24/Apr/2014 - Last News Update: 00:59

Is lactic acid to blame for Olympic pain?

Category: Headlines

Published: 11th Aug 2012 00:31:22

Sportsmen and women pushing their bodies to the limit. That's what the Olympic Games are all about.

We have become familiar with the sight of rowers collapsing after giving everything in pursuit of gold, of athletes staggering over the finish line and cyclists with nothing left in their legs.

So what is happening when these elite athletes collapse with effort and exhaustion? Is a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles to blame, as many people assume?

Lactic acid is often used to describe the pain felt during strenuous exercise and the cause of sore muscles, cramps and fatigue afterwards.

But Dr Steve Ingham, head of physiology at the English Institute of Sport, says lactic acid has had a bad press.

"It's a natural consequence of training hard. But it's not the thing that hurts. That's your nerves picking up that your muscles are working hard."

Athletes can work harder for longer to produce the same amount of lactate in the bloodstream - and cope with it better.”

Lactic acid is a by-product when the muscles use carbohydrates to create energy for exercise. Lactic acid then breaks down into hydrogen ions and lactate, and it's the hydrogen ions that cause the pain.

Dr Ingham adds: "They are making it uncomfortable for you and they're saying 'stop it'."

Where the average person in the street might stop running in response to this pain, a top athlete will show much more resilience.

Dr Tom Saw, a sports and exercise physician in Milton Keynes who has worked closely with GB Rowing, says this is to do with their training.

"Athletes can go for longer before the breakdown products of metabolism start causing problems. They can work harder for longer to produce the same amount of lactate in the bloodstream - and cope with it better."

In elite athletes, lactic acid starts to build up when they are operating at somewhere between 80% and 90% of their maximum heart rate.

Yet people like Sir Chris Hoy and Mo Farah need to train seriously at least five times a week to tolerate it and produce high volumes of it, whether it hurts or not.

"You can overcome it by pushing yourself very, very hard. As soon as you are finished exercising the body will use it as fuel," says Dr Ingham.

Many years of research in this area by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that endurance training makes lactic acid a friend - not a foe.

They say that intense training teaches the body to use lactic acid as a source of fuel on a par with the carbohydrates stored in muscle tissue and the sugar in blood.

Lactate can then be burned with oxygen to create even more energy.

This efficient use of lactic acid not only prevents lactate build-up, it ekes out more energy from the body's fuel.

If you're going to go chasing after an animal to eat it and expend lots of energy, then it needs to be worth it.”

Dealing with the muscle pain differs from sport to sport, but the key is to keep the muscles moving, says Dr Saw.

"You see cyclists going straight on to stationary bikes after their races to recover.

"Rowers have to stop rowing quickly after a long race. Because of that sudden stopping their muscles are full of hydrogen ions and there's an imbalance of biochemistry in their legs, which causes pain and weakness."

Hence the pictures of rowers being helped from their boats by Sir Steve Redgrave.

The key to getting rid of pain-inducing hydrogen ions is simply to train harder, although some people, like Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, are just genetically predisposed to being 'big engines'.

These are athletes who can get rid of hydrogen ions, by breathing in oxygen and and creating more energy.

The GB rowing squads are tested on their lactate thresholds - how much effort they can put in before the lactic acid builds up.

"The slower it builds up the better," says Dr Saw.

In the end, your body will know when you've had enough.

Dr Ingham says lactic acid is simply evolutionary feedback, a useful tool for ancient man on the hunt for food.

"It's your body telling you that energy is in poor supply.

"If you're going to go chasing after an animal to eat it, and expend lots of energy, then it needs to be worth it."

Source:
BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2012. Is lactic acid to blame for Olympic pain? [Online] (Updated 11th Aug 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1445675/Is-lactic-acid-to-blame-for-Olympic-pain [Accessed 24th Apr 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • Actress Jodie Foster marries girlfriend

    US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.
  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
  • Actress Jodie Foster marries girlfriend

    US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.
  • Anatomy of the cost of a new drug

    The cost of drugs is in the headlines following the decision by NHS watchdog NICE that a new cancer treatment should not be funded.
  • Irish education minister proposes radical changes

    The Irish education minister has proposed a radical shake-up of the further education sector.
  • S Sudan conflict: President Salva Kiir sacks army chief

    South Sudan's President Salva Kiir has sacked the head of the army.