What Happens to Lactic Acid After Exercise?

Lactate acid has been the bad boy of exercising in the minds of many athletes. Many people blame lactic acid for all the soreness, cramps, and burning sensations that they experience during and after exercising. But is it at fault?

Lactic acid is produced in the muscles from glucose due to a shortage of oxygen during exercising, and it then enters the bloodstream. The liver absorbs most of it and turns it into glucose again immediately after you’re done exercising. The acid isn’t responsible for the burning sensations experienced during exercising or the soreness afterward. 

Read on to find out more about what goes on in the body during and after exercise and how to prevent and eliminate lactic acid build-up.

What Is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is the byproduct of a normal metabolic process, called glycolysis. Oxygen’s presence is necessary for converting glucose into energy. The glucose that the body breaks down when there’s a lack of oxygen, turns into lactic acid.

Moreover, many bacteria species produce lactic acid as a waste product. Some of them live in our guts and mouths.

Bacteria in fermented dairy products, including yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir, also break lactose and turn it into lactic acid.

What Causes Lactic Acid Buildup?

During the day, and when our bodies are in their normal state, they burn energy aerobically, which means in the presence of oxygen. 

To get the energy they need, our muscles break down sugar through the chemical reaction of glycolysis. Pyruvate is the end product of this reaction, and our bodies can harvest further energy from it only when oxygen is present.

However, when you start exercising intensely, your muscles need extra energy quickly. That’s why they take a shortcut to produce energy without oxygen. 

They go through the same glycolysis reaction, but this time they convert pyruvate into lactic acid without using oxygen. When our bodies can’t deal with the lactic acid as quickly as it’s produced, the concentrations increase. The lactic acid build-up is called lactic acidosis.

https://youtu.be/6Pn0VW10chQ

Lactic acid is present in our bodies constantly, and it’s usually harmless. As soon as your exercising is over, lactic acid levels go back to normal. 

However, in rare cases, lactic acid can build up to life-threatening levels. The culprit can be some medical conditions such as shock, vitamin B deficiency, seizures, sepsis, liver failure, and cancer. Some medications like metformin, which is used to treat diabetes, or all NRTI drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS can also trigger severe lactic acidosis.

Does Lactic Acid Stay in the Body After Exercising?

Our muscles and red blood cells deposit lactic acid into our bloodstream, where it can experience different fates. It may convert back to pyruvate in an oxygen-rich cell and then enter the mitochondria, go through oxidative phosphorylation, and release large amounts of energy. Alternatively, it can become metabolized as a direct fuel source.

More importantly, the liver soaks up a significant amount of the circulating lactic acid and then converts it back into glucose through the gluconeogenesis process. The glucose can then enter the bloodstream and be used again as energy, or the liver stores it for its future use.

Cori cycle

The breakdown of lactic acid releases hydrogen ions. When these hydrogen ions build up in the blood, they increase its acidity. This acidity is to blame for the burning sensation you feel during intense workout sessions.

Moreover, despite what the public believes, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DMOS, which is the feeling of pain and soreness that comes after exercising, isn’t caused by lactic acid. It happens due to small tears and trauma that our muscles go through during heavy exercising.

Our bodies can use small quantities of lactate as energy. Studies suggest that lactate accumulation can help relieve the burn and cramps in muscles.

What Are the Symptoms of Lactic Acid Buildup?

The soreness you usually feel in your muscles after exercising isn’t due to lactic acid build-up or lactic acidosis. It’s because your muscles are recovering from the workout you’ve done.

However, severe lactic acidosis can make you feel cramps, burning, and weakness in your muscles. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting, numbness, shortness of breath, and yellowing skin or eyes.

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

How to Prevent Lactic Acid from Building Up?

Lactic acidosis caused by exercising can’t cause serious health issues, but it can certainly cause discomfort. Here’s how you can prevent the build-up.

Build up Strength Slowly

You need to pace yourself when you begin a new exercise routine or change your existing one. You shouldn’t overtrain yourself and instead increase the duration and intensity of the exercise gradually. 

Allow your body to take its time and build endurance and gain strength. When your body builds up a tolerance, it increases its lactate threshold. As a result, you’ll lower the risk of lactic acidosis. 

Wondering if it’s better to exercise every day or every other day? Read here.

Alter Your Workouts

Before starting your workout session, plan to switch between aerobic and anaerobic exercises to prevent lactate build-up. Strike a balance between longer running, walking, or swimming workouts, and short weightlifting, and other intense workout types. You can use these muscle-building workout tips for beginners.

https://youtu.be/3FmuQ5grx7I

Eat and Drink Before a Workout Session

It’s essential to drink plenty of water during the day, even before you exercise. Plus, you need to follow a balanced diet and plan your meals before and after your workouts. Include protein, carbohydrates, potassium, and vitamin B in your meals. Lean meats, whole grains, eggs, vegetables, and fruits should be part of your diet.

Warm up and Cool Down Properly

Warming up by stretching before and after your workouts can stimulate circulation, relieve tension, and boost flexibility. It brings more oxygen to your muscles, reducing lactic acid production. So, take a few minutes to warm up correctly, and don’t skip a proper cool-down. 

Learn more about the Benefits of Stretching & Workouts.

How to Get Rid of Built-Up Lactic Acid?

Breathe Well

If you improve your breathing, you’ll be able to deliver more oxygen to your muscles. That will both slow down the lactic acid production and break down the existing build-up.

You have to increase your lung capacity by taking deep breaths through the nose, retaining it for a couple of seconds, and exhaling through your mouth. Do this while you’re exercising and throughout the day.

Stay Hydrated

It’s vital to stay hydrated before, during, and after exercising. When you’re working out through sweat, your body loses fluids, and you’ll have to replace them. Water will help eliminate the remaining lactic acid in your body after working out, relieve sore muscles, and prevent cramps.

The EYQ 32-oz gym water bottle is an excellent choice to help you drink regularly during your workout. It comes with time markers so that you’ll know the minimum amount of water you should drink at every 10-minute interval. It also comes with a spring-loaded dust cap and a single-handed locking lid to keep your water clean and make it easier to use the bottle.

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Rest Between Workouts

Taking enough breaks between high-intensity workouts and relaxing your muscles is essential for their recovery, and it’ll also help your body break down the lactic acid build-up. Set aside at least one day for resting completely. Here are seven tips on how to relax your muscles properly and limit injury.

Consume Magnesium-Rich Foods

Increase your magnesium intake to prevent and get rid of the muscle soreness and cramps that come with lactic build-up. It’ll also help optimize energy production, and your muscles will get more oxygen.

Nuts, seeds, greens, whole grains, and legumes are rich in magnesium. You can also help your body absorb magnesium by taking a magnesium flake or Epsom salt bath. A bath will help relieve soreness, as well. Try the SaltWorks Lavender Scented Premium Epsom Bath Salt.

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Drink Orange Juice

A study has shown that drinking a glass of orange juice before starting your workout session will decrease lactate build-up in the body. Researchers believe it’s because of the increased Vitamin C and folate intake.

Conclusion

Exercise can result in lactic acid build-up, but it usually goes away in a short time. By adjusting your workout intensity, being patient with your body, warming up and cooling down properly, and taking lots of short breaks, you can prevent the build-up and the soreness that comes with it. 

Breathe well, have a healthy diet, and drink lots of water if you’re facing a lactic acid build-up. If the symptoms are severe or due to medications, contact your doctor. 

Last update on 2021-10-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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James Wright

James (36) has been working out since he was 15 years old. He has a home gym where he pumps iron, does bodyweight workouts and boxing. He likes sharing his experiences with others who want to build a better physique.

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