Categories: Health Training

What athletes should understand about aerobic threshold

July 18, 2017

When it comes to training, there are terms everyone knows – like VO2 max or chafing – and then there are the ones that get tossed around in conversation but that, to be honest, most people don’t fully understand. (No shame!) Case in point: anaerobic and aerobic threshold.

We may throw these words into conversation with our fit-minded friends from time to time – “Hey, does your coach have you doing much aerobic threshold work this season?” – but what do they actually mean, why does it matter, and what should you expect when it shows up on your training plan?

Let’s break it down. Here’s everything athletes should understand about aerobic threshold. (And click here for a breakdown on all things anaerobic threshold.)

What is aerobic threshold?

Generally speaking, aerobic threshold is a steady-state effort that you could perform for hours. If you’re working out in an aerobic range, your breathing will be light, and you should feel like you can keep moving for hours.

In more science-specific terms, aerobic threshold is the level of effort at which anaerobic energy pathways start helping out with energy production. For endurance athletes, having an increased aerobic threshold is key for being able to go longer and further.

What does that mean in training speak?

Those longer steady-state workouts on your training plan – like long runs, long rides, or steady efforts in the pool – are aerobic threshold workouts. “For these workouts, your goal is to stay comfortably burning oxygen and sustaining a specified effort for a longer period of time,” says Anthony Baugh, NASM CPT, PES, CES, and trainer at Independent Training Spot in New York City.

One tried-and-true way to measure whether you’re staying in your aerobic threshold zone is to keep an eye on your heart rate

One tried-and-true way to measure whether you’re staying in your aerobic threshold zone is to keep an eye on your heart rate and make sure it remains in the steady, moderate effort zone for the duration of your workout. If you have an aerobic-specific workout on your plan, consider intervals and HIIT sessions off the table.

“Every athlete benefits from doing both aerobic and anaerobic workouts,” says Baugh. “The key is balance. People usually stick to what they’re good at, or they solely train to simulate the event in which they’re working toward.”

If you’re training for a longer event, it’s important to still include short, intense interval workouts to help your body become more efficient at burning oxygen. And for shorter efforts, having a great aerobic base will help you recover faster between intervals.

So how do I know what my aerobic threshold level is?

“Everyone’s aerobic threshold is different,” says Baugh. “The easiest way to determine if you’re in your aerobic energy system is to see how long you can sustain your effort. If you’re unable to maintain your effort for longer than three minutes, your body has probably gone anaerobic.”

So if you’re out for a run and have to drastically alter your pace within three minutes, you’re no longer working out in the aerobic zone.

By the numbers, subtract 30 beats per minute from your lactate threshold heart rate, and that’ll give you a rough estimate of your aerobic threshold. But beyond the data, it’s the feeling at which the intensity of your workout and effort is just slightly above resting level.

In the spotlight

Anthony Baugh

Anthony Baugh

Anthony Baugh, NASM CPT, PES, CES, is a Category 3 cyclist and Ironman, and is a trainer at the Independent Training Spot in New York City.