The Truth About Lactic Acid & DOMS

Pro Ultra Runner, Michelle Barton, tackling Ski Hut, Mt Baldy CA

Pro Ultra Runner, Michelle Barton, tackling Ski Hut, Mt Baldy CA

Buckle up. You are about to unlearn everything you have ever known about LACTIC ACID!

As athletes, we have all felt it. That terrible burn in our muscles during a tough climb, redlining a mile or powering through a killer strength session. Our mind tells us to persevere, but eventually the relentless fire forces us to stop in our tracks. Most of us know it as the dreaded lactic acid burn. But what if I told you that the burn we experience isn’t from lactic acid at all? And that DOMS (the Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness we feel 24-72 hours later) is also not due to lactic acid “sitting in our muscles.” This myth is about to be busted!


But, First:


The term "lactic acid" is actually misleading because the lactate dehydrogenase reaction does not generate a La H+ complex where H+ then dissociates at physiological pH. Instead, it converts pyruvate to La, which is a strong ion, such that La accumulation changes strong ion difference in a manner that elevates [H+] (24,32). Therefore, we use the term "lactic acid" to represent H+ accumulation associated with La accumulation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: June 2010 - Volume 42 - Issue 6 - pp 1062-1071


OK. In English, Please:


Lactic acid is made of two parts: the acid and the lactate molecule. Lactic acid is a metabolic byproduct of high intensity exercise. However, lactic acid is almost completely removed from the muscles within 30 minutes of cessation of exercise. In fact, lactate produced during exercise is circulated throughout the body in your blood, and can be used by any muscle – including your heart! SO, the idea of “flushing out” lactic acid the next day by wearing compression garments- MYTH...or at least misleading.


What About Going Anaerobic?


One of the world’s most progressive exercise scientists, Dr. George Brooks at Cal, has led the way in showing that under most circumstances lactic acid is not caused by lack of oxygen, or “anaerobic” conditions, in exercising muscles. He sums it up nicely here:


“For much of the 20th century, lactate was largely considered a dead-end waste product of glycolysis due to hypoxia, the primary cause of the O2 debt following exercise, a major cause of muscle fatigue, and a key factor in acidosis-induced tissue damage. Since the 1970s, a 'lactate revolution' has occurred…… It now appears that increased lactate production and concentration as a result of anoxia or dysoxia (hypoxia) are often the exception rather than the rule. Lactic acidosis is being re-evaluated as a factor in muscle fatigue….Lactate can no longer be considered the usual suspect for metabolic 'crimes', but is instead a central player in cellular, regional and whole body metabolism……”


So Why The Heck Do I get DOMS?


Microtrauma, (tiny tears in the muscles fibers or surrounding sheath) may be responsible for aggravating surrounding sensory neurons which cause pain. Also, microtrauma in the muscles allow ions to leak into surrounding tissue that can activate firing action in other neurons that are ion sensitive. Finally, the flow of lymph and extracellular fluid can cause swelling which impact the fascia via swelling. This can also tick off afferent neurons causing pain.


What Can I Do About It?


Sports Massage is one of the most effective ways to maximize your post-exercise recovery period. An expert manual therapist, such as a specially trained Doctor of Physical Therapy, will manipulate muscles (and fascia) in ways that increase the flow of blood throughout the tissues, improve muscle tension and function, improve ROM and prevent potential injury by overworked/overactive tissue. Furthermore, skilled tissue work is also extremely effective at flushing extracellular fluid from the affected areas preventing sticky tissue binding. WooHOO to being injury free!

Active Recovery, as well as pneumatic compression, such as the Air Relax boots we use at Physical Therapy Elite, can also help to flush out extracellular fluid once it is present. Goodbye Ultra Running Induced Cankles.

So next time you hear a gym, track, or trail conversation about lactic acid...throw a little science their way. ;)

Still have questions on maximizing recovery? As always, feel free to give us a call.

Happy Training!