As you are climbing a steep hill, or entering the final push of a race and even sometimes at the start of a race – you feel the burn. That burning sensation is often blamed on lactic acid, which is only partially correct. There is a lot going on in those muscles and you can only blame lactic acid for some of it.


What is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is defined by the Farlex Medical Dictionary as: A 3 carbon organic acid that is produced by anaerobic respiration. Lactic acid in muscles and blood is a product of glucose and glycogen metabolism. It is formed in the body in the metabolism of carbohydrates. The process is this: Glycogen is your main energy source. This has to be broken down into glucose in a process called glycolysis. This glycogen molecule is broken into two parts - two pyruvic acid molecules. When this happens, the energy is released as ATP. This only happens when these pyruvic acids make it into the mitochondria where it hits the oxidation stage to convert to energy. If there is not enough oxygen to make this happen, those pyruvic acids transform to lactic acid.

Lactic Acids Purposes

Lactic acid is always around – it doesn’t just show up when you exercise. It is a fuel for your cells. The mitochondria in your cells use lactic acid as food which is used by your body as fuel. It doesn’t just provide energy, it also acts as a cleaner of sorts. Your muscles build up potassium on the outside of the cells – you need it inside them. Inside the cells there is Chloride. Your cells need the chloride out so the potassium can get in. Lactic acid heads into the cell making an opening for potassium to enter and chloride to exit. This process helps you have better muscle control. Lactic acid also promotes survival in stressful situations by kicking in so you can continue on, even when not enough oxygen is present.

How does this affect your cycling?

When biking, be it in a race or anytime you have a prolonged strain on muscles, your body’s ability to get the needed oxygen to the muscles cannot keep up with the demand. The body then relies on anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism and produces lactic acid. Initially this response is a good one until the lactic acid builds up and you hit what is called the Lactate Threshold. This is when the lactic acid build up is so great, you begin to hurt and cramp in your muscles. This can not only cause pain but also muscle fatigue.

Lactic Acid Build Up can cause fatigue

How to Combat Lactic Acid Build up

1. The first line of defense against lactic acid build up is keeping hydrated. Every cyclist knows water is crucial, but increasing your water intake or at least keeping the intake steady will help stave off hitting your lactate threshold.

2. Breathe. Concentrate on your oxygen intake. Breathe deeply and consistently. Often when you get a muscle cramp or the burn from the lactate threshold kicks in, some will allow their breathing to become choppy and shallow. This is the opposite of what you want to have happen. Breathe deep and steady to keep the flow of oxygen to your blood and muscles.

3. Off the bike, you should increase the magnesium in your diet. Magnesium helps keep the lactic acid level at bay. Vegetables are a key source of magnesium. High quantities of magnesium are found in: Swiss chard, spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, green beans, navy beans, kidney beans and pinto beans. Pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds are also full of magnesium. And if you are into it, Tofu boasts a mountain of magnesium too.

4. Omega fatty acids are essential to a cyclist’s diet. They not only provide lean protein for sustainable energy during your ride, but are excellent post ride. They are known for their anti-inflammatory properties that will help combat muscle soreness.

5. Baking Soda. Yes, drinking baking soda before a ride helps reduce lactic acid. Baking soda is alkaline which offsets acids. The formula is to mix .3g of baking soda for every kilogram of body weight with 12 0z of water.

What about the muscle pain the next day?

Anyone who performs intense exercise is bound to feel some soreness the next day. This is called DOMS or delayed-onset muscle soreness. It can occur 1-2 days after intense training. Lactic acid is not to blame for this pain. It was long thought that lactic acid was the culprit that made you grimace upon flexing your tired, sore muscles. It has been discovered that this is not the case. Instead, physicians have found that it is microscopic muscle tears that are causing you pain. Knowing this, you probably can’t always prevent it, but one step is to slow down when you hit that lactate threshold. Your body is letting you know that you have pushed it to the limit. Slow your pace – do not stop – and let the oxygen in your system be replenished before you pick up the pace. You hurt for a reason – don’t be a hero – you can do serious damage that will cause you to have to stop training for an extended period of time.

Two other areas of great importance that can help to slow the lactic acid and help with post ride recovery are the warm up and cool down phases. Your warm up should consist of about 20 minutes. of riding time. This allows the muscles to warm up and the lactic acid production to kick in. It will keep the lactate threshold delayed if the release of lactic acid is steady. At the end of your ride, you need to continue to keep moving for approx. 20 minutes – on the cycle or off – just keep moving. This keeps the heart pumping the oxygen to the muscles and the lactic acid production decreases. (Lactic acid production stops anywhere from 30 – 60 minutes post work out). After 20 minutes, hit a high carb meal to help replenish the blood glucose. The cool down is as important, if not more so, for your body.

Over time you can lengthen the time before the lactate threshold kicks in. It is possible to train to keep the lactate threshold at bay. Consistency, following your bodies cues and dietary changes can have a big impact on it. Just remember that lactic acid is not a bad thing. It is what provides you the energy to keep going when you aren’t providing your body enough oxygen to do so on its own. Without it, you would not be able to go as far or as long without having to take a complete break. It assists in replenishing to energy to keep going but also signals a maximum point and lets you know when your body has had too much.

Whatever your cycling training might be – for long distance, sprints or off road. You need to learn what works for your body. Proper diet, warm-up, breathing and hydration will help during your ride. Proper cool down, carb loading and rest will help with recovery which will allow less painful and a faster, more productive return to training.

Thats about all from me for now! I'd love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below.