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Lactic Acid & The Key to Fresh Legs

Man running on pavement alongside water

The word “lactic acid” seems to strike fear in the hearts of most runners. It’s gotten so much hype in running articles we’re led to believe it’s like drinking poison. So, let’s put some of those fears to rest. As a ChiRunner I rarely have to deal with the downside of lactic acid build-up, and I want every runner to experience what that’s like.

Lactic acid is not the boogeyman of running.

What Lactic Acid Feels Like in Your Body

Having an over-abundance of lactic acid in your body can present itself as cramps, weakness in the muscles and sometimes nausea. These symptoms of fatigue usually go away within a few hours if you stop exercising.

If you experience sore muscles, it’s more likely NOT lactic acid build-up, but from working your muscles beyond their current capability, which is not always a bad thing.

What creates Lactic Acid build-up?

Lactic acid is caused by running at an anaerobic pace where your body requires more oxygen than your lungs can provide. It is a by-product of anaerobic exercise, and not a waste product, which is what most people are led to believe. That’s because once the anaerobic period ends, the lactic acid can be broken down into useful components for the body. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 70% of lactic acid produced is oxidized and used by the body during aerobic exercise
  • 20% is converted to glucose (energy) in the liver
  • 10% is converted to protein

Your body produces lactic acid in a few different ways:

  1. Short, intense bursts of speed without enough oxygen available to sustain your effort
  2. Beginning runners starting up a running program whose muscles aren’t used to the workload of running
  3. Increasing speed or distance too quickly (We suggest upgrading your training no more than 10% each week!)

Is lactic acid a bad thing?

It’s really only bad for you when there’s a build-up in your system that doesn’t get broken down by your body to be used as glucose fuel or protein. This happens when there’s not enough oxygen in your body to break it down into its usable components.

How can I avoid building up too much lactic acid?

The trick to not producing an over-abundance of lactic acid is to run in a way where you either don’t produce it to begin with (run aerobically) or you run in a way that allows your body to “recycle” it into useful components.

Your body burns glucose and glycogen for fuel. Glucose resides in your blood. Excess glucose is stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen, which is the basic fuel your body runs on. It is created by your consumption of carbohydrates. The process of burning glycogen is called glycolysis. There are basically two ways your body burns glycogen… either with, or without, oxygen.

When you’re sprinting or running in an anaerobic state, your body requires more oxygen than your lungs can provide. This state is only possible for a very short periods, usually seconds, with sprinters. This triggers the production of lactic acid which is a by-product of glycolysis.

The focus here is not so much how to deal with lactic acid as how to prevent its over-production in the first place. If you’re a sprinter you need to deal with it. But, if you’re a distance runner there are ways you can inhibit the production of lactic acid by remembering a few good pointers. So, what’s the hurry?

Lactic acid is produced when there is little or not enough oxygen… anaerobic exercise. This means that it will be produced any time your muscles are not getting enough oxygen to burn cleanly and without producing an over-abundance of lactic acid.

How many times have we all sat around a campfire that is smoking like crazy. When there is not enough oxygen delivered to the wood it doesn’t burn hot enough and usually creates tons of smoke. Then, everybody in the way of the smoke has to move or sit farther back… which defeats the whole purpose of having a nice cozy fire to begin with. Abundant smoke inevitably happens when someone puts a huge log on the fire, and there’s not enough heat to draw air into the flames. So, the fix for this is to either rearrange the fire to where there is enough oxygen to keep the log burning… or use smaller firewood!

This is very similar to someone running in a way where there’s not enough oxygen getting to their muscles. A proper burn can’t happen and efficiency drops. Interestingly enough this anaerobic state doesn’t only happen to sprinters, but happens in distance runners who run inefficiently or breathe inefficiently. For many runners it can be both.

Work on your running efficiency

When you run inefficiently you’re using more energy to move your body than is necessary. Poor biomechanics, muscle tension and even mental tension keeps your body from moving as smoothly as it would if these problems didn’t exist. But they do. And, our job as mindful ChiRunners is to be watchful and body sense what we might be doing to contribute to our own fatigue, and then do what we can to eliminate these trouble spots. The most basic principles of ChiRunning teach runners and walkers how to move in a way that dissipates tension, improves ease of motion, and reduces impact. In ChiRunning, you don’t work as hard to run, so you can actually reduce your body’s workload at any speed, and not require as much oxygen.

A simple way (and you’ve heard it forever) is to warm up slowly and be sure to cool down at a slow pace as well. This allows your body, at the start of your runs, to gradually adjust to the sudden increase in the demand for oxygen. At the end of your runs, it allows your body the time to break down any residual lactic acid in your system. If you don’t do a cool-down jog or walk, it could extend this time to hours, or days if you’ve done a hard workout.

Work on improving your oxygen uptake while running

The main cause of lactic acid build-up is running in an anaerobic state, where your lungs aren’t producing enough O2 for glycolysis to happen in your muscles. Changing how you breathe can have a huge effect on this problem.

A recent trend in training for runners is to improve one’s oxygen uptake through nose breathing. In his book, The Oxygen Advantage, Patrick McKeown talks about the importance of nose breathing and how it works to build a more extensive and efficient delivery system of oxygen to the muscles. In short it’s a great way to get your body to become more tolerant to CO2, which is the molecule responsible for transporting O2 to your muscles. When you chest-breathe and mouth-breathe (as sprinters do) you breathe in excess oxygen and breathe out too much carbon dioxide. This can starve your lungs of oxygen and increase the workload to your heart and lungs as well as your chest and neck muscles.

For distance runners, nose breathing trains you to breathe more slowly and deeply so you can take more advantage of the COtransfer system and get more oxygen to your muscles with each breath. In the end you learn to breathe less to accomplish more.

As you combine highly efficient running technique with higher quality breathing practices, you won’t have to go through all the lactic acid build-up and elimination cycles that most other runners have to deal with. You won’t “hit the wall” or get muscle cramps because the lactic acid in your system will never me beyond your body’s ability to eliminate it as you run.

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