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How to Avoid the Pains of Lactic Acid
By Mike Mathewson

When you exercise your body depends on glucose as the fuel to provide energy for working muscles. The glucose comes from one of three sources:

1) Stored in muscles as glycogen (max about 400 grams, 1,600 calories)

2) Stored in your liver (max about 100 grams, 400 calories)

3) Carbohydrates that you consume during exercise that are converted to glucose and delivered as fuel to your working muscles

It's important to note that working muscles can't borrow glycogen from other muscles. In other words, when you are running a marathon your leg muscles (quads, hamstrings, calves, etc.) can't use the glycogen stored in your back, shoulders, arms, etc. This reduces the total available energy and makes it even more important to supplement your energy by eating the right kind of carbohydrates during exercise. Simple sugars can cause blood sugar fluctuations that can lead to a BONK (significant loss of energy). What you want is liquid products (gels and drinks) with high levels of complex carbohydrates that don't cause blood sugar spikes and provide maximum energy delivery to the working muscles.

Once the glucose gets to the muscles it is burned to produce heat and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule that stores and releases energy as required by the cell. The normal transformation of glucose into energy requires oxygen (delivered to your muscles by red blood cells). When your muscles have insufficient oxygen they can still convert glucose into energy, however, this leads to an unfortunate byproduct: lactic acid. Lactic acid will make your muscles sore, slow you down, and too much will eventually bring you to a stop.

So to avoid lactic acid and the side effects there are a few things you can do:

1) What you consume makes a difference
If you consume fats, fibers and/or proteins before or during your workout or competition they have to go through a slow digestive process that requires blood (and oxygen) to be routed to your stomach and intestines. This takes oxygen away from the working muscles and therefor reduces the amount of work that your muscles can do without generating lactic acid. Simply put, your performance drops. What you want to do is rely on liquids (sports drinks, energy gels and water) that are absorbed via osmosis without the digestive requirements of fats, fibers and proteins. This will give you the energy you need and maximize oxygen flow to the working muscles. Here are useful Energy Gel Comparisons and Sports Drink Comparisons.

2) Get to know your Anaerobic Threshold (AT)
This is the point at which your muscles don't have enough oxygen for the energy conversion process. If you push your level of intensity beyond this threshold your body will start to produce lactic acid. There are sophisticated tests (VO2 max and blood tests) that can be used to determine your AT, but most athletes depend on trial and error. When you have pushed significantly beyond your AT or for a significant length of time your sore muscles will tell you. Using a heart rate monitor in your training you can begin to zero in on your AT zone and try to stay below it until you are near the end of your workout or competition.


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