Lactate? Lactic Acid? Breaking it Down to the Basics
You're at the gym. The industrial lights hanging so high overhead are illuminating the sweat dripping from your nose to the digital display of the elliptical you're tirelessly putting to work. The music from your headphones drowns out the sound of your heavy breathing as you take one step after another, until you feel that familiar burning in your legs. You know it's not fire, though it feels like it could be. Lactic Acid. You're all too familiar with it, but do you know what it actually is?
By better understanding the inner-workings of our bodies, we can give it what it needs to promote health and efficiency. When it comes to lactic acid, better understanding the cause and effect can lead to a better workout and recovery. Lactic acid is believed to be the cause of the burning sensation during workouts. While it’s an uncomfortable feeling, we owe this burning sensation a “thank you” for helping us work harder and longer during exercise.
We need to first note that the term “lactic acid” is actually a misnomer. The correct term is Lactate, though in everyday conversation people use the two interchangeably.
The Role of Lactate
Lactate gets a bad wrap because of a common misconception that Lactate is the sole cause of muscle soreness. This is an easy mix-up, since it is present during these processes, and lactic acidosis (when too much acid builds up in the bloodstream) can cause unpleasant symptoms. The truth is, it’s only during extensive workouts that strain our body’s energy pathways or when taking certain medications that severe pain or burning from acidosis comes into play.
By definition, lactate is a colorless liquid produced during muscle contraction as a product of anaerobic glucose metabolism (1). In less complicated words, it is a byproduct of running out of oxygen for certain processes in the body, and to adapt, the body uses pyruvate as an electron acceptor which turns into lactate. Lactate becomes the new energy source and allows you to keep working hard.
Keep in mind, this is not to say there is no oxygen during this type of exercise! When you are exercising fast or hard enough, oxygen can’t keep up and the body will do what it has to to get the energy it needs.
A factory needs to make cars at a certain rate, but the number of cars coming in is faster than the tires coming in. To keep up with the rate, the factory uses wooden wheels instead. It works to get the job done, but it’s not ideal.
Lactate and Anaerobic Exercise
Lactate gets a bad wrap for the discomfort it causes during exercise, but there are quite a few reasons we can thank lactate instead!
- Instead of ending our workout from lack of oxygen, we are able to exercise longer using lactate.
- Helps to prevent permanent damage by overexertion of muscles
- It slows athletic performance (but as mentioned above, this is preventing damage)
- It doesn’t feel very good
As for the fatigue you feel post workout, experts and current understanding suggest that there are other factors that contribute much more than lactate does. Fatigue is a multidimensional phenomenon and requires more extensive studies, lactate is capable of contributing, but does not cause fatigue by itself (2).
Removal and Recovery
As proven in a classic study from 1937, lactate is generally metabolized by your body in an hour or less (3). Some preach that a cool down will bring down the lactate levels much quicker, and the truth is it does speed it up a bit, but so does rest.
While lactate isn’t harmful, proper recovery will help you feel better quicker. A few helpful ways to remove lactate faster and recover after an intense workout are through the use of massage, or the Meteor. Some studies have found that low level vibration may be effective at removing lactate from the bloodstream quicker than otherwise. (4)
The Meteor’s heat will help reduce your pain and speed up recovery, so you’re ready for your next workout sooner. Its vibration promotes flexibility and reduces chronic pain while. The Meteor is designed to facilitate muscle recovery and is extremely simple, effective, and versatile.
Feel the Burn
With the understanding that lactic acid is an integral part of our exercises, we can welcome the pain but remember to continue adequate recovery measures.