Lactic Acid, Lactate and Lactate Threshold - What Are They and Why Should You Care?
One proton - that is the difference between lactate and lactic acid. Lactate is lactic acid that is missing one proton - so when lactic acid donates a proton it now becomes lactate. The body produces and uses lactate, not lactic acid, but the two terms are often interchanged as a matter of semantics.
If you were to do a 400m sprint as fast as you can, the first 10 seconds or so of that sprint would be fueled by the phosphagen system (a mix of Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and Phosphocreatine (PC)). After that the phosphagen system can no longer keep up with the demand for energy so the body now uses the anaerobic glycolysis system to keep up with demand. This pathway provides energy for a period ranging from 10 seconds to 2 minutes.
Anaerobic glycolysis is fueled by glucose (a simple sugar and component of many carbohydrates). To produce energy (ATP), a biochemical reaction happens that eventually transforms some of the involved molecules (pyruvate) into lactate. Many people associate lactate with "the burn" or the inability to produce optimal force within the muscles any longer. However that is not entirely true and counter to what many believe, lactate is not bad.
During the glycolysis process an acidic proton (H+) is released. Before transforming into lactate, pyruvate consumes this proton (H+) from the muscle which would otherwise cause your muscles to become even more acidic and thus the formation of lactate is actually alkalizing to the muscle! Furthermore, lactate can be used to fuel muscle contractions and also be converted back to glucose which can then be used to create more ATP for more energy.
Lactate threshold is the point at which lactate accumulates in the blood faster than it can be removed. This is important to know because as this level gets higher, your power and speed will begin to suffer. But again, lactate itself is not the enemy! The problem is that lactate is always accompanied by these acidic protons (H+) and it is the accumulation of those protons that cause the burning of the muscles as the pH of the muscles decrease. As muscles contract intensely during exercise they will require an abundance of energy which will be created from the breakdown of ATP and that breakdown causes a release of those protons within the muscle.
So now that you know that lactate is not bad and that lactate threshold is a key factor in athletic performance, how can you increase your lactate threshold?
Training - Research has indicated that training programs that are a combination of high volume, maximal steady-state, and interval workouts have the most pronounced effect on lactate threshold improvement.
Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation - Aka baking soda, ingesting bicarbonate will raise your blood pH slightly which can allow acid to move from muscle cells into the bloodstream, returning their pH to normal. This will allow the muscles to continue to contract and produce energy which in turn will help you to exercise harder and faster. Most studies that have shown beneficial performance effects of supplementing with sodium bicarbonate have used doses of 0.2-0.3 g/kg of body-weight, and short high intensity exercise lasting greater than 20 seconds but less than six minutes. So if this is proven to be so effective and is also very affordable then why isn't this used as an aid more often? Well, two reasons: 1) it can cause intense gastrointestinal distress (read: severe diarrhea) though this can usually be offset by taking smaller doses throughout the day; and 2) it contains large amounts of sodium - a 20 g dose contains 5 g of sodium which can cause massive issues to one's blood pressure. So if you go this route, be sure to test your tolerance in practice and not for the first time on game-day and be weary if you already have high blood pressure.
Beta-alanine Supplementation - In short, Beta-alanine plays a primary role on lactate synthesis and lactate threshold. Supplementing with beta-alanine will increase your body's carnosine levels and it is carnosine that will basically soak up those acidic hydrogen ions (H+) discussed earlier, to prevent low pH levels. Thus lactate threshold is increased by improving your intra-muscular carnosine content via beta-alanine supplementation.
To reap the benefits of beta-alanine, athletes must load the scientifically-proven dosage threshold – at least 90 grams over a 28-day period. That’s an average of 3.2 grams per day, minimum and should be taken every day – not just on workout days. Check out this infographic to learn more about achieving peak performance with the proper dosing strategy.
Primed Capacity contains 4.8g of CarnoSyn® beta-alanine per daily serving as well as a host of other ingredients proven to increase your athletic performance.
Some athletes will want to go as far as to quantify their lactate threshold and for that, testing can be done. For the most accurate results, testing is done in an exercise laboratory where the athlete will use a treadmill or bike and incrementally increase intensity until exhaustion. During specific intervals, a small blood sample is taken from a fingertip and the concentration of lactate is measured. A popular alternative is a do-it-yourself field test which typically involves running for 30 minutes at the fastest pace you can consistently sustain and measuring your heart rate at the 10 minute mark and again at 30 minutes - divide that in half and that is your lactic threshold heart rate. Lastly we now have some high-tech options such as this BSX Insight compression sleeve (now discontinued unfortunately), guided tests requiring a Garmin® chest heart rate monitor, a simple phone app from hrv4training, and in the near future a watch by PKVitality that can monitor your actual lactate level without pricking your finger.
That may have been a lot of information to take in so let's summarize with some key takeaways:
The body produces and uses lactate, not lactic acid, but the two terms are often interchanged as a matter of semantics.
Lactate is not the enemy and in fact can be used to fuel muscle contractions and also be converted back to glucose which can then be used to create more ATP for more energy.
Lactate threshold is the point at which lactate accumulates in the blood faster than it can be removed and that threshold can be increased via training and supplementation.
Primed Capacity is the best.
Lactate threshold is quantifiable and can be done measured by a blood test, a field test, or some training sessions paired with newer tech options.