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The Myth of Lactic Acid Refuses to Go Away!

By Jennifer Sage On June 17, 2013 Under exercise science

massageA few weeks ago, I was getting a massage at a spa in a club where I used to work for 15 years. I knew the therapist from my tenure there as a personal trainer, but hadn’t seen him in many years.

I was still a little bit sore from my first long bike ride of the year two days prior. During the massage (which was excellent, by the way), David said something about flushing out the lactic acid as he massaged my legs. I was facedown with my head in the face plate, so I was unable to plant my forehead into my palm. I’ve spent much of the past 5–6 years trying to educate instructors about the lactate threshold and the myths of lactic acid. It looks like it’s still rampant in the massage therapy world.

It was because I knew him that I felt comfortable giving him some new information. I said, “Well, not really. The lactate—it’s not really lactic acid—was probably flushed out of the muscle within four minutes of slowing down. And it doesn’t stick around to wreck havoc on the muscles and cause pain like it was once thought.” And then I explained to him what happens to lactate, and what the likely culprit was for my soreness.

David was surprised and said that’s what he was taught back in massage school 18 years ago and has never heard anything since then that refutes that. I told him that back then, it was the generally accepted theory, but it was never more than a theory. The exercise science world has been trying to change that myth for the past several decades, and if you are a frequent consumer of continuing education and/or reader of books on training, you’ve probably heard a lot about the real benefits of lactate. I hope the massage industry does better at correcting this myth that they helped to perpetuate because I’ve been hearing for many, many years from massage therapists about the benefits of massage at flushing lactic acid.

When I got my degree in exercise science (ahem, I’m dating myself here, but that was in 1984!) we weren’t taught that lactic acid was the definitive cause of muscle soreness, but that it was one of the theories. I had some good professors (UMASS, and the world-renowned textbooks were by Katch and Mcardle from the University of Massachusetts Exercise Science department), because I also remember them strongly challenging that belief and suggesting it was more due to minute tears in the muscle fascia, which is now one of the more widely held theories. Even today physiologists aren’t 100% sure what is causing that delayed soreness.

But what they do know for sure is that “lactic acid” is not the source of the burning sensation once your intensity rises above the lactate threshold, and that the substance doesn’t impede muscular contraction. The latter is more likely caused by acidosis, a change in the pH of the blood to a more acidic state, due to the accumulation of H+ ions (a byproduct of glycolysis).

The other thing we now know is that lactate is not the bad boy it’s been made out to be. It actually has a very positive role in continuing your activity once you start to fatigue. Lactate is used as a fuel, along with carbohydrates and fat. Your heart muscle likes to consume lactate as a fuel, so that’s a good thing to have around!

Bicycling magazine has a short article that came out today about Lactic Acid Myths that is worth reading. But if you have some time to spend on the subject and want to know more, here are several links to read about it. As an instructor in a exercise modality that often takes students to anaerobic intensities, this is a topic you should know more about. Your students may very well still believe that lactic acid is what’s keeping them from turning the pedals or from coming back to your class two days later. It’s time to educate the masses!

The Lactic Acid Myths Matt Fitzgerald, Running.competitor.com

Lactic Acid is Not a Muscle’s Foe; It’s Fuel Gina Kolata, NYT

Physiological Fitness: The Lactate Threshold  Joe Friel

Assessing the Lactate Threshold  Dr. Len Kravitz

The Relevance of Lactate Testing  on Lactate.com (this is a good one for the physiology)

Lactic Acid  Brian Mac

Does Massage Remove Lactic Acid? Massage St. Louis

EDIT: Here is another excellent article on the subject that was posted on the ICA Facebook post. It’s written in a way that makes it easy to understand. I also like it because she stresses that personal trainers (and I’ll add cycling instructors) really should know the most current science. Burn Baby Burn: the Truth About Lactic Acid and Exercise.

EDIT: There are more great comments on the Facebook post. Christine said, “Let’s educate the TV announcers! With increased interest in cycling competitions, my students hear the commentators repeat the lactic acid myths and then come to class questioning what I have explained to them.”

So I decided to send this tweet to my largely cycling followers:

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 9.58.50 AM

Who knows if they’ll see it, but it doesn’t hurt to try! They are speaking to millions of listeners during the Tour de France, it would be nice if they used proper terminology, wouldn’t it? If you are on Twitter, perhaps you can tweet something similar to these three announcers.

And while you’re at it, follow me for cycling at @vivavelo (my personal account), or for indoor cycling at @sagecycling (the ICA account).

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lisa
    June 18, 2013
    2:01 pm #comment-1

    It really is a stubbornly held myth. I had a very hilly ride this past Saturday, and unfortunately for me, the instructor in my Thursday class had decided that he really needed to focus almost exclusively on our quads. When I commented on my sore quads the next day, one of my fellow indoor cycling instructors advised me that I should drink plenty of fluids to flush the lactate acid out of my muscles so that I would be ready for the hills on Saturday. It’s never bad to drink fluids, and he also advised me to take it easy that morning, so he did no harm.

  2. Jennifer Sage
    June 18, 2013
    3:30 pm #comment-2

    Good point Lisa. You are right. It’s not doing any “harm”, and as several of these articles point out, it’s largely a matter of semantics.

    I’m a strong believer in calling a spade a spade. The lactic acid misinformation reminds me of the confusion on “sprints”. If an instructor asks you to sprint for a 1 or 2 minutes, then it’s wrong, it’s NOT a sprint. Does it hurt the students? No, they simply push hard for that duration, but they most certainly are not sprinting. But it does hurt their knowledge. That student now has an incorrect connection in his mind as to what a sprint is, and if called on to really perform a full-out sprint for 15 seconds, they won’t know the necessary effort required.

    Semantics? Perhaps, especially for a casual exerciser, but knowledge is power! Most importantly, for a trainer/instructor. Whenever you hear a personal trainer or fitness instructor spouting off incorrect terminology, it makes you realize the lack of depth of their education. If they don’t know this basic physiological function, you wonder what else do they not know? It might be something that hurts someone!

    I once took a yoga class and the instructor began with a forward bend while saying, “ex-tennnnnnnd” as he flexed forward. Extend? Hmmm, that’s anatomy 101. I wondered, what else does he not know? Sure enough, the rest of the class was filled with inaccuracies, and I never went back. (turns out his only yoga education was one of those one-weekend training certifications)

    …..I know, I’m a tough student! 😉

  3. Emily
    June 18, 2013
    4:38 pm #comment-3

    As always, great post. I have to laugh… I am also a very, uh, “discerning” student. (Okay, I am brutal!) But why are people so afraid of knowledge? Sigh…

  4. Bill Roach
    June 18, 2013
    8:09 pm #comment-4

    This is all good, and I am one who also believes that words/terms have meanings that should be honored precisely. Along that line, my question is this. Is lactate fuel, per se, or is it something that can be converted into fuel (ATP)? Can we really call it fuel, if all the muscle recognizes as fuel is ATP? So shouldn’t we be saying that “lactate can be converted to fuel” rather than “lactate is fuel”. Or am I dancing on the head of a pin here?

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