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Lactic Acid Myths: The Truth Behind Your Sore Muscles

Posted 7/11/2016 by UHBlog

Is exercise a pain in the you-know-what? Get some relief from your soreness. Ask us.

Lactic Acid Myths: The Truth Behind Your Sore Muscles

As an athlete, you’re used to feeling the burn. After all, nobody ever drowned in sweat. The pain you feel after working out is just the lactic acid built up in your muscles, right?

That’s myth No. 1, says sports medicine specialist Mary Solomon, DO.

“We used to think lactic acid caused muscle soreness,” she says. “However, there’s not a direct correlation with lactic acid levels and muscle soreness. Instead, lactic acid – or lactate – has been identified as a source of energy and not a detrimental byproduct of exercise.”

According to Dr. Solomon, your body has two possible energy sources when you exercise. If oxygen is available to your muscles, your cells use aerobic metabolism to break down carbohydrates as their source of fuel. When oxygen isn’t available or the receptors are full, your body produces lactic acid anaerobically as an energy source to keep you going.

Despite its reputation, lactic acid itself isn’t painful. However, you may find you’re sore a day or two after exercising.

“We now identify that pain as delayed onset muscle soreness, which typically peaks 24 to 48 hours after activity,” says Dr. Solomon. “Your cells have to return to equilibrium and repair micro-trauma endured during activity.”

As far as Dr. Solomon is concerned, lactic acid has a bad reputation.

“There’s a myth that lactic acid is bad for the body,” she says. “It’s actually the body’s way of identifying sources of energy when the first sources, carbs and oxygen, aren’t readily available.”

Another myth you may have heard is that well-trained athletes don’t produce lactic acid.

“Everyone reaches a lactate threshold,” Dr. Solomon says. “Well-conditioned athletes have established a higher threshold and can tolerate more activity with less fatigue and muscle soreness.”

To minimize your lactic acid build-up and avoid muscle soreness, Dr. Solomon recommends the following:

  • Go slow with workout routines. “Increase your endurance and strength training at a moderate pace,” she says.
  • Balance aerobic and anaerobic activity. Longer endurance activities like swimming and running should be balanced with anaerobic activities like power lifting or sprinting.
  • Stay hydrated. “Staying hydrated during exercise and replenishing fluid loss after you’re done will decease muscle soreness and allow you to continue your workout with less pain,” Dr. Solomon says. “No matter your age, hydration will help your body work more efficiently.”
  • Time your diet. Planning your pre-workout meals can help prevent sore muscles.

“Typically we recommend consuming complex carbs two to three hours prior to activity,” she says. “An hour before activity, have a small dose of simple carbs, like a sports drink to give your body rapid access to energy.”

Although your metabolism is less efficient as you get older, Dr. Solomon says it’s important to maintain activity throughout your lifetime to help compensate for the inefficiency your body experiences with aging. If you're someone who is beginning or changing your exercise routine, she recommends that you consider the health risks and discuss your goals with your doctor.

“Typically, when individuals undergo injury or a great deal of pain, they become discouraged,” she says. “To pursue fitness goals in a safe manner, it’s best to consult your physician.”

Mary Solomon, DO is a sports medicine specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Solomon or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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