Toolbox: The Lactic Acid Advantage
Find out more about lactate and how this incredible molecule plays many important roles in the body. Discover how you can use lactate as a preferential fuel source, how lactate may actually reduce acidity in tissues and even act as a ‘signalling hormone’ to drive training adaptations.
The Blood Lactate Story
You don’t need to listen to pro-cycling commentary for very long before you hear that lactic acid is is ‘burning’ in the rider’s legs. Popular belief suggested that lactate was produced in muscles due to an insufficient supply of oxygen as exercise intensity increased. These ideas also gave rise to the notion of the ‘lactic acid burn’ and that lactic acid was responsible for fatigue during high-intensity exercise.
However, research has revealed that lactate is formed and used continuously, even when muscles areworking with plenty of oxygen (1). In the human body most lactic acid is present in the form of lactate. During vigorous exercise there is an increase in the acidity in the blood and tissues. However, lactate makes a very small contribution to this (2). When you’re exercising hard, lots of ATP (the ‘energy currency of life’) is broken down to release energy for muscle contraction. Each time an ATP molecule is broken down, one hydrogen ion is released. It’s actually the accumulation of hydrogen ions which reduce pH (a measure of acidity/ alkalinity) and may be associated with ‘the burn’.
When it comes to fatigue, neither lactate or lactic acid are likely causes. The human body is incredibly complex and it’s more likely that the limiters to performance are a result of many factors.(3).
Lactate As An ‘Ion Sponge’
So how & why is lactate produced? As exercise intensity increases, our body requires more energy more quickly and energy metabolism shifts to use more carbohydrate and less fat. Carbohydrate in the form of glucose is broken down in a chemical reaction called ‘glycolysis’. One of the end-products of this reaction is a molecule called ‘pyruvate’ which begins to accumulate along with the dreaded hydrogen ions. However, pyruvate absorbs hydrogen ions in a ‘reduction’ reaction, which forms lactate. In stark contrast to our commentator’s contentions, lactate actually acts as a buffer – imagine lactate as an ‘sponge’, mopping up ions to control pH in the muscle.
However, the speed of the ‘mopping up’ process has a limit. When this limit is reached, hydrogen ions accumulate, pH begins to drop and we feel the burn, but if our muscles did not produce lactate, fatigue would occur much more quickly.
How Does The Body Use Lactate?
The body uses lactate in a number of ways:
a) Lactate minimises acidity in the blood and tissues
As described above, lactate is the end result of pyruvate’s reaction with hydrogen ions, which reduces acidity and is associated with a delay in fatigue.
b) Lactate helps to preserve other fuel stores
When blood lactate concentrations are elevated, the body responds by down-regulating the use of glucose and fat. In this way, lactate could be seen as preserving precious fuel stores. Also, the body is able to generate glucose from non-carbohydrate sources through a metabolic pathway called ‘Gluconeogenesis’. Lactate is transported back to the liver, enters a chemical process called the ‘Cori cycle’ and is converted into pyruvate which is then used to generate glucose.
c) Lactate is a direct source of energy for the muscles, heart and brain.
Muscles can extract lactate from the blood and oxidise it directly. This means that lactate can be used as a source of energy for muscle contraction(4). In some cases, the body actually prefers to use lactate as a fuel. Some research has illustrated that, during moderate intensity exercise, lactate from the working muscles may be the primary fuel source for the heart (5,6).
d) Lactate acts as a ‘shuttle’ to transfer fuel between tissues (7).
Muscle glycogen stores are local, supplying the muscle they are stored within. This means that muscle glycogen stored in your arms can’t be directly transported to your legs. However, research suggests that lactate can move both within and between cells. Consequently, during heavy exercise where high rates of glucose and glycogen breakdown result in the accumulation of increasing amounts of lactate, lactate can be ‘shuttled’ from this site to other sites where is can be used as a fuel source or converted back into glucose.
e) Lactate is an important ‘signalling molecule’.
Lactate may play the role of a signalling hormone, with a range of possible consequences. These include up regulating the expression of genes associated with the use of lactate as a fuel, helping the body metabolise lactate more effectively (8). Lactate may even stimulate an increase in formation of new mitochondria (9); an important adaptation in endurance performance as mitochondrion represent the ‘energy factories’ of our cells. It has also been suggested that lactate can influence lipolysis (the breakdown of fat for fuel).
How Can An Everyday Cyclist Use An Understanding Of Blood Lactate To Improve Performance?
So how can an everyday cyclist use an understanding of blood lactate to improve performance? Researching blood lactate has given us a great insight into the physiological changes that occur in response to increasing exercise intensity.
1) Use training zones as a practical estimate of blood lactate response
When we design a training programme, we are trying to plan intensities and durations of riding that will result in the physiological responses we need to create the adaptations we are looking for.
Blood lactate measurements provide a means to predict what physiological responses are taking place, but even if we don’t have access to blood lactate measurement, we can use training zones to make pretty good guesses about what’s going on in our cells.
There are many methods to establish training zones, but typically riders will conduct an all out effort of between 20-60 minutes and establish zones based on a percentage of the results. Once you’ve done this, you can use the zones to target particular energy systems and the adaptations you need to achieve your cycling goals. If you’ve never established your training zones, make it a priority before your next training block.
2) Test yourself regularly to chart changes in performance
Observing changes in blood lactate response to exercise can help us understand if a rider is improving (or not). As a rider gets fitter, we’d expect to see a shift in the rider’s blood lactate curve.
The lactate curve is a graph which describes blood lactate concentration relative to exercise intensity, usually in response to a ramp test. A right shift in the curve would indicate that the rider was producing less lactate for a given intensity, suggesting adaptations had taken place at a cellular level. Effectively, the body is becoming better at liberating energy for the muscle contractions which turn the pedals.
It’s relatively easy to conduct tests on yourself to see if your performance is changing – you just need a way of measuring the output – are you getting better at turning the pedals! Set up your bike on a turbo-trainer with a bike computer which measures speed and distance and use power meter (if you have one).
Attempt your best efforts over 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes (you may need to do them on different days). You could use many of the popular software packages, websites, or even set up a simple spreadsheet to record the average power (or distance covered if you don’t have a power meter) for each time period.
Retest yourself at regular intervals through the season and see if you’re results are improving. If you’re getting better, your average power and distance covered should increase. If it’s not, try to adjust your training to address the time period which is lagging: if your 5 second tests are lagging behind, try adding in some more sprint sessions. If your 20 minute power is disproportionately low, perhaps you need some more volume.
3) Include high-intensity intervals in your training
We now know that blood lactate can send ‘signals’ resulting in many beneficial adaptations for cycling performance – it’s one of the reasons that high-intensity intervals can be so effective. Aim to progress to the point that you can accumulate around 18 minutes of work at a minimum of 106% of your FTP (95% of your best 20 minute power), or greater than 89% of your maximum heart rate, if you don’t have a power meter.
As long as the interval intensity is at least 106%, experiment with varying work periods and recovery between intervals. As a starting point, see how many 3 minute intervals you can complete at 120% of FTP, with 3 minutes recovery in-between.
Lactic Acid Is Your Friend!
Hopefully this article has helped to dispel some of the myths around blood lactate and provided some useful pointers to inform your training. If you only take away one thing, remember this: lactic acid is your friend!
1. Spurway, 1992. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1450885
2. Robergs et al., 2004. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15308499
3. Joyner & Coyle, 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2375555/
4. Van Hall, 2000. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10759601
5. Gertz, 1988. https://www.metabolismjournal.com/article/0026-0495(88)90119-9/abstract
6. Bergersen, 2007. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306452206016460
7. Brooks, 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19805739
8. Hashimoto, 2008. https://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0002915
9. Brooks, 2009. https://jp.physoc.org/content/587/23/5591
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website www.jameshewitt.net