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Lactic Acid Lactate

You often hear people say things like “I got very lactic in that workout,” or “I did some active recovery to get rid of the lactic acid,” and “I’m so sore because of the lactic acid.” It’s what our class at uni initially thought too, until we began to learn about physiology. What you read in magazines and what you hear in a gym is rarely of substance!

There is no such thing as lactic acid.

During high intensity exercise, your body uses anaerobic metabolism to produce energy. Anaerobic metabolism breaks down glucose (carbs) for energy without the use of oxygen. A by-product of that process is LACTATE.

The “lactic acid is bad” stigma probably has something to do with the relationship between performance and the rate at which LACTATE is cleared from the bloodstream. Many endurance athletes will be familiar with the term ‘lactate threshold’ (LT). LT is the point during exercise at which blood lactate increases more rapidly – lactate shows up in the blood faster than it can be removed. Studies have shown that the higher your LT, the better your endurance performance. Naturally, people came to assume that lactate was bad.

Lactate isn’t all that bad. In fact, with proper training and nutrition, lactate becomes your performance friend. Your LT can be increased by tweaking your training and improving your nutrition. That means, it will take longer for lactate to show up in your blood.

How nutrition affects lactate build up is a topic on its own, but it deserves a mention. If you have a diet high in simple carbs and starches, that’s what your body is going to break down for energy. Remember that lactate is a by-product of metabolising glucose. If you RE-train your body to rely on fats for fuel, it off-sets lactate build up from glucose breakdown. Eat more healthy fats and avoid simple and processed carbs. Sound familiar?

What you do in training has a significant impact on lactate too. When you mix bouts of low activity in with bouts of high intensity exercise, the body has time to remove lactate from the blood and transport it to the liver.  During exercise, the liver turns lactate into glucose and sends it back to the working muscles. So not only can you keep going, but you can keep going at a high intensity.

What you can do when training to take advantage of this is simply to keep moving. You are always going to need bouts of rest during workouts. The best thing to do during those rest periods is to keep moving. You instinctively want to stop because your muscles are fatigued and burning, and your heart rate is high, but light movement will get that lactate sent to the live for glucose production and it will settle your heart rate. The same goes at the end of the workout. You’ll often hear me saying that you recover on your feet and not on the floor because moving results in faster and better recovery.

The lactate and lactate threshold phenomenon is much more complicated than that, but at least you have some (better) insight in to lactic acid vs. lactate now. Always remember, keep moving!

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