What is Lactic Acid and how does it help humans being?
by Raquel Torres
Lactic Acid or lactate, is the substance that our body generates during physical activity when our body cannot obtain energy through oxygen, this has always been a source of debate in sports science. Physical trainers believed that this substance was the cause of cramps, sports injuries and, for a time, it was the “enemy to fight” by experts in health, physical exercise, and sports.
However, sports science has made it clear that this was all wrong. That there is no relationship, for example, between cramps and lactate and that lactic acid did not have to be an impediment to the high performance of athletes, but even, if it is known to control it, it can become another ally in the improvement of physical performance.
What does the Lactic Acid do? During exercise, the body cells demand more energy than they can actually provide, so the body reacts by acquiring energy from sugar (muscle glycogen), converting these large molecules into smaller molecules, in two possible ways: aerobically and anaerobically.
The energy produced aerobically, (with oxygen) more energy is obtained, but slowly. During aerobic metabolism, a series of enzyme-catalyzed chemical reactions are involved in aerobic metabolism. These reactions cause energy to be produced. Aerobic metabolism is the primary energy system in endurance sports that last several hours and in short-duration events with low or moderate-intensity exercise, it depends on the good blood supply to the muscles and releases oxygen and energy to eliminate waste products. When muscle glycogen stores are depleted, fatigue begins and affects performance, the body becomes dependent on fat as an energy source, the speed and intensity of work is reduced. Once the supply of glycogen is depleted, it takes approximately 24 to 48 hours for the body to recover and replenish glycogen in muscle fibers and the liver.
The energy produced anaerobically (without oxygen) the energy obtained is less but faster, and the muscle takes this energy-producing waste, which in theory is one of those responsible for cramps.
Anaerobic metabolism, also known as the “starter system” because energy is immediately available at the start of exercise, uses creatine phosphate metabolism in the process, does not produce lactate as a waste product, and does not require oxygen in the development of energy. The higher the intensity of the exercise, the higher the use of carbohydrates in contrast to fats.
In other words, when we exercise fast and short, we use as energy what we ate in the last 2 days, when we go slow and long, we burn accumulated fat. The anaerobic lactic system (without lactic acid production) is the primary energy system in the early stages of exercise, as it allows rapid acceleration and speed with the support of creatine phosphate stored in the muscles, although it suffers a sharp drop after 10 to 20 seconds.
The third type of metabolism in energy generation is lactic anaerobic.
The anaerobic lactic system depletes glycogen stores rapidly. Lactate, a toxic waste product of anaerobic lactic metabolism, is produced faster and cannot be eliminated, leading to accumulation in muscle fibers. It reduces the pH of muscle fibers and slows down the chemical reactions responsible for generating energy.
Lactic anaerobic energy is the primary energy system in sports that require maximum effort (high intensity) for a period of 20 to 120 seconds. In other words, lactic acid is a substance generated by the body that is beneficial in principle, but too much and without good training can lead to low performance, even muscle damage and injuries.
Lactic acid is produced primarily in muscle cells and red blood cells when it breaks down carbohydrates under conditions of low oxygen levels. That is, lactic acid is a source of energy for the human body. The oxygen level in the body could drop for two reasons: during strenuous exercise (sprinting) or if the person has an infection or illness (because of the amount of energy required by the immune system). In these cases, lactic acid comes from the breakdown of glucose when oxygen is not present, that is, in an anaerobic exercise such as lifting weights or swimming at full speed 50-100 meters where there is a lot of intensity and little duration. This occurs in short medium distances, not in super sprints like 50 meters.
Under normal conditions that lactic acid, when we are training, is reused and there is no major problem, but when there is a lot of lactic acid in the body, we have neither energy nor the ability to contract muscles, this is nothing more than extreme tiredness, fatigue and the best thing we can do is stop the exercise or activity. In other words, from a natural perspective lactic acid is like a “turbo button” feature of extra energy, a survival mechanism to keep humans and other creatures safe under a ‘fight or flight’ threat.
How can we avoid the accumulation of lactic acid? With a smart training plan, based on training the organism displays adaptive mechanisms that prevent lactic acid from accumulating so quickly and if it begins to do so, the muscle supports it more effectively. Beware of some bad combinations of specific exercises (like speed work and/or weights) in a bad combination can make the body accumulate lactic acids and cause injury. That’s why the importance of having a good training plan with a wise balance between intensity, volume, frequency, and rest is key.
Here are 10 practical tips on how to avoid accumulating lactic acid:
- Train more frequently and consistently.
- Warm up well in each activity.
- Breathe deeper for better body oxygenation.
- Stretch frequently.
- Hot baths.
- Maintain good hydration.
- Consume enough: antioxidants (fruits like berries), magnesium- helps the metabolic system (dark green vegetables like spinach also legumes, nuts, and cereals), vitamin B, natural proteins (creatine), omega 3 Oil (cold-water fish like salmon, avocado, olive oil).
- Beware of lifting weights (frequency and intensity) and speed exercises and their combination with other physical activities.
- When you feel a burn (lactic acid) in your workouts, reduce the intensity so that the body can channel its natural mechanisms, and avoid acid accumulation. It is the way the body warns us so that we do not over-do.
In conclusion, when you feel a lactic acid burn in your workouts, reduce the intensity; so that the body can channel its natural mechanisms and avoid acid accumulation. It is the way of the body to warn so that we do not over-do, in other words, not to force and take a break, stretch and hydrate ourselves.
Raquel Torres is a Triathlon Coach and Professional Triathlete. Raquel also writes blogs for several magazines and her team Athletic Mentors. Since May 2021 she contributes as a columnist with CNY Latino Newspaper. She shares true life stories with her experiences, also tips and tactics that helps anyone to be their best version. To read about her, head over to cnylatinonewspaper.com and search for her by her name. You can also send questions or comments about her column to the following email: firstname.lastname@example.org.