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What Is Lactic Acid and Can It Affect Performance?

Lactic Acid
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Lactic Acid, or lactate, is a by-product that is produced by the body when cells break down carbohydrates for energy and when oxygen is lacking. Lactic Acid is an organic acid that is essential for good health.

Energy is needed by the body to function and perform, and is provided to working muscles and body systems through glycolysis. Glycolysis is the process where glucose is broken down into a form that is usable as energy for our skeletal muscles. Preferably, this happens using oxygen and when there is plenty of oxygen, it is known as an aerobic (with oxygen) process. When the level of oxygen is low, glycolysis occurs with too little oxygen and becomes an anaerobic (without oxygen) process.

While performing normal daily activities such as walking, our muscles are working at a low intensity. Because of this low activity level the demand for energy and oxygen is at a minimum and there is a balance of providing energy to our muscles with a suitable level of oxygen. Lactate is not produced because the demand and supply are equal.

However, when we start to exercise at a higher intensity then the demand for energy and oxygen increases. Usually we are breathing more heavily, trying to transfer oxygen from our lungs to our muscles a lot quicker. This causes the demand for energy breakdown to exceed the amount of oxygen that is available, and glycolysis will become anaerobic.

When glycolysis becomes anaerobic, that is when lactic acid is produced in order to produce energy for the cells. When lactate levels become high, the acidity of muscle cells increases, and the process of energy breakdown becomes less efficient. Muscles are not able to sustain the high levels of exertion within the acidic environment and this is a natural protective mechanism to help prevent serious muscle damage.

Lactic Acid Build Up

Lactic Acid can build up in the body and presents as a burning sensation, felt when a state of fatigue is near. A visual shake of the muscle may also be experienced along with a short-term feeling of loss of strength. It is only a temporary sensation though, because the body clears the lactate quickly when oxygen becomes plentiful again.

Symptoms of Lactic Acid Build Up:

  • Burning sensation in the muscles.
  • Weakness or loss of power in the affected area.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Cramping in the affected muscles.

Recently, the belief that a build-up of lactic acid was the reason for muscle soreness following exercise has been deemed incorrect. It is much more likely that any muscle pain or tightness after physical activity is due to small tears and cellular damage to the muscle fibres that occur during exercise.

A sports physiotherapist can assist if you have a lingering muscle injury or any pain. A consultation will assess the issue and simple treatments such as massage and exercises can help relieve pain and regain the strength of the muscle.

Is Lactic Acid Build Up Concerning?

The short answer is no, lactic acid is nothing to be worried about. It is a reminder during workouts to rest, but at low levels it is not dangerous. It is a natural process in our bodies that can be self-managed. Education is important however, so a good understanding of what lactic acid is and taking it into account with training and working out is recommended.

Performance and Lactic Acid

While a build-up of lactic acid may lead to fatigue, there may be advantages for athletes. It is thought that exercising in the aerobic state doesn’t improve performance because the body is receiving enough oxygen to meet the demands of the activity.

During anaerobic exercise, when there is not enough oxygen, exercising at your lactate threshold (about 80-90% of your maximum heart rate) can help the body become more efficient so training at or just below the lactate threshold can improve athletic performance.

How to Reduce Lactic Acid Build Up

With any new exercise or an increase in intensity of workouts, the key is to always build up gradually. Slowly getting our body used to higher loads gives it a chance to become more efficient in the processes necessary for oxygen delivery, energy breakdown and energy utilisation. Your body will become more tolerant of more strenuous exercise and there will be less soreness by raising the lactate threshold.

Other Ways to Help Reduce Lactic Acid Build Up:

  • Staying well hydrated.
  • Ensuring adequate levels of magnesium in your diet.
  • Eating a healthy diet to get good nutrition for cellular processes.
  • Warm up before strenuous exercise and allow rest periods during workouts.
  • Balance your workouts with both aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

Melbourne Sports Physiotherapy can answer your questions about lactic acid, muscle soreness and injury prevention. They strive to help you move better and live a healthier and more active life. Their friendly physios are available for a chat over the phone, or you can book an appointment online.

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