Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Science of Lactic Acid: Increasing Performance

Lactic acid is the chemical that is responsible for the burning sensation that you feel in your muscles when they get fatigued. Lactic acid has a primary survival function: It prevents you from overworking your muscles in a single bout of physical activity and acts as an indication for when your muscles are ready to continue with more physical exertion. Without lactic acid, you would never know when to stop and could permanently damage your muscles without realizing it. Read on to find out more about lactic acid formation and what you can do to maximize your workouts by managing lactic acid build up.

Extra Info: Some of lactic acid's properties

Wikipedia says that lactic acid is white and water soluble. It falls under the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) acid group. AHA's are often used in the cosmetic industry for their skin rejuvenating effects. AHA acids generally originate from milk and fruit sugars. Lactic acid in particular comes from glycogen, the sugar in our muscles (we will read more about that connection later). Lactic acid is also hygroscopic, meaning that it attracts and absorbs the water around it.

What you need to know about lactic acid to improve your performance

Lactic acid is formed during anaerobic exercise

Scientific American explains that lactic acid is formed during anaerobic exercise - the type of exercise that uses energy from muscle glycogen, not the type of exercise that uses energy from oxygen.

When your body needs energy at a faster rate than what it get make from oxygen, it uses glycogen stores to meet its energy needs. Glycogen is the energy (a form of glucose) that is stored in muscle mass. Shorter bursts of exercise use muscle energy (or glycogen). This is one of the reasons why sprinters have bigger muscles than marathon runners. Since they reply on muscle glycogen for energy, their bodies adapt by increasing muscles mass to accommodate more glycogen. Marathon runners don't reply on glycogen stores, since they work at a pace that can rely on oxygen for energy. For bodybuilders, glucose accommodation is one of the reasons why high reps training can build muscle mass.

This would explain why new runners are more prone to experience sore muscles during training than better trained athletes. Their bodies are not as trained to use oxygen for energy as efficiently as more experienced athletes. They therefore rely more on glycogen stores to complete their training sessions. As they progress and their bodies use oxygen-generated energy more efficiently, less lactic acid will be produced as a result.

This could also explain why longer aerobic sessions can lead to muscle soreness (like on competition and race days). As you advance further into prolonged physical activity, your energy-from-oxygen system starts to tire and begins to lean on your glycogen-for-energy system for help. The resulting recruitment of the glycogen system leads to lactic acid build up.

How lactic acid is formed

Glycolysis refers to the process where glycogen is broken down into energy. During this process, glucose is broken down into a substance called pyruvate.

When there is enough time to use oxygen as a form of energy, pyruvate can be transported and used for more energy though aerobic pathways. When there is not enough oxygen for this process because of time constraints, pyruvate is turned into lactic acid (or lactate) so that the glucose can be broken down into energy to perform a physical function. As the muscle continues to work, the lactic acid builds up more and more. It continues building up to a point where you start feeling that burning sensation. This burning sensation eventually prohibits further physical exertion. Your muscles begin to lose their physical ability to perform because the acidity of lactate disrupts the muscle function. This effect worsens as the lactic acid (or lactate) increases in concentration within the muscle fiber.

The process described above has a very basic survival benefit, because without it we would exert ourselves without stopping. This would cause irreversibly damage our muscle tissue.

The elimination of lactic acid (and how to speed it up)

As oxygen enters into the blood and reaches the muscle, it turns the lactic acid back into pyruvate so that it can be used as energy. Since the rate at which pyruvate is turned into lactic acid (during intense exercise) is greater than the rate at which oxygen can turn it back, there is a back log that slowly catches up as oxygen reaches the muscle fiber. According to, the reversal process can take 30 to 60 minutes after the activity that prompted lactate formation. After this time, lactic acid levels return to normal resting levels.

You can speed up the removal of lactic acid by doing light exercise right after the lactate-inducing activity. Cool-down exercises allow oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to reach the muscles faster.

Fact: Lactic acid does not cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

Many people believe that the muscle soreness that lasts for days after your workout is caused by lactic acid build up. This is not true. The American College of Sports Medicine says that there is no connection between lactic acid build up and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Firstly, lactic acid cannot be the cause of DOMS because the pain you feel from this will only appear after a day (sometimes longer) of the exercise that caused it. The burn you feel from lactic acid is immediate and usually goes away after an hour. If the two pains were from the same chemical, then why does the pain subside and then come back? It's not like lactic acid needs to take a rest, disappears and returns with a vengeance. As stated above, lactic acid returns back to base levels within an hour.

Instead, the recovery process is what causes DOMS. It is caused as a result of microscopic damages and tiny tears that happen within the muscle fibers as a result of exercise or physical activity. DOMS is most often experienced with new programs that your body is not used to. New stimuli require a much higher degree of recovery, since your body is not used to recovering from that specific stimulus.

This is why you can feel an incredible immediate muscle burn while working out and not have DOMS afterwards. Also, you can experience DOMS even if you didn't feel the burn in your muscles during your workout.

Reducing lactic acid formation

Here are ways to reduce lactic acid formation so that you can work out for longer and increase the amount of stimulus that you put on your muscles before they start to tire.


Complete Nutrition recommends hydrating with water and electrolytes. This helps you to ease the effects of lactic acid because it is water soluble. Water will dilute lactic acid, which you can pee out during your workout. They recommend drinking before you get dehydrated, and that only drinking at this stage is too late. Waiting for the signs of dehydration before you re-hydrate will increase the effects of lactic acid build up, instead of minimizing it. Electrolytes help your body to hold water so that it does not run through your body without making any positive effects on your hydration levels.

Improve blood circulation

A hot bath will improve blood circulation, encouraging the reduction of lactic acid, according to V Kool. The increased heat opens up blood vessels so that more oxygen and nutrients can reach the muscles in less time. Steam rooms can also help ease and limit lactate build up for the same reason - improved blood circulation. Warming up is a great way to reduce lactate accumulation. It also increases your performance. Massaging the muscle will also improve blood circulation, and so will a good cool down routine after your workout.

Breathe in more oxygen

Have you ever breathed deeper and more rapidly to feel light headed? Did you know that you felt light headed because of the extra oxygen in your blood? The extra oxygen in this case will help to counter the effects of the lactic acid. To take things a step further, you could work on increasing your VO2 max, so that your body naturally absorbs more oxygen that normal. Cardio vascular exercise will increase that rate at which your body can use oxygen for energy and reduce the rate at which lactic acid is released because of this. Don't worry muscle junkies: cardio can actually aid muscle gain.

Slow down

When you feel the burn coming on, you can stop for a few minutes and let the sensation subside. This can increase the amount of work that you get to do before the burn takes over. The more stimuli you can give your body, the more it will be prompted to grow.

Supplements that combat lactic acid


Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid that provides the body with energy. Supplementing with creatine to increase its naturally occurring levels will assist the muscle fibers by providing them with more energy than usual. By increasing energy availability, there will be less lactic acid build up from the energy production process described above.

Fish oil

Fish oil contains omega 3, which helps to support your cardio vascular endurance system and maintain it at an optimal level. The better your cardio vascular system can process oxygen (as discussed above), the less lactic acid will be produced.


Magnesium is also important for cardio vascular performance. Many endurance athletes use magnesium during race days to avoid muscle cramps and soreness. Make sure that you don't overdose on this mineral, though. Too much magnesium can lead to irregular heartbeats, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing and hypo-tension. Never take more than the recommended dosage.


Beta-alanine is widely known for its ability to combat muscle fatigue. It is also known to reduce the rate of lactate formation, which means that your muscles can do more before they burn out from the acidity of lactic acid.

Some people experience negative side effects from beta-alanine supplementation. Try a small amount of this amino acid (amino acids are the building blocks of protein) to see if you are sensitive to taking it in its isolated form. Many athletes report a tingly, itchy feeling on their skin when they take this supplement. Others feel the tingling sensation and continue using it because they associate the sensation with the increased the endurance that beta-alanine can give them. Others don't have any negative side effects at all.

Baking soda

Baking soda (also known as sodium bicarbonate) works to decrease the effects of lactic acid because it works to counteract lactate's acidity within the muscle fibers. Although sodium bicarbonate is relatively abundant within muscle, consuming this common household ingredient before intense activity has shown to decrease the burning sensation within a person's muscle tissue.

By understanding what lactic acid is and how it works, discovering ways to minimize its effects and realizing that DOMS is a recovery response instead of the left-over effect of lactate; you are more empowered to exercise, eat and plan your life in such a way that you can further your physical goals with less time and misguided effort.

I hope that you learnt some information that help you further your physical progress. If you did, please let me know in the comments below. STAY STRONG!