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Part II: Lactate and Performance

Effect of Training on the Lactate Threshold
Effective training pushes the LT line to the right, meaning fitness is increasing.

This article is continued from Part I: What is Lactate?

My first Olympic Distance Triathlon was not an easy one. I picked HITS Marble Falls, in the hills outside of Austin. I deemed it a “B race”, since it was more of an experiment than anything else. It was my first 1500 meter swim so that was my biggest concern going into the race. I got through the swim just fine, rather unmemorable in the long run. I do remember the bike though. I found that I was able to pass a lot of people on the rolling hills. I muscled up the hills every time. By the time I got to the run, my legs were mush. There was a steep climb right out of T2. I could not understand why my legs were so tired. It was the first time that I remember walking in a race. Most of the people who I passed on the bike while blasting up the hills ended up passing me on the run. If I had invested in lactate testing before the race, I would not have blown up like that and I would have had more fun. Lactate testing gives you your individual training and racing zones. Armed with your new lactate knowledge from Part I, these six tips will help you perform better and may help reduce the (H+ ion) acid burn. Less burn equals better quality training and quicker recovery. Do all of the following:

1)      Get stronger. Your muscles are made up of mitochondria, as well as other building blocks. When you exercise, it is the mitochondria that process the energy. The average person’s muscle mass consists of 2% mitochondria. A pro runner or triathlete can have up to 10%. This is 5x the capacity that can process energy and convert the waste back into ATP, which fuels your Anaerobic System. The ATP function of the Anaerobic System does not last long, from 2-10 seconds, but it is just long enough for the Lactic Acid System to kick in – that starts at about 10 seconds and lasts another 20 seconds.

2)      Stay hydrated. Water is H2O. Or, 2 parts Hydrogen and one part Oxygen. If you stay hydrated throughout the day and during exercise, you will avoid that limitation. Blood consists of 55% water. If you are dehydrated, your blood will thin and not carry the necessary nutrients that your muscles need to perform.

3)      Breathe deeply. Also known as diaphragmatic breathing. It is important to get enough oxygen, but for human beings, it is difficult not to. Our lungs are overbuilt, so getting oxygen is the easy part. It is the exhale that we need to do more of. A full exhale gets rid of the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) waste product. (Glucose plus oxygen produces carbon dioxide, water and energy.)  So a deep breath will not only get rid of CO2, but it will also clear your lungs of this to give you more room to take in more Oxygen (O2). Thus, this is not just an issue for when we exercise at the higher intensities; it can affect you well before that. If you focus more on expelling a full breath, oxygen takes care of itself, it will come into the lungs without much effort. Train this when you are at work, driving in the car, or while reading this article! It will become habit and easier to do when you exercise.

4)      Eat carbohydrates and sugars. Glycolysis breaks down sugar in your blood stream and turns it into ATP.  H+, Lactate (H+ buffer) and Lactic Acid (fuel source) are also generated in glycolysis. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates and sugars that we have in our muscles and use for energy. During a long workout (or after a workout), we deplete the glycogen levels in our muscles. For them to recover and get stronger, we need to replace glycogen by consuming more carbohydrates. (Note: for full muscle recovery, we also need to consume protein, amino acids and other essential nutrients – feel free to search the interweb on this subject if you do not want to wait for my take on it). Note that muscle soreness is activated by inflammation and nociceptor (pain receptors) activity. Overtraining (especially in relation to the amount of carbohydrates and sugars you have eaten) and poor diet contribute to inflammation. Thus, eating the right food and at the right times will help improve your performance. (Click HERE for the hands down best rap about glycolysis there is.)

5)      Detrain your anaerobic system. For an endurance event, you should attempt to minimize the amount of acid that goes into your muscles. You do this by staying below your Lactate Threshold (“LT”) for as long as you can, but if you do go above it, to keep it as short as possible. Every time you go above it, you “burn a match”. It is possible to train to make your matches last longer and to increase the number that you can burn, which may be useful if you do Sprints or Crits (Criterium bike racing). As mentioned above, if you always work out hard, then you might have an overbuilt anaerobic system. So even at an easy effort level, your body thinks you are about to go hard again and instantly produces acid. This is why sprinters hate running long distance; they produce too much acid to go long. To correct this, you may consider substituting anaerobic work for Zone 2 aerobic work. Your top end speed may suffer, but you will delay your H+ (and lactate) production, which will allow you to go faster for longer. You can always circle back to the Zone 4/5 work later.

6) Recover first. Most of the H+ acid is gone in 30 minutes to 2 hours. If you work out hard again later that day you may generate acid again quickly, since your muscles are still sore and inflamed. Plus, you won’t get much out of that workout for this same reason; your muscles haven’t healed yet. If you keep adding stress to your muscles before they recover, you become weaker and your fitness decreases. If you give yourself enough time to recover in between hard workouts, then your muscles heal and get stronger, or supercompensate. When you start again, you will be stronger and you will be fresh, so you will not flood your body with acid right away.

In the final installment of this series on Lactate and performance, we will examine lactate testing and how this compares to other forms of testing as well as what the test will tell you. Train smart and stay tuned!

If lactate testing is something you are interested in, check us out!

Part I: Lactate – What is Lactate?

Fun with Lactate!
Fun with Lactate!

Your Lactate Threshold (“LT”) is the single biggest determinant of endurance race performance (Kravitz & Dalleck). In addition, it is the most reliable way to track your progress. Beginner triathletes come into the sport from different backgrounds and may respond differently to various types of training. The best way to know whether it’s working is by testing it “in the lab”. “The lab” represents a consistent atmosphere that is repeatable and controls for variables such as wind, hills, stops lights and heat. The test will tell you which energy systems you need to work on and can play a major role in determining your next training cycle. Testing this directly from your blood is testing it at its source.

You reap the benefit of this in training, since it allows you to train efficiently and effectively. Now that you know your LT, your “Threshold workouts” will be perfectly tailored so you train just below it, which allows you to adapt and increase it. You can then tailor your anaerobic workouts (above threshold) to teach your body to learn how to flush out the “acid” (we’ll define acid in a little bit) effectively so you can recover quicker and are ready for the next hard effort quicker. Finally, your recovery workouts will be exactly that, recovery. There is no more guesswork, you have your zones.

An example on the opposite side of the spectrum is a common challenge that new triathletes face when coming in from other higher intensity sports. They train with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. In other words, they train too hard too often. These athletes may be very physically fit but produce too much “acid”. In these cases, once identified, it may be beneficial to set a training program where they will get better by keeping their workouts aerobic and detraining their anaerobic system! Yep, I said it! Detrain the anaerobic system. Before I explain why, it is useful to know how your anaerobic system works:

Science Alert (although this is somewhat simplified, skip ahead if you aren’t into the technical stuff): Upon digestion, carbohydrates and sugars turn into glycogen. Glycogen fuels the anaerobic system. As it releases energy, Pyruvate fuels the aerobic system while lactate and positively charged Hydrogen ions (H+) are released into the blood stream. Blood is responsible for carrying oxygen and other nutrients to your muscles. The harder your effort, the more lactate and H+ accumulates in your blood and muscles. Eventually, you are going to reach a point where you cannot flush the lactate and H+ from your muscles faster than you are producing them. That is your Lactate Threshold (“LT”).

Energy and lactate production system.
Image thanks to Jerry Kosgrove at www.lactate.com

Now that we have covered that, there is an important distinction to be made between Lactate, Lactic Acid and the H+ ion. Although lactate is released into the blood at the same time as H+, it is NOT lactate or Lactic Acid that causes the burn in your muscles. It is the H+ ion that is the “acid” mentioned above. Lactic Acid is actually a fuel source. It easily travels through cell membranes to the liver and converts back to glucose for more anaerobic fuel. The reason why we measure lactate and not H+ is that this is much easier to do. They are directly correlated; they are produced at the same time and lactate is actually the buffer that helps deliver H+.  It is common to hear people say that lactic acid causes the burn. Unfortunately, this is inaccurate. If it were true, it would certainly be easier to explain, but ultimately for us athletes (ie, nonscientists), it means the same thing, just replace lactic acid with “positively charged Hydrogen ions”.

Speaking of Hydrogen, did you know that pH stands for the power of Hydrogen? So when you flood your muscles with positively charged Hydrogen ions, you are making them more acidic. In other words, your pH balance gets more acidic. Per WikiPedia: “in chemistry, pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution. Solutions with a pH less than 7 are said to be acidic and solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic or alkaline. Pure water [is completely balanced and] has a pH very close to 7.” The pH range goes from of 0 to 14, with 0 being very acidic and 14 being very basic (alkaline). The pH balance of human blood usually stays around 7.365. Even with an extremely hard workout, our pH does not go very far outside of the 7 range. Thankfully, we are limited on how acidic we can get. Lactate is the base (alkaline) and lactic acid is the acid. Although hard exercise increases our acidity, consuming alkaline food while we are exercising will not have an effect on our immediate recovery. But consuming alkaline food as a regular part of our diet is very highly advised. There is some debate about whether it is the alkaline that helps or whether alkaline foods also tend to be more nutrient dense that is what helps. Regardless, try to limit highly acidic foods, like processed foods (stripped of nutrients), or wheat and sugar that do not have many (or any) nutrients. Fruits and veggies, on the other hand, are high in alkaline and coincidentally have a lot of nutrients. So although your blood remains pretty stable (slightly alkaline), avoiding acidosis is important to keep inflammation under control and eating a nutrient dense diet is extremely important to fuel your workouts.

Coming up in Part II, how this all relates to better performance.

Special thanks to Jerry Kosgrove and the plethora of information at www.lactate.com.