How to Get Faster Without Getting Fitter

Monday February 5, 2018
Ben Bergeron & Christine Bald

Most people would never approach a 1-Mile run by all-out sprinting the first lap. Most people know, instinctively, that they can’t sustain that pace. And yet, if you put those same people in a CrossFit gym and ask them to do “Kelly,” that’s exactly what they’ll do.

We’ve all been there. Coach calls out 3,2,1, Go and we take off like a caged animal. For the first :90, we feel like Mat Fraser. I’m so fit! This is awesome! Then we hit the wall. As soon as it really starts to hurt, we look at the clock—we’re 2:15 into a 10 minute AMRAP. Yikes.

It’s no mystery how the rest of that workout goes. After those first two glorious minutes, we no longer feel like Mat Fraser. We don’t even feel like ourselves. Our 95# barbell feels like 135#. We’re breaking up the work into smaller and smaller sets, and taking longer and longer breaks. Every round is slower than the one before. Why does this hurt so bad?

Great question.

Here’s a little bit of science. Don’t freak out.

Everyone has a lactate threshold (LT). It’s different for everybody—it depends on your level of fitness—but generally it is between 75-85% of your maximum power. When exercising at or below this threshold, any lactate produced by the muscles is removed by the body without it building up. When you work out above it, lactate accumulates in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. As the un-buffered acid is added to the blood, you start to feel really bad. At this point, no amount of mental fortitude will save you. It’s biology. You have to slow down.

In other words, your lactate threshold is your maximal sustainable pace. If you go faster, it becomes unsustainable. If you go slower, it’s no longer maximal. It’s the exact point at which you cannot go any faster without slowing down later. At most, you can only spend up to three minutes above your lactate threshold (again, the exact time depends on your level of fitness). After that, you explode.

Understanding this helps us determine how to properly pace workouts to maximize both our scores in the near term and our fitness over the long term. If you’re doing a short sprint you can afford to go full-throttle—by the time you explode you’re going to be done with the workout. The longer the workout, the more important your lactate threshold becomes.

TRAINING AT LACTATE THRESHOLD

>What we want to do is start a little above threshold. We’re fresh, so we’re naturally going to be moving easily, but by the :90 mark we should be settled into a pace we can maintain across the entire workout. Toward the end of the workout we can pick up the pace and kick back up above LT. We’re going to explode after, but it’s okay at this point because we’re going to be done with the workout.

It looks like this:

It’s an incredibly difficult needle to thread, but if you’re trying to get fitter (and if you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume you are), it’s vitally important. If you can do this, you’re getting your best score. Period. Training at lactate threshold is the way to maximize your power. Power is the shortcut to results, so by maximizing your power, you’re getting fitter.

What most people do is the opposite. At 3,2,1, go, they come out hot because they’re fresh, they feel good, and they think that have to put a big dent in the workout up front because they’re going to be fatigued and slow later. So, they do round one as fast as they can, then do round two as fast as they can, and every round gets slower and slower to the point where they’re training at 40-50% of their max pace. This strategy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It looks like this:

Now let’s look at these two athletes on the same graph. For the sake of comparison, we’re assuming they did the exact same workout and have the exact same level of fitness.

The area below each curve represents work. It’s easy to see that Athlete 1 got significantly more work done than Athlete 2. This is the magic—not only did Athlete 1 get a better score than Athlete 2, she got fitter.

Why?

Because the more time you spend at or around lactate threshold, the fitter you become. Athlete 2 spent only about three minutes at her LT. Athlete 1, by contrast, spent ten minutes there. Athlete 1 got three times the desired stimulus of the workout than Athlete 2 in that workout.  Not a big deal in one isolated workout, but over time, the difference is significant. Because your LT represents your fitness, the goal is to always push it higher and higher. The only way to do that is to spend time more there. By training consistently at threshold, Athlete 1 in the above example is increasing their fitness faster than Athlete 2.

But coach! I’m still working really hard! My heart rate is through the roof! I’m in so deep in the pain cave—I must be getting fitter. Sorry, this approach isn’t as effective. When you’re working out at 40-50% of your maximal pace, you’re going slow. And if you spend most of your workout going slow, guess what? You’re not getting better at going fast. You’re just getting better at going slow.

FINDING YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD

How do you know if you’re at your max sustainable pace? There are a couple of ways to determine LT. The first is a finger-prick blood test, which measures the amount of lactate in your blood. Accurate, but not terribly practical. The second is to record your workouts on video (or with a buddy) and make note of your split times for each round and average pace. Effective, but the variance of CrossFit training makes it difficult to assess workout to workout–unless you’re doing the same workout over and over again, it’s hard to have something to measure against.

The third way is feel; to develop an intuitive sense of where your threshold is. While obviously less scientific than the other two methods, feel is the most practical way to assess your LT if you’re a CrossFit competitor. In competition, you’re not going to be able to prick your finger or have someone tell you your split times after each round. And since every workout is different, it wouldn’t matter if you could.

Developing a sense of pace requires effort and practice. The next time you do an AMRAP or rounds-for-time workout longer than seven minutes, come out more conservatively for the first 1-2 minutes—aim for 80 percent of your max pace. From there, try and settle into a pace you can hold for the rest of the workout. Throughout the workout, ask yourself, “Can I go any faster without slowing down later?” If the answer is yes, kick it up a notch. If no, stay where you are or slow down. Use a buddy or a video camera to record your splits for each round to see how consistent you are. You’re not going to nail it the first time. But if you do this enough, you’ll start to gain a feel for where your threshold is.

COMPETING AT LACTATE THRESHOLD

Lactate threshold is just as significant in competition.

>Brooke Wells is one of the strongest athletes in the sport of CrossFit. She can pull over 400# off the ground. When “Heavy DT” was announced at the 2015 CrossFit Games, she was a favorite to win. But she didn’t win. She came in 7th, behind a number of women who are considerably less strong. When I first started working with Brooke, I used her performance in this workout as an example of the kinds of things we were going to work on to make her a smarter, more complete athlete.

You could be forgiven, watching the footage of Brooke’s first round of Heavy DT, for thinking that she was doing one round of Heavy DT for time. Her first split was :48—a completely unsustainable pace. And yet, it didn’t look out of place at all on the floor of the StubHub tennis court. Why? Because practically all of the other athletes were doing the exact same thing.

It looked like this:

Predictably, Brooke’s splits fell off considerably after the first round. Her second-round split was almost double her first. Double! By round four, it was three times slower. She ended up taking 7th in the workout—respectable, but well below her potential. What might have happened if Brooke had approached the workout differently? What if she had started with her round two pace and just held it the entire way? What if it had looked more like this?

Brooke’s time in Heavy DT was 10:21. She placed 7th and earned 73 points. Had she simply held a moderate pace of 1:45 across all five rounds, her time would have been 8:45. That would have placed 2nd, and earned her 94 points.

Brooke finished 16th at the Games that year. Had she paced Heavy DT differently, she could have finished 10th. Think about that. At the highest level in our sport, a competitor can jump six places on the overall leaderboard in a single workout without being any fitter, simply by being smarter.

THE COMPLETE ATHLETE

If this sounds like it might be easier, think again. Threshold training is extremely uncomfortable. You’re finding your red line, then hovering a hair below it for up to 20 minutes. How much pain can I withstand, knowing that the next round can’t slow down? Make no mistake—it hurts.

It’s worth the effort.

Training at threshold is a game changer. You can go into the gym right now, no fitter than you were ten minutes ago, and PR your “Kelly” time simply because you were smarter. And if you train like that all the time, you’re going to get fitter at a much faster rate.

And because spending time above LT is terrible on your body, threshold training has the added benefit of not beating you up as much. You’ll recover faster and handle volume better. You will, in other words, get fitter.

This is how the best in the world are training and competing, and nothing is stopping you from doing the same thing.