Lactic Acid Build Up in the Muscles:
How It Affects Athletic Performance
Lactic acid is frequently blamed for the muscular pain felt by athletes during intensive exercise. While the theory that it is responsible for soreness in the muscles has been disproved, lactic acid does play a role in muscle fatigue. By learning more about what lactic acid is and how it affects your muscles, you will gain a better understanding of how it can help (or hinder) your athletic performance.
What is lactic acid?
Lactic acid, also known as lactate, is an important chemical compound which is involved in a number of biological processes. It is synthesized from glucose, the body’s main energy source, through a series of chemical reactions that occur during normal metabolism and physical activity. Lactic acid is an important secondary energy source for the muscles, particularly during intense exercise.
Why does lactic acid build up in the muscles during exercise?
Carbohydrates, or sugars, are the main source of fuel for the body. When carbohydrates are consumed, any that are not immediately used are stored in the body as glycogen; muscle glycogen is necessary to provide the energy needed for physical activity. During aerobic (oxygen-utilizing) exercise, glycogen is broken down into glucose, which is further broken down in the presence of oxygen into energy molecules called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
When there is not enough oxygen present to produce ATP – which often occurs during intense bursts of activity such as sprinting or lifting weights – the glucose is instead converted into lactic acid, which can then be used as fuel for the muscles. During particularly strenuous exercise, lactate may be produced in quantities greater than the body is able to absorb (a condition known as the lactate threshold, or LT), and it begins to accumulate in the muscles.
Once sufficient levels of oxygen are restored, the accumulated lactic acid can be either used as fuel for further exercise, or it can be reconverted to glucose in the liver.
How does lactic acid accumulation affect performance?
While lactic acid acts as an important energy source, allowing the muscle fibers to work significantly longer than they would using only ATP as a fuel source, it also plays a role in muscle fatigue. Excessive levels of lactate causes lower-than-normal pH levels in the muscle fibers; this may stimulate the nerve endings in a localized area, and some researchers believe that this effect is partly responsible for the “burn” that athletes feel during intense activity.
While most experts believe that lactic acid accumulation is only partly responsible for muscle pain during exercise, it can hamper your athletic performance in the short term by preventing your muscles from achieving their workload potential.
How to get around the problem of lactate build up
After a period of strenuous exercise, most fitness experts recommend a cool-down period of activity in order to permit the muscle fibers to return to their oxygenated state. Athletes may spend several minutes walking, running at a slower pace, or continuing their previous exercise at a lower level of intensity. This should be followed by appropriate stretching exercises, and then eating a snack or meal containing plenty of complex carbohydrates to replenish the body’s glycogen stores.
For athletes who want to increase their lactate threshold, trainers typically design a program which includes endurance training. This involves training at a high intensity for increasingly longer periods; it is believed that this technique causes the production of proteins which help the body to convert lactic acid to energy. Endurance training also increases your aerobic capacity and boosts your stamina and overall fitness levels; endurance exercises are an important part of any physical training program.
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