Lactate: The Misunderstood Performance Superhero

Blood Lactate Versus Lactic Acid… A Matter of Semantics

Whether we choose to believe it or not, messages that we read in advertising have a lot more to do with our rhetoric than we think. Terminology in the endurance world has a way of changing with research, trends, and the constant bombardment of social media. Often, coaches and athletes form misconceptions based on information from non-reputable sources. After repeatedly seeing “Lactic Acid” used where “Blood Lactate” should be inserted, it became apparent that there was a need to discuss the most common misconceptions about Lactate, why these terms are used so interchangeably, and how we at BAM can better communicate the science behind the phenomenon that is muscle acidity, Blood Lactate’s role in exercise, and pH buffering. The more we know about our own biochemistry, the better we can prepare ourselves for success in sport.



What is Blood Lactate? 

During aerobic exercise, our cells undergo metabolic pathways to utilize nutrients to create energy in the form of ATP. During these processes, electrons are transferred from reducing agents like glucose to O2 which is oxidized, and subsequently produces ATP (useable energy) through oxidative phosphorylation. During this process, blood glucose is converted to useable energy, O2 is converted to CO2 and expelled, and some is broken down and stored as Pyruvate which can be looked at as an emergency fuel source, like a secondary fuel tank in a vehicle. The only difference is, when we enter into “turbo” mode, or perform anaerobic activity (as an intense surge or acceleration), we shift from our aerobic, O2-dependent fuel conversion method to an anaerobic mode of metabolism, where Pyruvate is converted to Lactate. 

Does my Body Produce Lactate or Lactic Acid? 

Another common misconception about blood lactate, often referred to as lactic acid, is that the body produces an acidic compound that contributes to depolarization of the muscles and leads to failure. On the contrary, the body produces lactate as fuel, which in reality functions as a conjugal base for counteracting the depolarization of the cells in the muscle. Once the capacity of pyruvate to lactate production is outdistanced by the depolarization caused by acidity in the muscle, it has reached its “threshold” and must recover. 



“I Always Thought Lactate was Bad!” 

Outdated schools of thought would suggest that lactate is the culprit for fatigue and eventual muscle failure. However, lactate has an under-appreciated role in athletic performance. Many think of “lactate threshold” as the ability to tolerate lactate in the muscle. From a general chemistry perspective, the difference in “lactate” versus “lactic acid” requires a basic knowledge of acids and bases. 

To be an acid, a molecule must have an available hydrogen ion (+) to donate. Lactate is missing one proton, making it “basic”. In other words, lactate is simply lactic acid missing a proton and causing it to be “basic” or able to accept a hydrogen ion. This slightly negative “charge” or ability to accept a proton is what makes lactate capable of combatting depolarization of the muscle, caused by acidity. When the muscle cells become more acidic during strenuous exercise, lactate can be thought of as a pH balancing superhero, jumping into action to aid in keeping muscles firing. 

Change the Paradigm: Lactate is the Key to Success

The way we think about Lactate has changed in the endurance sports world. Lactate is a good thing. Building better utilization of Lactate comes with a fair share of discomfort, burning legs, and a desire to give in to the governor in your mind telling you to stop. Ultimately, embracing Lactate threshold work in your training will help push your muscles to new limits! Creating an environment for muscles to thrive under stress defines a large part of the physiological training adaptations we strive for as endurance athletes. Train to use lactate, push a little longer, and have confidence that Lactate is there to keep you going when the race gets really tough.


Patrick Casey