Lactic Acid – Your Misunderstood Friend? -- Training
Lactic Acid – Your Misunderstood Friend?
In a recent email newsletter from Joe Friel, there was a very interesting article about lactic acid that got me thinking, and even doing a little research!
According to this and several other articles, lactic acid isn’t the big, bad metabolic beast that we’ve been lead to believe it. We’ve all heard that the ‘burn’ you feel during intense efforts is lactic acid building up in your legs. Makes sense, right? Acid = burn!
Well, not really!
As it turns out, lactic acid is actually our friend. It’s responsible for helping to create more ATP (the energy our muscle cells use directly) and is more efficient at travelling between tissue (like our muscles) than glucose (the sugar ATP is made from.)
Lactic acid is constantly formed in and reabsorbed into our muscles all day long, but at much higher levels when we engage in very intense efforts, also known as anaerobic activity. (anaerobic = no oxygen)
During anaerobic glycolysis (the process of using/breaking down glucose as ‘fuel’ for our muscles) the glucose gets broken down to lactic acid and hydrogen ions. This is the surprise: it’s actually the hydrogen that causes problems! As it gets into the muscle tissue and surrounding blood, it creates an acid imbalance, which then leads to pain and discomfort and muscle fatigue. The lactic acid works in our favor once more, by helping to carry the hydrogen away, where it gets removed in the liver. Also, the lactic acid is used in the liver to form more glycogen. (Yay! More energy!)
Vegans May Have Their Bases Covered
I believe this leads to a strong argument for veganism in athletics. Since most plant-based foods are base-forming, and pretty much every animal product under the sun is acid-forming, by eating a plant-based diet, we’re keeping our bodies more alkaline, which results in a higher lactate threshold. I guess this means we can actually tolerate much more pain. (Ha! Who’s the tough one now, meathead?)
There’s some discussion of eating baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to add more base to your system if you perform anaerobic activities, but you need to consume 0.3 grams per kg of body weight…which would mean I would have to eat 21g… which is over 4 teaspoons.. yikes! If you want to experiment, you’ll need to consume it two hours before the event, and be sure to drink lots of water. Also make sure it isn’t a banned substance at your event, and that you don’t have a sensitivity to it. (Baking soda allergy anyone?)
Realistically though, the best thing you can do is train yourself to increase your lactate threshold. By performing regularly at levels that increase the amount of lactic acid, your body will adapt and be able to handle the load. This is best done through interval training, and maintaining close-to-anaerobic intensities for extended periods of time (8-20 minutes) and is typically 85-90% of your maximum heart rate. As an example, maintaining 80-85% of your max. HR for 8 minutes helps to gently and efficiently ‘push’ your lactate threshold up. Rinse and repeat!
This revelation also has some interesting effects on post-exercise activities: we’re familiar with having massages and Epsom baths, which are supposed to help disperse the lactic acid, but lactic acid doesn’t actually ‘sit’ in our muscles, it’s actually used and absorbed to create more ATP. Massage no doubt helps by keeping the blood flowing to help regenerate muscle tissue, but what do Epsom salts really do..?
Stupid Sounding Summary: Sing along! Lactic acid is my friend. It helps to make my legs bend. Not so great is hydrogen. It helps to eat my veggies then.
A vegan side note: it turns out that this myth was created by our old foe vivisection (aka animal testing). In 1929 Archibald V. Hill would flex frog muscles to fatigue, and noticed at that point lactic acid was formed and declared it the enemy. Stupid vivisector!
Further Reading . . .