Time to Read
Points of Interest
- Understanding the problem
- Reducing lactic acid in the muscles
- Implications for athletes
- Solving the issue
If you’re an athlete who creates a significant amount of lactic acid through your training or sport, you’ll be all too familiar with this feeling!
Lactic acid certainly does contribute to a post-exercise drop in performance. There are however things you can do to help clear the post-exercise build up of lactate in the muscles, meaning you won’t have to miss out on a sunny run because of sore muscles!
It’s helpful at this point if we establish exactly what lactate is. Knowing where it comes from gives us strategies to help clear it quickly and get back to intense training and peak performance sooner.
Lactate is a by-product of anaerobic respiration. In periods of high-intensity exercise, ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphate) is manufactured by breaking down carbohydrate molecules in the body. This produces something called Pyruvate.
Pyruvate is turned into lactate when there isn’t enough oxygen present within the body to turn it into ATP (energy). Once there is a build up of lactate, it is sent elsewhere in the body.
During prolonged periods of high intensity exercise, lactate levels can build up, creating a more acidic environment in the body – this is what creates the ‘burning’ sensation in muscles.
Traditionally post-exercise recovery sessions were very low intensity, but further research has shown that when it comes to lactate clearance, higher intensities are more effective.
This seems to be clear in all sports. Tests have been conducted in cycling, rowing, running etc and the results all appear to be the same – working at 50% or more of maximal power output clears lactate quicker than lower intensity work.
There are two variables to consider in lactate clearance;
The research again is very clear – at higher intensity post-exercise recovery sessions, lactate is cleared from the blood quicker, but also more completely.
Recovery sessions in runners completed at the lactate threshold resulted in the complete removal of blood lactate.
This information should see a dramatic change in your recovery strategy.
If you have an old-school coach who insists on gentle recovery sessions, you may be at a disadvantage if you don’t use a more practical lactate clearance protocol.
The research is enlightening for a couple of reasons…
Let’s discuss these two in more detail.
Previously recovery sessions may have been conducted without any real goal.
“Work at a lower intensity” isn’t great coaching as it’s meaningless and at best is total guesswork.
Low intensity movement until you no longer feel stiff just doesn’t cut it, because stiffness largely dissipates quickly. It doesn’t effectively address the real issue though, which is clearing lactic acid.
Thanks to this research, we can make post-activity lactate clearance more effective by giving athletes targets.
You should be looking to exercise at 80% of your maximum heart rate and above for around 20 minutes.
Good coaching advice would be to perform your particular activity at 80% or more of max heart rate for lactic acid recovery.
In practice, if you are a rower, for example, you should be rowing at 80% or more of max heart rate for 20 minutes, but no longer (other than a cool down).
The point is to work enough to flush out the lactic acid, but no more. Of course, we’re all different, but a reasonable assumption could be made that you'll clear all or at least most of your lactic acid out of your muscles if you follow this protocol.
What about DOMS?
Lactic acid has been wrongly linked with creating DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
We know that lactic acid doesn’t cause DOMS, but the activities you do will create lactic acid and that may be part of the process.
In either case, improving circulation has been shown to speed recovery, meaning you’re more likely to be able to manage that sunny run after all!
Steve is a personal trainer and sports nutrition specialist