Lactic acid is often the result of normal metabolism. Oxygen in the blood is necessary to convert glucose into energy. However, when there is insufficient oxygen, the body breaks down glucose without oxygen, resulting in lactic acid.
Lactic acid, or lactate, builds up within many tissues, including muscles, and then enters the bloodstream. The body can use small quantities of lactate as energy.
People often experience high levels of lactic acid during or following strenuous exercise. This is called exercise-induced or exercise-related hyperlactatemia.
A buildup of lactic acid can make muscles feel sore or tired. Typically, the liver will break down excess lactate in the blood.
Some health conditions can increase lactic acid production or reduce the body's ability to clear lactate from the blood. This can result in a more severe buildup of lactate, which doctors refer to as lactic acidosis.
This article provides tips for preventing and reducing exercise-induced hyperlactatemia. We also outline other causes of lactate buildup and lactic acidosis.
A buildup of lactic acid in the muscles during or following exercise is not harmful. In fact, some experts believe it can be beneficial. In small amounts, lactic acid can:
- help the body absorb energy
- help the body burn calories
- increase endurance levels
However, many people find that the muscle pain and cramps from lactic acid buildup negatively affects their workouts.
There are several ways to prevent exercise-induced hyperlactatemia, as follows:
Drinking plenty of water
Keeping the body hydrated during exercise gives it the best chance of breaking down any excess lactic acid. People can ensure they stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Taking deep breaths
The body starts to produce lactic acid when it is low in the oxygen necessary to convert glucose into energy. Breathing deeply will help deliver oxygen to the muscles, thereby slowing the production of lactic acid.
Decreasing exercise intensity
When a person feels the effects of lactic acid buildup, they can slow down and reduce the intensity of their workout. This will allow blood oxygen levels to recover.
Stretching after a workout
Lightly stretching the muscles after a workout can help to alleviate any burning sensations or cramps that lactic acid buildup may cause.
In most cases, lactic acid buildup is a harmless response to strenuous exercise and will go away on its own. Once the body has used the resulting lactate for energy, the liver breaks down any excess in the blood.
For a long time, experts thought that lactic acid was responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) following exercise. However, experts no longer believe this is the case. Instead, they now say that DOMS pain and stiffness is the result of microscopic damage to muscle fibers.
DOMS is more likely to occur in the following situations:
- starting a new exercise program
- changing exercise routines
- increasing the duration or intensity of a regular workout
Certain health conditions can lower blood oxygen levels, resulting in increased lactate production. These conditions include:
Also, liver damage and liver disease can affect the liver's ability to remove lactate from the blood. This can result in high blood lactate levels, which doctors call hyperlactatemia.
In some cases, hyperlactatemia can progress to lactic acidosis. Without treatment, lactic acidosis can alter the PH balance of a person's blood. This alteration can result in severe health complications.
The symptoms doctors associate with lactic acidosis include:
- sweet smelling breath
- cool and clammy skin
- pain in the belly
- nausea or vomiting
- feeling disoriented
- feeling weak
- yellowing of the skin or eye whites in jaundice
Lactic acidosis is also a rare side effect of some HIV medications.
Anyone who thinks they have lactic acidosis or nonexercise-induced hyperlactatemia should speak to a doctor straightaway.
A doctor will usually carry out a blood test to check levels of lactate in the blood. In some cases, they may ask the person not to eat, drink, or exercise for several hours before the test.
If the tests detect lactic acidosis, the doctor will work to diagnose and treat its underlying cause. Treatment will allow the body to dispose of the lactic acid in the usual way.
The body makes lactic acid when it is low in the oxygen it needs to convert glucose into energy. Lactic acid buildup can result in muscle pain, cramps, and muscular fatigue.
These symptoms are typical during strenuous exercise and are not usually anything to worry about as the liver breaks down any excess lactate.
Staying hydrated and breathing deeply during exercise can help to prevent exercise-induced hyperlactatemia.
Specific health conditions can increase a person's risk of developing hyperlactatemia and lactic acidosis. Without treatment, lactic acidosis can result in serious health complications.