Question - What are Lactate Myths?

What are lactate myths?

We have found that there are many misconceptions about lactate testing that are perpetuated by coaches, athletes and the popular press. Even many sports scientists have a wrong understanding of lactate. We are calling these the Lactate Myths.

Does lactate or lactic acid cause muscle soreness?

No. First of all lactic acid is not in the muscles. It is lactate. And lactate does not cause any problems. When lactate is produced during the breakdown of glucose, hydrogen ions are also produced. This causes the muscles to get more acidic, and may cause fatigue. This was thought to be part of what causes the soreness or as some have described it the burn in the muscles. It is what the manufacturers of the first portable lactate analyzer thought when they developed it back in the early 1990's. Our 800 number is based on the concept of "burn" as the last 4 digits spell BURN on the telephone dial. However, it is now thought that the burning sensation in the muscles is cause by tiny muscle tears. This is just one of many myths surrounding lactate or lactic acid. From now on we will leave out lactic acid since the reader gets the idea that it is like a ghost, not really present.

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Does lactate not cause fatigue?

No!. That is the current understanding. Hydrogen ions and some other metabolites are thought to be the culprits. The importance of lactate in this is that it rises at the same rate as the hydrogen ions that cause fatigue. And lactate is easy to measure.  So measuring lactate allows you to know when fatigue will occur.

Fatigue is not the best word to use but many use it. During intense exercise the muscles refuse to contract properly or quickly so some has called this fatigue. But if the athlete just slows down a little bit he can often continue at a fairly fast pace. Just not as fast as he wants to.

Fatigue has many definitions. When a marathoner has to slow down about 2 hours into a race is that fatigue? When an competitor in an Ironman race has to stop during the run and walk in or ask for a ride to the finish, is that fatigue? When a football defenseman cannot keep up with the receiver he is covering, is that fatigue? Imagine a dozen or more ways that an athlete is not as fresh as when the race or game began. Fatigue has many forms including the one that causes you to sleep 12 hours after you have been working 20 hours a day for nearly a week. We will in the future have a section on the various types and causes of fatigue.

Isn't lactate a waste product?

This myth is pretty much buried today but when we first went to Kona 18 years ago for the Ironman world championships, more than one coach thought lactate was nothing more than an unwanted by-product of energy metabolism. While most know now that is not true, few know just what part lactate plays in a race. The answer is that lactate is the main fuel for nearly all athletes during an athletic competition. It is not a waste product; it is what enables an athlete to win.

Isn't lactate only produced when I go fast, above the lactate threshold?

It wasn't just coaches and athletes who were confused. Many exercise physiologists didn't understand what was happening either and even today some don't. You see the comment that the lactate or anaerobic threshold is the point where the body starts to mainly use anaerobic metabolism. This is complete nonsense. Below the anaerobic threshold the body uses a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic energy. Above the lactate or anaerobic threshold the body uses a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic energy. The percentage of each may only be a small bit different just above from just below. Thus, the term anaerobic threshold is a poor term to describe what is going on. An exercise physiologist who saw the first curves that showed the effects of oxygen consumption as exercise increased pointed to a break in the curve and said that is where the body is going anaerobic. He was wrong but the idea has stuck for nearly 50 years (this is discussed in the answer to another question.)

Doesn't lactate tell me the optimum intensity to exercise at?

Not by itself. But in the hands of some real experts, lactate testing can tell you how much both your aerobic and anaerobic systems are being utilized at each intensity. From that you can learn what kind of training effects a particular pace will produce. A few high-level coaches have sophisticated simulation programs that fine-tune this analysis for extremely elite athletes.

Lactate tests can be used to develop good training paces and we discuss this in the triathlon section.  But the main use of testing is to assess the athlete and his or her training. Over time a good coach will learn what works for each athlete. Not magic but good insight using the best tools to assess the conditioning of the athlete.

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Isn't the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold the optimum point at which to train?

It is amazing the number of people who still believe this. The truth is that the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold is the one point not to train at. One of the coaches that uses our products calls it the “no-go zone.”  That statement will blow away of lot of high-priced coaches’ training philosophy. The rationale went something like this. The anaerobic threshold is the highest effort level that one can maintain for an extended period of time. Thus, it will produce the biggest training effect. So train at the anaerobic threshold and then when it increases, keep increasing the training intensity and the athlete will get better and better. Sounds logical, doesn't it? Unfortunately that is not how our bodies work.

Why doesn't training at the anaerobic or lactate threshold work?

Simply, because our bodies get better by breaking down from exercise, and then rebuilding.  They respond by making the muscle, joint, cells a little bit better at doing what caused it to break down. The problem with the anaerobic threshold as a workout pace, is that it causes a maximum break-down: the longest possible workout possible at the highest intensity. It will take the body a long time to recover from such a major break-down.  And by repeating this killer pace in daily training sessions, the body is broken down even more and there is no chance to regenerate back to where it once was, let alone reach a new level.

No, the best training philosophy is one that allows enough time for regeneration and finds workouts that actually speed regeneration up as opposed to prolonging the break-down phase. That is the science of winning and is the title of Jan Olbrecht's book on training.

One caveat, there are times when one or two sets at the lactate threshold are desirable to lower anaerobic capacity and increase the threshold. These can be done a couple weeks before a major competition but must be accompanied by extensive regenerative workouts due to their stress.

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Do sports scientists understand what causes the lactate or anaerobic threshold?

Very few do and some will say it is a mystery. They will generally say the LT is not well understood. In a recent blog on Slowtwitch, a triathlon site, one well known researcher said it was just muscular metabolic fitness, whatever that is.

Well in 1986 Alois Mader published a paper that explained it quite well. He started from the point that some athletes did better than others at races even though their anaerobic thresholds were at exactly the same effort level. He had no idea why.  What was perplexing, was that two athletes each with the same anaerobic threshold level would beat each other but at different distances. For example, Athlete A would win the 100 m freestyle swimming race over Athlete B, while at 200 m Athlete B would comfortably beat Athlete A. That threw out the whole idea of the anaerobic threshold as a predictor of race success. So was it all nonsense?

Some coaches and exercise physiologists said it was mumbo jumbo and lactate testing was a waste of time. So these enlightened scientists decided to ignore the anaerobic threshold because they did not find is useful. But what did Mader find out that nearly everyone even today ignores? It is all over this site and covered in detail in the CD-ROM. Mader discovered that the anaerobic system was also important, and explained the differences in race performance. Interestingly, lactate testing allows you to assess the anaerobic system as well.

Some References for Mader's work. They can be a little daunting but are described in detail on our CDROM and briefly in the anaerobic pages of our triathlon section.

Mader, A. and H. Heck (1986). "A theory of the metabolic origin of "anaerobic threshold"." International Journal of Sports Medicine 7(Sup): S45-S65.

Mader, A. (1991). "Evaluation of the endurance performance of marathon runners and theoretical analysis of test results." Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 31(1): 1-19.

Mader, A. (2003). "Glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation as a function of cytosolic phosphorylation state and power output of the muscle cell." European Journal of Applied Physiology 88(4-5): 317-38.

Hartmann, U., & Mader, A. (1996). The metabolic basis of rowing. In Rogozkin & R. J. Maughan (Eds.), Current research in sports science (pp. 179-185). New York: Plenum Press.

Mader, A., Hartmann, U., Hollmann, W. (1988). Der Einfluß der Ausdauer auf die 6minütige maximale anaerobe und aerobe Arbeitskapazität eines Eliteruderers. S. 62-79. In: Steinacker, J.: Rudern: Sportmedizinische und sportwissenschaftliche Aspekte. Berlin: Springer.

Mader, A., (1994). Aussagekraft der laktatieistungskurve in kombination mit anaeroben tests zur bestimmung der stoffwechselkapazität. In: Clasing, D., Weicker, H., Boening, D.: Stellenwert der Laktatbestimmung in der Leistungsdiagnostik. Stuttgart: G. Fischer.

Bleicher, A., et al. (1998). "Zur Interpretation von Laktatleistungskurven-experimentelle Ergebnisse mit computergestützten Nachberechnungen (Interpretation of Lactate Performance Curves - Experimental Data with Computer-Supported Calculations)." Spectrum der Sportwissenschaft 1: 92-104.

Mader, A. and H. Heck (1996). Energiestoffwechselregulation, Erweiterungen des theoretischen Konzepts und seiner Begründungen. Nachweis der praktischen Nützlichkeit der Simulation des Energiestoffwechsels (Energy metabolism regulation, extensions of the theoretical concept and its justifications. Proof of the practical usefulness of the simulation of the energy metabolism). Brennpunktthema Computersimulation: Möglichkeiten zur Theoriebildung und Ergebnisinterpretation. A. Mader. Sankt Augustin, Academia Verlag Richarz: 124-162.

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