The body converts glucose to lactic acid when it needs energy. When oxygen levels are low, which usually happens during high-intensity exercise, lactic acid is produced.
Red blood cells and muscle cells both produce lactic acid. It develops when the body converts carbs to glucose under specific circumstances while exercising. According to Jenna Braddock, MSH, RD, CSSD, ACSM-CPT, owner of MakeHealthyEasy.com and OffSeasonAthlete.com, "Lactic acid is a consequence of glycolysis (or the breakdown of glucose), an energy pathway that creates ATP energy in the absence of oxygen in muscle cells."
Lactic acid and lactate differ from one another, according to Braddock. Although they are frequently used interchangeably, the two words are not the same in actuality.
“This distinction helps us understand what is happening in the body; lactate is a fuel source for the body and has many important functions,” adds Braddock. During exercise, the working muscle cells can continue anaerobic energy production for one to three minutes, during which you can perform at high levels.
The body cannot provide the amount of oxygen that muscles need during high-intensity activity, which results in anaerobic respiration and lactic acid buildup. The degree of one's fitness determines when lactic acid starts to form. When lactic acid builds up, the body is able to eliminate it, but when levels start to rise quickly, the body might not be able to keep up.
“This is often termed "lactate threshold" for high-intensity aerobic activities (like running), but keep in mind lactate accumulation can also occur with strength training,” says Chrissy Carroll, RRCA Running Coach at Snacking in Sneakers.
The muscles become fatigued and may not be able to contract as forcefully when this excess acid develops. During exercise, some people may experience a burning feeling in their muscles.
“Interestingly, some experts believe the production of lactate actually helps the muscles delay fatigue during intense exercise,” says Carroll. She also notes that contrary to popular belief, the lactic acid buildup is not what's responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness that occurs in the 24-48 hours after a workout.
“Decreasing the exercise intensity, resting from the activity, and taking deep breaths may all be helpful ways to clear lactic acid during an exercise session,” says Carroll.
Active recovery after exercise is a tried-and-true approach for lactic acid removal. Yoga, walking, riding, or foam rolling are examples of low-intensity exercises that may help the body get rid of lactic acid. A study compared active and passive recovery in 14 downhill skiers and discovered that active recovery resulted in a larger decrease in lactic acid. Skiers who used the active recovery technique were able to move more quickly and finish more runs.
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