Lactic acid is blamed for all sorts of exercise-related woes, from delayed onset muscle soreness to a charley horse. It turns out, however, that those pains aren’t related to lactic acid at all and lactic acid is actually pretty important to proper body function. That means that the idea of one wanting to get rid of lactic acid is a bit of a misunderstanding. We want to eliminate pain (see: aches & pains) because it can slow us down and lessen our ability to perform hence the desire to get rid of lactic acid. As a human though, we don’t want to get rid of ALL of it.
As we exercise, glucose in our blood breaks down into lactic acid after it has been used by muscles. That acid is processed by the liver and converted back into something our muscles can use. It’s the balance between acid production and conversion that can cause discomfort. It is that burning sensation you feel in your calves when you’re running. Eventually, with some adjustment, the production/use cycle evens out and you will find that you can continue beyond the initial burn—that is if you are in shape, your heart is beating, and your lungs are still oxygenating your blood.
The best ways to Minimize Lactic Acid Buildup
Stretching is a good idea before any workout and it will ready your body for lactic acid. It is amazing to me to see people who look like they spend a lot of time working out or running just jump on the treadmill cold and go for it. Good grief. Take a few minutes to gently stretch out some of the major muscle groups. It’s one of the most effective things you can do to prevent injury. A good routine will involve both standing and sitting stretches. It should stretch your ankles, calves, hamstrings, groin, quads, back, shoulders, arms, and neck. Do it in a way that you don’t bounce or you’ll risk damaging the muscles.
Warming up before any major exertion will help minimize lactic acid. Starting your workout with stretching limbers up your muscles and joints and will help reduce chances of injury. Now it is time to do some low-key exercises to get your body ready for a workout. Some people like to go on a walk/run to nowhere on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike for a few minutes. The main thing is that you start out slow and work up to a higher exertion rate. Depending on what you have planned for your next activity, you can go right from your warm-up into a faster run or head into the weight room.
If you feel the lactic acid burn when you are exercising, slow down. If you are literally feeling the burn as you begin to amp up your workout routine or run, it is a sign that you are converting more glucose into lactic acid than your tissues and liver can absorb and process. At this point you can choose to keep going through the burn or slow it down a little bit to allow your body to get its oxygen levels up again so that you can get rid of that burning sensation. Doing this can allow you to continue running longer, albeit slower.
Warming down helps to keep your blood highly oxygenated, reducing lactic acid. Just as taking the time to warm up can help to get your metabolism going, your heart pumping, and your body ready to perform, warming down is equally important. Nothing is worse for lactic acid pain than to just stop altogether. You need to keep moving and breathing, slowly reducing your pace over the course of five to ten minutes. It could be as simple as dropping to a brisk walk near the end of your run, or jumping on a stationary recumbent bike in the gym for a few minutes.
Persistent muscle pain probably isn’t lactic acid. As stated in the introduction, the idea that lactic acid causes long term, after-the-fact types of muscle soreness has been proven to be untrue. Soreness that comes on eight to twelve hours after a workout is more likely to be caused by tiny tears in the structure of your muscles (or a more serious injury). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When those muscles heal, they grow back stronger. It is this process that allows us to improve ourselves. For more information on this issue, check out our article on getting rid of muscle soreness.
Lactic Acid Buffers
Some experiments have been done with raising the pH of an athlete’s body with mineral salts before a performance in order to combat the onset of acidosis (a low pH) from high lactic acid levels in the blood. This has proven to be helpful to a certain extent. It will only help with activities that require short bursts of extreme muscle usage, like sprinting. Some use sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) mixed with water, but this can also cause a lot of very negative side effects like belching, high blood pressure, sodium-induced fluid retention, flatulence, and even explosive diarrhea. Not an ideal solution, by any means. Some other buffers you might want to check into are potassium phosphate, citrate, carnosine, and creatine monohydrate.
Train For Endurance as Well as Speed to Reduce Lactic Acid
Endurance runners rarely have problems with lactic acid buildup because their training has been geared toward length of time rather than bursts of speed. Both long-distance runners and sprinters are amazing to me in their own right. However, the best way to get rid of lactic acid problems is to do some of both when you are training.
The more you train your body to handle lactic acid buildup, the better it will be at handling it. It has to do with the enzymes that handle lactic acid conversion and how plentiful they are. Cardiovascular health and the condition of your liver will both play a role in how quickly you can recover from a high acid level. All good reasons to think about full body health when considering your workout regimen and dietary needs.