Lactic Acid Myths
Readers wrote in with questions, showing common myths about lactic acid.
Jens wrote that his yoga teacher told him, "The reason he wakes up with stiff muscles is lactic acid build up during sleep." Reader Trish said her aerobics trainer said she must never work above her lactate threshold or she will not make gains. Reader Yash wrote that his massage therapist says he "has lactic acid build up, making little balls in his muscles... that continuously stay there for some reason." During TV coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, a television news show talking about Olympic training stated that a skier used a secret new method to reduce lactic acid between races.
None are true.
For Jens' question: You do not elevate or accumulate levels during sleep, it takes hard exercise. Lactate is not related to stiffness on waking. Muscle and joint morning stiffness is usually from not moving. It is normal to move change position a bit during sleep, but it is still greatly reduced motion. Lactate levels rise (not lactic acid) when you are exercising. Exercise during the day is important for muscle and joint health. Increased lactate during exercise does not cause stiffness - that is another myth. Delayed stiffness in the days after exercise is from other causes.
For Trish: Working above threshold is useful training. It increases physical ability by itself and makes physiologic changes that raise the existing level. Lactate only builds when you are exercising hard. Making lactate with hard exercise is a good and healthy thing.
For Yash: Lactate levels do not stay elevated in the body, whether at exercise or rest. When you exercise, body processes remove it almost as fast as you produce it. The "almost" is a good thing. Some is removed to make other products, and the extra is used as an important fuel for your heart and other muscles. Even when levels rise during exercise, it does not form a solid and cannot make lactate balls.
The television news show, 2020, aired a segment on February 26th about Olympic training. They stated that a skier "used a secret new method to reduce lactic acid between races." The secret was stated as "spinning." It is long known that activity reduces lactate faster than total rest (lying down). It is not specific to biking or spinning. Any mild activity works. It is not a new training technique or a secret. Reducing lactate levels between bouts of exercise using lighter exercise is sometimes called "active rest." That sounds like a funny name, until you remember that to athletes, doing light exercise is like resting.
Lactic acid and lactate are different. To be covered separately.
I have never personally seen a lactate molecule by itself, and neither had any of my professors in school who taught me about lactate and lactic acid. I think that none of the people telling readers these myths have seen a lactic acid molecule. What I was able to do is directly personally measure lactate in different people, in individual body areas, during and after exercise, and at rest, to be able to see for ourselves.
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