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Lactate Threshold Comparison in Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Athletes and Untrained Subjects

Abstract: This study compared VO2 max, lactate threshold (LT) and VO2 at LT (VO2LT) among aerobic athletes (ARA) (n=10), anaerobic athletes (ANA) (n=9) and untrained participants (UTS) (n=7). From a treadmill test to exhaustion, VO2 max and LT (4 mmol·L-1 blood lactate concentration) were assessed. Analysis of variance showed VO2 max (ml·kg-1·min-1) was significantly greater for ARA (67.6 ± 9.4) than ANA (53.4 ± 6.4) and UTS (44.9 + 6.9), with ANA significantly greater than UTS. LT for ARA (82.9 + 6.4) was not significantly different than ANA (77.5 + 13.1). However, ARA and ANA were significantly greater than UTS (66.8 + 5.4). VO2LT (ml·kg-1·min-1) was significantly greater for ARA (55.9 + 7.7) and ANA (41.5 + 8.6) than for UTS (29.9 + 4.1) with ANA significantly greater than UTS. Although used to establish groups, VO2 max for ARA (vs. UTS) reflect aerobic training adaptations. Similarly high LT would be expected in ARA. Modest VO2 max for ANA reflects only a mild stimulus to oxidative pathways (plausibly occurring during recovery from repeated high-intensity efforts). However, anaerobic training may provide a stimulus adequate to increase LT. Elevated LT with moderate changes in VO2 max for ANA provide indirect evidence that differential mechanisms alter VO2 max and LT. Still, VO2 at LT would have the greatest implication with regards to aerobic performance. From a practical standpoint, training approaches may be enhanced with a greater understanding of the impact of anaerobic training on LT. Future research should more directly examine threshold-altering mechanisms between these groups of athletes.

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Alex’s Notes: Despite the title of this publication, the study compares the VO2 max, lactate threshold (LT), and LT at VO2 max in aerobic athletes (ARA), anaerobic athletes (ANA), and untrained participants (UTS). Twenty-six college students were recruited and classified as ARA, ANA, or UTS based on their training status and sport participation. ARA were currently a member of a collegiate cross-country team or had a VO2 max that was greater than 60 (55) mL/kg·min for males (females). Similarly, the UTS were folks with a VO2 max less than 50 (40) mL/kg·min for males (females) or self-reported minimal engagement in physical activity. The ANA subjects were simply chosen from high intensity, short duration sports and ended up being composed of three football players, four sprinters / strength-trainers, one gymnast, and one softball player.

The average age of the subjects was 22-years, and before getting to the primary outcomes, I want to point out two interesting things. First, while there was no statistically significant difference in the weight of any athlete when compared to the UTS group, the ANA athletes were a statistically significant average of 15 kg heavier than the ARA athletes (82kg vs 67kg). Moreover, there was no significant difference in body fat between ANA and ARA, but the UTS group had a significantly higher average than both other groups (10% vs 12%). So why bring this up? Because it is interesting to see how the bodily demands of the types of sports (or lack of) influence the body type and composition of the athletes. Anyways, the primary outcome data is presented in the table below.


Significant Difference ARA vs ANA

Significant Difference ARA vs UTS

Significant Difference ANA vs UTS

VO2 max

26% greater

51% greater

20% greater

Lactate Threshold (LT)


20% greater

13% greater

VO2 max @ LT

33% greater

86% greater

40% greater

You’ve lost me

Damn, okay. Aerobic athletes’ training is dominated by oxidative metabolism and mitochondrial respiration, while anaerobic athletes’ depend more heavily on the phosphagen and glycotic energy production pathways. For the aerobic athletes, improved VO2 max is an expected and obvious adaptation to their training, and this is supported in the current study whereby ARA had a 26% greater VO2 max than ANA. Yet, the ANA were higher than the UTS, suggesting that they still incur a training benefit in oxidative metabolism. One could speculate that this may be during the recovery periods between bouts of intense exercise when the cardiorespiratory system must work hard to supply blood and nutrients while removing metabolic waste generated during the event. Even so, this research suggests that even this is not enough to reach levels comparable to aerobic athletes and this may simply be owed to the principle of specificity.

The authors do, however, suggest an alternative. Since everyone loves to blame genetics, why shouldn’t the researchers suggest,

“Self- selection of athletes with a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fiber into sports dominated by high intensity, shorter duration bouts is plausible. If ANA in the current study possessed a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers, they would have a lower potential to enhance the oxidative capacity of their muscle, thus resulting in a lower ceiling for VO2 max.”

I admit it would have been interesting to see muscle biopsy information. That said, it seems unlikely as a plausible explanation. So what about the lactate threshold? Interestingly enough, there was no significant difference between the two types of athletes. It seems reasonable that the LT benefits in ANA were a result of enhanced intramuscular lactate dehydrogenase and lactate turnover. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that 12 weeks of strength training increases LT without significantly affecting VO2 max, suggesting they are indeed independent of one another. So then how would that explain the comparable ARA values? Perhaps the endurance athletes were incorporating some type of interval training? Without training logs we won’t know, but that could explain it.

A needle in the haystack

I acknowledge that it may appear we are running in circles here, but there is a takeaway that I would like to provide you. Endurance capacity is the result of multiple mechanisms, not the least of which is anaerobic performance. Thus, this study supports the notion – albeit poorly – that anyone looking to improve endurance exercise performance must incorporate both aerobic and anaerobic activity.


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