ascent, which means there are approx 38m of elevation in height per every km in distance. So for every 10km you run, ideally you want to be hitting at least 380m-400m of ascent to be getting the conditioning for the hills.

If you have hilly trails this shouldn’t be too much of an issue but if you live in the flat lands and you're struggling, it might mean you have to get a bit creative and do lots of reps of a singular hill amongst your long runs or travel to do your training? In this block, it might be worth doing some planning and looking at ways, dates and times to get up to Cumbria and recce the proper Lakeland 50 route for when we get to the endurance blocks and you have some substantial long runs.

To download the last block of the 24 Week training guide, follow the link to our blog here