Lactate testing can give some important information to athletes and coaches. Some of this is the most clear-cut and precise information available:
Specific wattages and heart rates can be given where the OBLA occurs and where the anaerobic threshold is crossed. These are far more precise than estimations based on percentage of maximal heart rate often used by coaches.
The point I refer to as the OBLA - the Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation - gives athletes information that is crucial for recovery workouts. Working at a level above this point does not permit true recovery. While not referring to lactate values, Chris Carmichael, long-time coach of Lance Armstrong is a firm believer in this point. He makes the point of giving his athletes a ceiling heart rate for recovery workouts that they cannot go over- going lower though is fine. If you are interested in some of his work, see the references below.
The point referred to as the anaerobic threshold, sometimes set by definition at 4 mmol, but by experience better set as the Maximal Lactate Steady State (MLSS) provides another key piece of information. Training between the OBLA and the MLSS gives a precise workload range for workouts aimed specifically at the aerobic system - which should be at the heart of a rowing training plan, especially in the preparation phase of an annual plan. Workouts that go above the MLSS are not targeting this energy system, but instead are training lactate tolerance. Training in the aerobic zone is training the ability to perform aerobically - to generate more power without having to begin dealing with lactate. A major focus of any training plan should be to extend the reach of this zone as the more power that can be produced this way, the further along an athlete will be when they then begin to tap into their anaerobic system.
Training around the MLSS will train Lactate Tolerance - or more correctly the ability not to tolerate lactate, but to clear it. At this point excess lactate is produced and the body must adapt to buffer the acid being produced, and to use the lactate produced in a productive manner. Raising the power level where the production and clearance of lactate are matched is another key component of a program.
Next, training above the threshold is clearly training the anaerobic system more. The fuels used change, the systems to buffer and clear lactate change, and the enzymatic systems change to enable production of maximal sustained power anaerobically.
There is one final stage of intensity, not revealed by the lactate test necessarily but still key. When intensity becomes high enough that the anaerobic system cannot produce enough power and the ATP-CP system comes into play. At this intensity exercise can only continue for a few seconds - 8-10 perhaps at best.
Now that sets five fairly well accepted ranges for training. Below OBLA for recovery, between OBLA and MLSS for aerobic workouts, around MLSS for "tolerance" of lactate, above MLSS for anaerobic work, and at maximal intensity to train the ATP-CP system
I would argue that most training systems that produce more ranges are really going further into the art of coaching, than basing their system on firm scientific ground. This is fine of course - that is why we have experienced coaches! I just wanted to frame what we will look at.
Let's look, for example, at the training "bands" presented on the Concept 2 site. It's five bands correspond closely to what I have presented. You can imagine though that simply prescribing as a percentage of maximal heart rate is more than a little questionable - better than nothing to be sure, but not nearly as precise as a proper test. Maximal heart rates can be affected by a wide variety of things - hydration, temperature, sickness just to name a few. Moreover - and this is the key point - maximal heart rate changes very little with training - but the threshold values of MLSS and OBLA most certainly do! So this system will not recognize that and a workout that may have been in one zone based on HR will shift after a time of training - completely altering the focus of a training plan. This is especially true around the AT. Training around this threshold is according to Carmichael , like training on a "knife edge" and a small shift in intensity in either direction will change the system being trained. I would also argue that there is little evidence to suggest that the TR (oxygen transport) and AN (anaerobic) bands can really be separated. One argument might be the work on the ATP-CP system, but that is not what this system seems to describe. Should there be both a TR and an AT band? I would suggest absolutely! They have been constructed by experienced and talented coaches. But I would also argue that they have been inferred by the physiology. They are based in part on studies which help show what types of work best serve certain training requirements - but here we are very much into the art of coaching and these specific values cannot be easily determined from a test.
The old Rowing Canada system of training intensities , further illustrates this. It has six categories of intensity. "Cat VI" clearly corresponds to the recovery level and could be well prescribed base on lactates. Cat V would be the range between OBLA and MLSS and is aerobic training at its finest. Cat IV is the anerobic threshold. Beyond this though - Cat I-III are all clearly anaerobic. Lactate is accumulating in all cases. Specific physiological adaptations are mentioned - but here again I would argue that they are just inferences…why is Cat II "transportation" - you'd better believe oxygen transport is stressed at all levels. These categories do give some crucial information though! A training program is effected by many factors: volume, intensity, frequency, stroke rate to name four. All of these categories give practical examples of changing different variables to achieve a training stimulus in the anaerobic zones. Work in these zones is based on years of experienced by great coaches - but here again we are delving far more into the art of coaching.
Applications to Training
The only application to training I wanted you to leave this post with is a bit of knowledge with which to interpret your training plan. Do not blindly follow one - each workout should have a goal to stress one or more energy systems.
Lactate testing - or an alternative method - can help you pinpoint the intensities to be used in a proper training plan. Guesswork will most likely move your planned training out of the zone you should be working on. You probably will still improve, but you will not be as efficient as you could be getting there.
Training the aerobic system requires far less intensity than most would think - going above these intensities will not efficiently train the system that rowers rely on most in a race. Use your knowledge to train smart!
What more is there?
This posting and a few others have looked at the topic of testing. It has brought forward some key physiological points based on testing. It has opened up a few thoughts that you could incorporate into training - for example, should you use heart rates? Are there things to consider when doing so? This post absolutely does not give word on how to take this information and build a program. Going from physiology to training requires a skilled and experienced coach who can blend the science with the experience - that is one part of the Art of coaching.
Future posts will flesh some of this out - issues of heart rate training really do need more than I have posted here for example. Alternatives to basic heart rate ranges, and lactate testing that are relatively simple also need more discussion. Stay tuned for more!
As always, please submit your comments - I am expressing opinions here based on a knowledge of physiology - but I will be the first to admit that it is an incomplete knowledge and discussion is the best way to fill in the details so that we all emerge more knowledgeable!