Help me run and get past the discomfort of lactic acid.
February 27, 2009 9:50 AM   Subscribe

How can I deal with lactic acid build up during a run?

I've been running 5k's lately as part of a whole weight loss program. They're one of the only things that have motivated me enough to work out regularly.
I have a race coming up on Sunday and my goal is to jog/run the entire race. Past 5k's have been a walk and run combo. I'd also like to be under 37 minutes.

I've been pushing myself during my workouts and when I'm running over 5 mph the lactic acid will start building up. I'll get the burning and tightness mainly in my lower legs. If I keep running the pain will get more intense and I'll start feeling it in my upper chest/shoulders area.
If I slow down the burning will decrease but won't disappear, if I stop and walk the burning will actually increase for an almost unbearable 10 seconds and then quickly decrease and go away.

I understand that building tolerance to lactic acid requires more working out... but, Sunday is 2 days away.
Is there another way to deal with this during the race that won't significantly slow me down? Would popping TUMS work? Maybe drinking extra water before I start? Or start skipping instead of running? Or stop for a moment and give my calves a quick rub down with IcyHot? Or do I just need to tough it out and run through the pain?
posted by simplethings to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You need to get a heart rate monitor and spend a few sessions at the gym figuring out your anaerobic threshold. Stay below this number and you'll be on easy street (warning: easy street may involve walking after a while). I've done some runs holding constant heart rate rather than constant speed and it's really striking how it's not nearly as fatiguing.

For now, though, you need to just tough it out. Since interval training is the best way to raise your AT, you might try alternating between running and fast walking for each kilometer of the race.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:00 AM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might find this from the NY Times interesting.
posted by nnk at 10:07 AM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're pushing too much distance at a speed your body isn't used to, as in you haven't overcome dealing with the lactic acid. TUMS won't work, being well hydrated will help your run in a myriad of ways, drink more water. I'd also spend today and Sat. eating nothing but fresh and healthy food.

Long term, check out Hal Higdon's training programs. His speed work will really get you used to running at faster paces and will make that lactic build up vanish.
posted by Science! at 10:15 AM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

And yeah, the body can burn lactic acid as a fuel so if anything think of the burn/pain buildup like a battery charging. That may very well help you mentally, but it'll take more running to actually start burning that acid as fuel efficiently.

And start doing upper body workouts if you're not already. Many non runners don't realize just how taxing a run can be on the upper body, you're using those muscles! They're generating lactic buildup of their own and just like your legs you can develop and train them to efficiently burn that energy.
posted by Science! at 10:18 AM on February 27, 2009

IcyHot and TUMS ain't gonna touch it. Simple answer is that you're over-exerting yourself, so slow down until you are more fit.

My training method for dealing with this is to hit the threshold and then back off just a bit, so that I can still feel the lactic acid effect without it slowing me down. This is how I push my threshold up, by not exerting myself through the pain, but just behind it..
posted by rhizome at 10:19 AM on February 27, 2009

Yes, you'll eventually begin to get used to the feeling of being past your lactate threshold. For elite athletes, the feeling is less "oh shit this hurts!" than "huh. I have a dull achy sensation." But I should point out that you don't actually want to be past your lactate threshold, because it's extraordinarily hard to recover from that while racing.

That's a big part of the strategy in bicycle racing (and I'd imagine running too): if you can get your opponent to cross his lactate threshold without crossing yours, he's done for the day.

But that's not to say you should avoid crossing your lactate threshold in training -- if you're following a sane training plan, your lactate threshold will gradually increase, and it will take more and more effort to make you cross it.

Since you've got a race this Sunday, here's a decent don't-screw-yourself-over plan, considering that I don't know your particulars and this isn't professional medical or training advice:
  • Today: If you haven't already trained today, follow your plan as normal, but cut down on the training volume. So if it tells you to run 20k today, maybe only run 10 or 15k. Crossing the lactate threshold in training today would probably be fine.
  • Saturday: Jog for at least 20-30 minutes, resting whenever you need to in order to make sure you don't cross your lactate threshold
  • Sunday: Give yourself plenty to time to jog around to warm up. I'd tend to want to do a few hard sprints about half an hour before the race, but your mileage may vary. If, during the race, you feel yourself starting to cross your lactate threshold, slow down to a slow jogfor a while to recover, before it's too late to.
A dose of ibuprofen before the race will probably help too, though this would probably be frowned upon by medical professionals (and possibly your sports anti-doping regulators). And yeah, water's (not Gatorade -- a 5k isn't long enough for that) a good idea too.
posted by oostevo at 10:38 AM on February 27, 2009

As explained in the NYT article posted above by nnk, lactic acid does not cause burning muscles. In fact, lactic acid doesn't even exist under physiological conditions; in the human body it's found as lactate, which is used as fuel by your muscles and is thus a good thing.

The burning sensation you're feeling is actually a result of acidosis, which happens when your workout intensity bypasses the anaerobic threshold mentioned above by OxFCAF. Without going too nuts on the biochemistry of it, intense exercise causes your body to switch from burning glycogen (aerobic respiration) to burning glucose (aerobic respiration). Glucose breakdown releases more acid than glycogen breakdown, so if your intensity remains high the amount of acid produced begins to overcome your cells' buffering ability. This results in acidosis and a burning sensation.

The only way to avoid the burning is, as others have mentioned, to reduce your intensity. You're currently doing more than your body can comfortably handle. You can increase your anaerobic threshold by gradually ramping up the intensity of your training over time, but it might be a little too late for Sunday. oostevo's suggestion of how to proceed between now and then sounds reasonable, though!
posted by purplemonkie at 11:07 AM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend ramping up on Creatine. When I studied biochemistry we studied this biochemical pathway. Creatine is used in the lactic acid cycle to and helps keep lactic acid from building up in the muscle cells. But, keep in mind, I'm just some guy on the internet who said he studied it. Read up on it yourself. I use it and I think it helps with muscle recovery. There's a very specific way you have to take it though (mix with sugar, ramp up period, etc...) so make sure you understand that as well. You can get a 2 month supply of it at GNC for around $8.
posted by kookywon at 11:40 AM on February 27, 2009

"I'd also spend today and Sat. eating nothing but fresh and healthy food."

This is only good advice if this is the type of food you usually eat. Changing your diet significantly right before (or on the day of) a race is one of the surest ways to fail, possibly in a spectacularly embarrassing fashion.

I second the creatine recommendation for future use (like, for the race after this one), with the caveat that everyone responds slightly differently to it, and it can cause fairly severe cramping without proper hydration.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:10 PM on February 27, 2009

Creatine is used in the lactic acid cycle to and helps keep lactic acid from building up in the muscle cells.

Again, lactic acid does not cause muscle soreness. That's not how creatine supplements work. It gets a little complicated, but here's the basic idea: supplementation with creatine increases levels of creatine phosphate, an energy-storing molecule, in the body. When creatine phosphate (CrP) is used by the muscles for energy, a phosphate from CrP plus a free proton is combined with ADP to produce ATP, an energy-rich molecule which cells use to fuel metabolism. Creatine therefore provides additional fuel to your body during exercise, and relieves acidosis via the consumption of that free proton. ("Acidity" can essentially be thought of as the concentration of free protons in a solution.)

So it's true that creatine could help stave off that burning sensation, but if you don't want to supplement you can just do it the old-fashioned way: increase your anaerobic threshold through interval training.
posted by purplemonkie at 12:20 PM on February 27, 2009

Just noticed a typo in my first post; burning glucose is anaerobic respiration, not aerobic.
posted by purplemonkie at 12:27 PM on February 27, 2009

Creatine supplements for a beginning runner is counter-productive, especially one who I'm assuming is overweight. From wikipedia:
There is scientific evidence that taking creatine supplements can marginally increase athletic performance in high-intensity anaerobic repetitive cycling sprints, but studies in swimmers and runners have been less than promising, most likely because these activities are sustained at a given intensity and thus do not allow for significant intra-exercise synthesis of additional creatine phosphate molecules. Ingesting creatine can increase the level of phosphocreatine in the muscles up to 20%. It must be noted creatine has no significant effect on aerobic endurance, though it will increase power during short sessions of high-intensity aerobic exercise.
There's also the possibility of muscle cramping, and taking creatine supplements generally leads to an increase in body mass. Also:
In another study, researchers concluded that changes in substrate oxidation may influence the inhibition of fat mass loss associated with creatine after weight training when they discovered that fat mass did not change significantly with creatine but decreased after the placebo trial in a 12-week study on ten active men
So it won't help your endurance, will increase your weight (making running harder on your joints), and will make it harder to lose fat. Not a good plan.
posted by 0xFCAF at 12:28 PM on February 27, 2009

There's some fascinating technical information here:

The Lactic Acid Myth

Creatine powder left me feeling bloated and'd probably be better off boosting your intake of natural protein sources like tuna and salmon.

In addition to what others have said, it's important to support your mitochondria. In a nutshell, the more mitochondria you have, the more energy you can generate during exercise, and the faster and longer you can run. Taking a good vitamin B complex and extra vitamin C helped me increase my endurance, and is great for recovery.
posted by aquafortis at 12:59 PM on February 27, 2009

You could try carbo-loading. I read about this recently and have not tested it personally but plan on doing so for my next long bike-ride. You eat a large amount of carbohydrate the night before, which influences what energy sources your muscles use during the exercise, and is said to reduce the lactic acid production. (Ref: Bicycling Science, Wilson)
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 1:21 PM on February 27, 2009

The goal of carb loading is to increase the amount of available glycogen in your muscles so that you don't run out in the middle of a run. This normally only happens after burning about 2,000 Calories in aerobic exercise; in a 5K there's no way you could make a serious dent in your glycogen reserves. For athletes doing events less than ~90 minutes long, carb loading is just going to throw off their nutrient balance for no appreciable gain.

The goal of AskMe is not to just mention whatever random thing you read about in Men's Health last month without any context on what the asker is actually doing.
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:58 PM on February 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

You are looking for long-term and short term solutions. I'll tell you right now that NONE of the long-term solutions (VO2 max, training, beginning a new diet) will help you on Sunday.

Those are ALL excellent strategies...but not for Sunday.

It seems as if your SHORT TERM goal is to do the entire 5k without walking. That sounds totally do-able to me from the way you described yourself.

Here is how to do it.

1. Pretend something is on the line. No joke. Babies will die, kids will be shot, a busload of people will be blown up, old people will freeze, etc...if you start walking.


Thats all. It will be the worst 25 or so minutes of your life...but after you are done, you will say "holy shit...i can do anything".

I HAD to do it once...and my workouts, time, physique improved DRAMATICALLY after that.

You just REALLY have to force yourself to do something that you didn't expect yourself to be able to do.

Good luck, and please send me a memail after your race.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:59 PM on February 27, 2009

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