Lactic Acid: Friend or Foe?

Crossfit Victoria BC - way to go CrossFit Mom!
Way to go CrossFit Mom!

Contrary to what it may feel like, lactic acid is actually not your foe.  It’s fuel for your muscles!

I’m sure most of you have heard the warnings about lactic acid.  It builds up in your muscles, and is what creates that awful burning feeling. It is this same lactic acid buildup that makes your muscles tire and give out during a WOD.

Coaches and personal trainers often tell clients that they have to learn to work out just below their perceived “lactic threshold,” which is essentially that point of diminishing returns when lactic acid starts to accumulate.

But according to some compelling research, it turns out that we’ve been all wrong!  Lactic acid is actually a fuel, not a corrosive waste product.  What is it exactly?  Lactic acid is a substance made deliberately by your muscles, and is produced from glucose, and then burned to obtain energy.   The reason properly trained athletes can perform so hard and so long is because their intense training causes their muscles to adapt so they more readily and efficiently absorb lactic acid.

After some intensive experimentation and research by Nobel Laureate Otto Meyerhof, a new theory about lactic acid was born.  Lack of oxygen to muscles leads to lactic acid, leads to fatigue.

In the past, athletes have been told that they should spend most of their effort exercising aerobically, using glucose as a fuel.  If they tried to spend too much time exercising harder, in the anaerobic zone, they were warned that they would pay a price.  This price would be in the form of that painful lactic acid accumulating in the muscles, forcing them to stop.

However, recent science has declared that it appears as though lactic acid exists for a reason.  It is a source of energy.  The evidence has continued to mount against the idea that lactic acid is a bad thing and it causes fatigue.

As for the idea that lactic acid causes muscle soreness, we’re now told that, too, is wrong.  Lactic acid will be gone from your muscles within an hour of exercise, yet you don’t experience muscle soreness until one to three days later.  Therefore, the time frame is inconsistent.

So, if we’re following along correctly with the scientific studies, the understanding now is that muscle cells convert glucose or glycogen to lactic acid.  The lactic acid is taken up and used as a fuel by mitochondria, which are the energy factories in muscle cells.   Intense training, like that of CrossFit, makes a difference because it can help to double your mitochondrial mass. Through trial and error, coaches have learned that athletic performance improved when athletes worked on endurance (e.g. running longer and longer distances).  That, it turns out, increased the mass of their muscle mitochondria, letting them burn more lactic acid and allowing the muscles to work harder and longer.   Just before a race, coaches often tell athletes to train very hard in brief spurts.  In turn, that extra stress increases the mitochondria mass even more, and is the reason for overall improved performance.

Long story short?  Embrace the pain, reap the gain!

Today’s Workout:

Buy In – 10 pass-throughs, 10 overhead squats, 10 double crunch x 3 sets

WOD – “Good vs. Evil 2”

Choose one exercise that you are good at and choose one exercise that you are not good at (A.K.A. – a goat). You will perform 21-15-9 reps of these two exercises.  If it is a weighted exercise, please choose a moderate weight (i.e. – 75% of 1 Rep Max).

For Time:

  • Run 800M
  • 21 reps – Good
  • 21 reps – Evil
  • Row 250M
  • 15 reps – Good
  • 15 reps – Evil
  • Row 250M
  • 9 reps – Good
  • 9 reps – Evil
  • Run 800M

Cash Out – yes…. stretch again!


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