Everything you need to know about lactate: Your burning questions answered by an exercise physiologist

Lactate is a viscous substance that coagulates in our blood during exercise. It forms when the body breaks down carbohydrates, and is usually blamed—albeit wrongly—for the burning sensation in our legs when cycling at a high intensity. In this feature, with the help of Dr Richard Ferguson, an exercise physiologist from Loughborough University, we answer frequently asked questions regarding lactate’s role in cycling fitness – and how understanding it can help us train smarter.

Why lactate is not “lactic acid” – what’s the difference?

Lactate is lactic acid that contains lesser amount of hydrogen ion. Lactic acid is produced in our cells but is almost immediately converted to lactate in the bloodstream because the blood has a neutral pH. For this reason, in the context of an intra-workout measurement, it is more accurate to refer to lactate rather than lactic acid.

What is lactate in cycling?

Lactate is produced during exercise when the body breaks down carbohydrates. It is now known that lactate is not a waste product but an energy source – it can be ‘recycled’ back into pyruvate for energy. Public realization has yet to catch up with science: Lactate is still widely accused of causing fatigue and soreness.

Does lactate cause “burning” and/or fatigue?

Although increased fatigue and soreness are associated with elevated lactate values ​​measured in the blood, this is not a causal link—lactate is not the only cause. It is not known exactly what causes the burning sensation in overworked muscles.

Dr Richard Ferguson told us: “Lactate used to be considered a waste product of metabolism and a major player in fatigue during high-intensity exercise. However, this is no longer the case. In fact, lactate is now seen as a critical metabolite with an important role as a fuel source, Rather, it plays a role in cellular signaling and adaptation, and crucially, it has no role in fatigue.”

So the lactate doesn’t cause the burning feeling in your legs – but that doesn’t stop the World Tour pros. Even this year Tour de FranceAnd Wout van Aert He commented in post-stage interviews that he “feels the lactate in the legs.” In fact, this feeling is not caused by lactate.

If lactate does not cause fatigue, why is it still evaluated as a marker of exercise intensity?

Lactate values, which are measured at different intensities, indicate the metabolic stress your body is experiencing – even if the lactate isn’t the cause of your fatigue. At altitude, lactate values ​​will be higher than at the same power at sea level. The ability of measuring lactate to reflect “stress” in a different way to strength, heart rate, and perceived exertion is the reason for its usefulness. Lactate measures the metabolic stress of the exercise being performed and therefore also the athlete’s metabolic efficiency.

The picture shows a person riding a bicycle

(Image credit: Future)

Is lactate produced only at high intensity?

No, although it was previously thought that more lactate was produced during “anaerobic” (without oxygen) processes. Dr Ferguson explained: “Lactate production is continually occurring at full aerobic pressure [low-intensity] conditions, and not as was traditionally thought only under anaerobic conditions. In fact, skeletal muscles are never truly anaerobic, even during the most intense exercise.”

As an amateur cyclist, do I need to have my lactate levels measured?

Lactate can be measured with a small, handheld device, such as the Lactate Plus, which uses a prick of blood and a paper strip. Creating your own lactate curve is a great way to identify training zones. Energy increases and lactate is measured every four to 10 minutes. Blood lactate values ​​(mmol/L) are plotted against force and heart rate to create the curve. The measurement of lactate during an incline test is considered by sports scientists as the “gold standard” of preparation cycling training areas.

Once you have three data points (energy, heart rate, and lactate), you have a more complete metabolic picture compared to using force And heart rate Just. As amateurs, we don’t really need to practice with lactate, but it does help us control the intensity more precisely.

Well, lactate is a fuel source, not a waste product — but how do we know that?

The Curie cycle, also known as the lactic acid cycle, is a staple for students of biology. Muscles break down glucose by glycolysis into ATP and pyruvate. ATP is used for energy, and pyruvate is converted into lactate.

Dr. Ferguson explained that most of the lactate produced, 75-80 percent, is readily transported from muscle cells and transported to nearby muscle cells or around the body via the bloodstream. Circulating lactate is absorbed by muscles and other organs, where it is converted back into pyruvate and used to produce aerobic energy. Lactate that reaches the liver undergoes a process called gluconeogenesis, where it is converted into glucose.”

Why is lactate an important biomarker for athletes?

We know that lactate does not cause fatigue or pain, but it remains a very important biomarker. The lactate curve of the athlete is a good proxy for mitochondrial function and density without more invasive testing. With a simple pin-prick blood test, we can ascertain how quickly glycogen is metabolized. If pyruvate is not transported into the mitochondria quickly enough, lactate builds up in the blood. As an athlete develops their aerobic capacity, the density of mitochondria increases and so lactate can be processed more quickly. This means more energy over any given time period.

The picture shows a person riding a bicycle

(Image credit: Future)

Why are there two different lactate thresholds?

The two main lactate thresholds are usually called LT1 and LT2. The first threshold, LT1, is higher District 2 (in the five regions model). It is defined as “the lowest intensity at which a steady increase in blood lactate concentration above resting values ​​occurs.” A male professional cyclist weighing around 70kg will usually be able to handle around 300 watts at LT1 and can produce that intensity for up to three hours. LT2 is reached at the top of Zone 4 and is often referred to as the lactate tipping point. This is the point after which lactate rapidly builds up. Almost corresponds to FTP intensity. LT1 is often referred to as “anaerobic” and LT2 as “anaerobic,” a hangover from the earlier, more primitive understanding.

How do I use lactate data to improve my training?

Your personal lactate curve should guide your training, allowing you to focus on specific points on the lactate curve to raise your thresholds. The intensity of the exercise determines how the lactate curve profile develops. The goal is to produce more force for a given value of lactate, to delay the tipping point where lactate begins to build up rapidly. By raising your thresholds, you can drive more watts while paying less than your metabolic cost. This means lower hitting impact on climbs, and sprints out of angles or the ability to ride at a higher power for extended periods.

Well, I want my lactate levels tested – now what?

The lactate curve test used to be the preserve of professional cyclists, but as more and more sports science laboratories began offering lactate tests, the price has dropped. At Southampton Solent University, for example, a lactate test costs around £150. The whole process takes about two hours. Alternatively, you can try the DIY option by purchasing a lactate meter, available from a number of pharmaceutical companies online, and testing yourself – provided you have Smart boss And a friend to help.

How does low-intensity training improve lactate processing efficiency?

Across the board, endurance sports scholars agree that consistently piling in plenty of low-intensity hours—plus a sprinkle of high-quality sessions during key intervals—is the most effective formula. Determining the exact combination of sessions to get the best results is more difficult. Many athletes take a very short-term approach; Endurance fitness continues to grow over many years. Even if you have a limited amount of time available, you should still do a large percentage of your driving at a lower intensity. This is because, at lower intensities, we increase mitochondrial density. As we now know, mitochondria are the cellular “energy factories” that convert glucose into energy. More mitochondria equals higher sustained power.

The picture shows a person riding a bicycle

(Image credit: Future)

How often do I need to retest my lactate thresholds?

It depends. If you are training hard on lactate as a guide, you may want to check your thresholds every six to eight weeks as part of your exercise routine. Cycling training plan. If you just want to see how your fitness has changed over a larger course, two to four exams a year is enough.

How do I structure my interval training to raise my lactate thresholds?

Conventional wisdom suggests using longer, lower-intensity intervals, away from your first race. As the racing season approaches, use higher intensity intervals (HIIT exercises). Typically, this means doing a lot of riding in around LT1 in the base phase, then shifting focus to 95-105 percent LT2 as the season approaches. If you train for 10 hours per week, your total of 2 hours per week should not exceed more than LT1.

Buffer Lactate Supplements – Do They Work?

between the Supplements for cyclists They are lactate buffers, most of which contain relatively large amounts of sodium bicarbonate, which is an alkaline substance—the idea being that it neutralizes acidity levels in muscles. Do you accumulate? A 2020 study in the Human Kinetics Journal tested the effect of topical sodium bicarbonate (Amp Human PR Lotion) on exercise performance, and found no improvement. In fact, no published studies have shown any meaningful effect from this type of product.

How long until we get immediate lactate monitoring on our main units?

The technology for wearable lactate sensors already exists. Wearable devices that can measure blood vital signs in non-invasive ways — patches and watch-like devices — will be available in the coming years. Blood lactate testing will soon be a thing of the past, and lactate monitoring will be another series in a bracket The best cycling smartwatch – But just for now, we have to wait.

This full version of this article was originally published in print Weekly cycling. Subscribe online (Opens in a new tab) And have the magazine delivered straight to your door each week.

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