We’ve all been there, right? Maybe you’re on a wicked jog, or participating in an intense spinning or Zumba class…. Maybe you’ve lost your mind and decided to drag your wife through a particularly sweating hypertrophy workout because it’s “something different”…
No? Just me? Alright then, think back to a time when you’ve been working out or exercising strenuously. Do you remember feeling that sudden burning feeling in your lungs? A noticeable lack of strength in your muscles and your body is essentially telling you to stop and rest? That, my friend, is a build-up of lactic acid in your muscle tissue.
Lactic Acid, or Lactate, is caused when you’re body is burning through more oxygen than it is carrying while exercising. Lactic Acid can be used by your body to produce energy without the use of oxygen, but it leaves some unpleasant side effects in its wake. The buildup of Lactic Acid is sometimes referred to Lactic Acidosis and the big problem is that your body will generally produce more Lactic Acid than you can quickly burn off and this is what causes you to feel symptoms like pain, cramping, nausea, weakness and exhaustion. One can sometimes fight one’s way through the effects of Lactic Acid buildup, but the result is more Lactic Acid. Rinse and repeat. Fun.
Once you hit that point, or what’s called the “Lactate Threshold”, it’s important to start your cool down. Your body’s exhaustion will likely tell your brain that it’s time to stop completely and maybe lie down for a nap, but this is not the proper thing to do. You need to cool down and allow your excess Lactic Acid to burn away.
There’s no real way to prevent Lactic Acidosis, other than to exercise regularly and increase the intensity gradually. I think WebMD said it best: “Don’t go from being a couch potato to trying to run a marathon […].” But if you build yourself up gradually, it will increase your threshold and make you capable of a lot more physical exertion before Lactic Acid builds up. The reality is that our ancestors sometimes had to face threats that didn’t allow them to build their intensity gradually, and this is why our bodies have this backup. But it is meant to be temporary. Unless your life is in jeopardy or the immediate situation mandates it, continuing to fight through Lactic Acidosis can be harmful (at the very least, it hurts like hell!).
But once you’ve hit that point, be sure to rest up and drink plenty of water as it helps to eliminate the excess acid. In some rare cases, medical conditions can cause Lactic Acidosis without intense exercise. Believe it or not, people who use Metformin for Type 2 Diabetes can experience Lactic Acidosis as a side effect of this medication. If you’re getting any of these symptoms as a result of a medical condition or medications, obviously you should speak with your doctor.
Otherwise, stretch properly, drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet, chase all of that with a good night’s sleep and keep working out. I often hear people think that they believe Lactic Acidosis lasts for a couple of days after the workout; this is part of the recovery and not the actual Lactic Acid. Lactic Acidosis is an event that happens in the moment, and is usually gone soon after the workout ends.