Lactic Acid, the Hero We Need

This past week I made some bold moves on the internet. I started threads on Facebook about the perhaps most contentious discussions of the moment: vaccinations, breastfeeding, and Woody Allen. I figured I’d bring the controversy to my blog. There are many topics to choose from: stretching vs. not stretching before a run, Gu vs. gummy bears, how much water is too much water, and of course everyone’s favorite controversy, barefoot running. I’d like to touch on all of these subjects eventually; stir up the runner’s pot a bit. Today however I embark upon a quest to understand the misunderstood. To set the record straight. To defend the maligned, the convicted, the discredited. Today I write in defense of lactic acid.

This subject may not be as interesting to anyone you as it is to me. Sooo, sorry about that. I merely want to share my revelation. I will say that my allusions on social media to writing this article have been met with keen interest from fellow runners so hopefully my painstaking research will shed some light on a mysterious topic. Much more mysterious than I even could have imagined.

Living in an age where we’re making eyeglasses with computer screens in them and talking about using nano robots for microsurgery, I just assumed that we had a pretty decent handle on the basic chemical functions of the body. I was wrong. Of course we know a great deal, but so much is still a mystery. We can land a robot on Mars, but we can’t quite get to the bottom of lactic acid’s processes in our body. And I’m not just talking about me and my effort to understand. I’m talking about the established medical community. I’ve spent the past week reading warring medical journals online. The tete a tetes between disagreeing doctors is nothing short of hilarious.

After diligently researching the subject by reading countless medical journals, I feel confident that I understand what’s going on with my body when I run.

You read that right. I read medical journals. This right-brained theatre major who took anatomy senior year of high school because chemistry was just too hard for her, read articles in the American Journal of Physiology titled things like “Biochemistry of exercise-induced metabolic acidosis.” I felt like I was reading another language, but it was an incredible exercise for the brain. My brain felt like my legs do after a half marathon!

I’ll link to all of my references at the bottom of this article if you’d like to partake.

On to lactic acid. First, let me take a step back for a moment. I had a rough run at last month’s Tinker Bell Half Marathon. Despite feeling fairly trained and ready to race, about 5 minutes after crossing the finish line I felt that I’d been hit by a truck. I learned that much of this was probably due to sleep deprivation, but others advised me that I was also displaying symptoms of lactic acid build-up. I’d heard that before. We’re runners. We’ve all heard that and thrown it around ourselves. “Oh, that’s lactic acid.” Eeevil lactic acid. I hadn’t given it much of a second thought before, but I felt so frustrated by the outcome of the Tinker Bell race that I began to question. Why? Why, when I need my body to do everything it can to throw me a bone in a strenuous situation, why would it create a substance that would make me feel like I was dying? I thought I’d do a little research and find a simple answer. I was wrong.

Lactic acid has become a catch-all to describe an incredibly, INCREDIBLY, complicated set of chemical processes in the body. The truth that I think I’ve begun to uncover is that lactic acid is not guilty of all that we attribute to it.

First of all, here are some myths that need busting:

  • Lactic Acid is responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
  • Lactic Acid causes cramping
  • Lactic Acid can be expelled from the body through sports massage
  • Lactic Acid causes long-term muscle fatigue
  • Lactic Acid is a waste product
  • Lactic Acid is your worst enemy

These are all untrue. In fact lactic acid is created to help you. I’ll explain more on these misconceptions in a minute but first, a science lesson. To truly harness the power of lactic acid in your training you must understand how it works in the body.

*Disclaimer* What I’m about to describe is an incredibly complicated chemical process and I’m basically boiling it down to a very simple few steps. So all you O-chem students out there don’t write me letters about how I didn’t accurately represent the Krebs Cycle. I know I know already. Just trying to keep it simple.

I drew. I channeled my inner Allie Brosh and I drew some accompanying diagrams to aid this science lesson. They are crude and awful, but hopefully helpful. Like I said, right-brained visual thinker over here.

We begin our story. It’s a tale of an unsung hero, saving our muscles from collapse when the world around us begs our demise. This world we’ve entered is a world of exercise.

When we exercise, our bodies need energy. Well, our bodies ALWAYS need energy just to live but specifically we need a lot when we exercise. That energy comes in the form of ATP, which shall henceforth be represented by this magical ATP butterfly.

ATP Butterfly.png

We create ATP in our bodies either Aerobically or Anaerobically. When we’re just walking around and sitting and sleeping and eating and living our normal lives, we create ATP Aerobically which means, you guessed it, with oxygen.

During Aerobic creation of ATP, our bodies break down GLUCOSE through a process called GLYCOLYSIS. Through that breakdown of GLUCOSE we meet our next player in this story, PYRUVATE. PYRUVATE is the gatekeeper to our metabolic process, doling out the goods to make ATP. He shall henceforth be represented by this purple helper monster.

Pyruvate Monster

Pyruvate then enters a process called the Krebs Cycle which is way too complicated and chemistry-y for me to go into. Basically what you end up with is ATP. Yay!

Running Girl

Which requires:

Energy

Since it’s an easy run, the kind where I can carry out a conversation the entire time, my body is going to produce ATP mostly through Aerobic Metabolism:

Aerobic ATP production

ATP Gives Energy

And then the ATP gets used up and recycled to begin the process all over again. It’s very efficient and miraculous. Good job body!

But we’re athletes. They aren’t all easy runs. So what happens when we want to push it to the max?

Running Fast

Oxygen gets harder and harder to come by (you know that feeling of asphyxiation when you sprint?), and yet our bodies don’t give up. We kick in to Anaerobic Metabolism.

In that scenario, our body still needs ATP. We begin the process of GLYCOLYSIS to create PYRUVATE. Because we’re kicking it into high gear and using all of our oxygen, we can’t keep up with the demand for ATP via the Krebs Cycle. So instead PYRUVATE creates… LACTIC ACID! Hurray! You’ve been waiting for her to make her entrance.

Good ‘ol lactic acid then gets turned into LACTATE. Now here is where our real star is born. All this talk of lactic acid is misleading, the real actor in this whole scenario is LACTATE. Henceforth LACTATE shall be known as this pink superhero monster:

Lactate Superhero

I heard someone needed a boost!

LACTATE is able to fill in the gap where OXYGEN left us hanging and continues the process to provide our bodies with much needed ATP for exertion. Thank you LACTATE.

Like any good superhero, he has his nemesis. Enter: HYDROGEN ION. HYDROGEN IONS are also known as CATIONS, which lets be honest is an incredibly cool name for a super villain. Enter CATION!

Hydrogren Monster

I will crush you with my free floating molecules.

So here’s his story. The breakdown of Lactic Acid to LACTATE yields a build up of HYDROGEN IONS in the body. In the aerobic process these HYDROGEN IONS get balanced out and the body maintains a neutral pH; but some things get a little hanky in the anaerobic process. LACTATE, as useful as he may be to our ability to sprint and push ourselves, is left wanting when it comes to fighting HYDROGEN ION aka CATION. And so with all of these free HYDROGEN molecules floating around in the body, our muscles are left with an unbalanced pH, i.e. an acidic environment.

Anaerobic Metabolism

This acidic environment is sometimes referred to as Lactic Acidosis or Muscular Acidosis. THIS is what is happening when we feel like crap during or right after a hard run and we curse the name LACTIC ACID. What we really should be shouting is “Curse you CATION!!!”

LACTATE just can't fight off HYDROGEN ION

LACTATE just can’t fight off his nemesis CATION

So yeah, despite LACTATE’s best efforts to help us and give us energy to keep running, wicked CATION has turned our muscles into his own personal acidic wasteland. A wasteland known as Muscular Acidosis. The symptoms of Muscular Acidosis are:

  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Hyperventilation
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Severe Anemia
  • Hypotension
  • Irregular Heart Rate
  • Tachycardia (increased heart rate)

All LACTATE was trying to do was get us our ATP when we ran out of OXYGEN, and sneaky HYDROGEN ION busts in there and causes all the problems and then blames it on LACTATE. The injustice.

In a very elementary nutshell, that is why our bodies produce LACTATE (or Lactic Acid if we want to go back to using the more umbrella term) when we run. The moral of the story is that, although the by-product can be incredibly uncomfortable, LACTATE is there to help us perform under strenuous circumstances. LACTATE helps push our bodies beyond the confines of pedestrian oxygen and tests our mettle. He may not be the hero we always want, but he certainly is the hero we need.

He cannot work alone however. In order for LACTATE to work efficiently, we need to work together. This is where smart training comes into play.

LACTATE is an elusive superhero. He leaves us almost as quickly as he arrives, and luckily takes his nemesis HYDROGEN ION with him. Within approximately one hour after a strenuous workout all of the LACTATE in your body will have been metabolized either by the heart, the liver, or even through your sweat. However that can be an uncomfortable hour if you’re in a state of Acidosis. So what we need to do is to make sure that our bodies don’t produce LACTATE faster than we can clear it. It’s like a game of Dr. Mario. You always want to make sure you’re clearing out those pills faster than Dr. Mario is throwing them at you. If you get behind, suddenly there’s a major build-up and you die. It’s just like that, except for hopefully not the dying part.

dr-mario-classic-nes-series-20040810082856155_640w

Now I will list the main steps we must take to make sure we’re using LACTATE to benefit us.

  1. Physical Fitness
    • There is no doubt that the better shape you’re in, the better off you’ll be, so take your training very seriously. The better the shape you’re in the less LACTATE your body will need to produce in order produce ATP, and thus the less likelihood of a build-up situation where you can’t clear it as fast as you’re making it. Being in tip top shape is like playing a Beginner Level of Dr. Mario. Easy peasy and fun. To GET in this kind of shape you’ll need:
  2. OBLA Training
    • You have to GET in really good shape. You have to GET really good at Dr. Mario. So what you need to do is train at a high level. When we’re talking about Lactic Acid tolerance, we’re talking about OBLA training. This stands for Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation. In OBLA Training you will run as fast as you possibly can while still maintaining an Aerobic environment. You’ll be at that threshold before your body crosses over into Anaerobic mode. What this does is keeps your body at that level where lactic acid production is *just* below lactic acid clearance. So you can push yourself athletically without evil CATION taking his grip. This is key because the more you exercise at the OBLA level, you’ll slowly start to increase where that threshold is and you’ll be using lactate as efficiently as possible without entering that Lactic Acidosis territory where your muscles stop working and you feel like you want to vomit. OBLA Training is like playing Dr. Mario at EXTREME DIFFICULTY and being REALLY good at it. Those pills are coming down fast but you’re *juuuust* able to stay ahead of the game and clear them out. Sorry if these metaphors are getting old but the Dr. Mario thing really works for me.
  3. Cool Down
    • To me this may be the most valuable of all, and often the most difficult to accomplish in a race environment. If you’re in a situation where your body is producing a lot of Lactic Acid, the more you keep moving and breathing the quicker that Lactic Acid is going to clear from your system and the better you’ll feel. So if you’ve got yourself in a pickle where you have too much LACTATE and his nemesis HYDROGEN ION, give yourself another half mile or so to cool down with an easy jog. As I said, this can be hard during a race because once you cross that finish line you find yourself in a sea of people and photos and medals and spectators and BLAH. Cooling down is basically not an option. What I now know happened to me at the Tinker Bell Half Marathon is I pushed it reeeeally hard the last two miles because I’m dumb and stubborn. I was already at my max and then I pushed it beyond and produced what I’m sure was a shit-ton of Lactic Acid during those last two miles. I then crossed the finish line and BAM! It was like hitting a brick wall at full speed while driving a truck full of flammable liquid. Kaboom. CATION took hold.
    • In training this isn’t a problem. Run your scheduled distance at your planned level of exertion, then jog for another half mile or so to cool down. Do some gentle stretching, some walking, and some deep breathing. In a race this is harder to do, but I have a solution. Let’s use the half marathon as an example. What I recommend is, if you want to push yourself, make sure you do it by mile 11. At that point you really should use mile 12 and 13 to run your comfortable half marathon pace, and use the last half mile to really cool down, whether that’s a gentle jog or even walking, depending on your level of fitness. I know that sounds so unappealing when all you want to do is BURST through that Finish Line, but let me tell you from experience. When you’ve got Lactic Acid build up in your body, that line is an illusion. What it really is, is a brick wall. Don’t be fooled.

Let me get back to a few of those myths I listed at the beginning of the article. Most of them should have been dispelled throughout, but just to make sure we clear LACTATE’s good name:

  • Lactic Acid is responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
    • FALSE – as I mentioned earlier, Lactic Acid is completely cleared from the body within 60 minutes of finishing exercise, so there’s no way it’s responsible for the soreness you feel 24 and even 48 hours after your run. Lactic Acid has an alibi! She was busy being metabolized into glucose by the liver!
  • Lactic Acid causes cramping
    • FALSE – mysteriously enough, there is no scientific consensus as to what causes cramping. Most scientists agree however that it has to do with lack of oxygen to muscle tissue. Since Lactic Acid is created to fill in the gap where oxygen is left out, essentially trying to help by continuing to create ATP, it doesn’t contribute to cramping. Essentially they are separate issues in the body.
  • Lactic Acid can be expelled from the body through sports massage
    • FALSE – studies have shown that athletes who underwent a sports massage after a hard workout displayed the same levels of LACTATE remaining in the body as athletes who did nothing after their workout. Still, if I were the latter athletes in that study, I would’ve certainly felt like I got the short end of the stick. There’s no doubt that massages are awesome! Just not gonna help you clear lactic acid.
  • Lactic Acid causes long-term muscle fatigue
    • FALSE – see first myth. There’s nothing long-term about Lactic Acid.
  • Lactic Acid is a waste product
    • FALSE – for shame! Everything that LACTATE does to keep our engines burning and we dare to call him a waste? Sorry LACTATE.
  • Lactic Acid is your worst enemy
    • FALSE – hopefully everything I’ve said in this article has shown you that this really is not true. Though that HYDROGEN ION aka CATION sure can be a stinker.

Lactate SuperheroHydrogren Monster

In summary, Lactic Acid is your friend. Lactic Acid is the mother of LACTATE and LACTATE is your hero when you want to excel your physical fitness to the next level. LACTATE continues production of ATP, is an excellent source of liver glycogen, and like all good heroes, he knows when to leave. He arrives when PYRUVATE raises the signal, does his job, and is gone within the hour. Unfortunately we can’t have a superhero without a supervillain, and CATION fills that role nicely. He tags along with the production of Lactic Acid and makes LACTATE look bad. His free floating Hydrogen Ions turn our comfortable muscles into an acidic wasteland known as Lactic or Muscular Acidosis. But his grip is weak. As LACTATE makes his exit, CATION is dragged out with him, leaving our muscles where they belong, in a pH balanced environment. He may not always get the credit he deserves, but for all of you ambitious athletes out there, LACTATE is a special little chemical hero.

References

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Lactic Acid, the Hero We Need

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s