Progressive thoughts on lactic acid

By Robert Tilghman


I have heard time and time again at the end of a massage session how you should drink lots of water to flush out the lactic acid toxin that was released during the massage. I am a great supporter of drinking lots of water to stay hydrated among other benefits yet; the one aspect of this advice I don’t fully agree with is the particular reference to the “Toxin” “Lactic Acid” being one main component of this flush.

For many years I was taught that lactic acid is bad for us and inhibits movement and causes soreness after exercise. Today, I have a different understanding about lactic acid. Lactic acid is considered by many well-regarded medical and scientific authorities to be one of the main fuel sources during anaerobic activity. With a clear understanding of how the body uses lactic acid as a fuel, we can optimize our performance.

Lets start with two main systems of energy in the body, aerobic and anaerobic. The primary difference between them is the presence of oxygen in the aerobic system. One more difference is the end product after and during a cells metabolic process. When we start out exercising, this process is mostly aerobic and uses oxygen for energy. When we intensify this exercise to above 50% of our maximum, our bodies need more energy than the aerobic system can provide. We then start to use the anaerobic system to source this additional energy requirement. Energy used from the aerobic system (with oxygen) has little to no end product after the cells metabolic process has run its cycle. Energy production from the anaerobic system results in the formation and utilization of lactic acid.

One way that lactic acid is formed during anaerobic activity, is the muscle cells convert glucose (broken down carbohydrates) into lactic acid to be utilized by the mitochondria (the power house of the cell). This transformation process also produces ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is used during innumerable chemical reactions throughout the body. The mitochondria even have a specific protein that transports lactic acid into the mitochondria. This process has been coined by UC Berkley Integrative Biology Professor George A. Brooks as the “Intracellular Lactate Shuttle” or “Lactate Shuttle Theory”. The amount of lactic acid produced is proportionate with the amount of carbohydrates being broken down for use as energy during strenuous activity. There have been studies that show with interval training, long distance training and intensity training, the mitochondrial mass & capacity will increase, greatly increasing the mitochondria’s ability to utilize lactic acid as a fuel. There is one part of lactic acid that can cause irritation to muscle tissue and that is the hydrogen ion. This part is a very strong organic acid that can inhibit muscle contraction and cause tissue inflammation yet, with proper training your body will adapt to lactic acid production and the process of utilization and removal.

When the activity decreases the process reverses for the most part. The lactic acid is converted back into glucose and stored throughout out the body as a reserve for later energy requirements. Any left over lactic acid is swiftly picked up by the circulatory system and brought to the liver where it is converted into the building blocks of liver glycogen. This process of converting lactic acid into liver glycogen is known to most as the ”Glucose Paradox”. Dr. J.D. McGarry and his research associates brought evidence of this formulation into mainstream science.

With this bit of information we can start to see a clear picture of how the body uses lactic acid as a fuel. There are still those who will ask, “ Does lactic acid cause muscle soreness after working out?” I would say no. Lactic acid does not stay in your muscles long enough to be associated with the soreness you feel one, two or three days after an intense workout is simply muscle tissue that is fatigued, injured with “micro tears” and consumed by post traumatic stress & inflammation. Lactic acid is created from glucose, utilized and converted back to glucose and glycogen within a couple of hours of strenuous exercise.

You can share this information with your trainer or coach so as to design the most beneficial training method for your desired physical performance. This theoretical information is of course being continuously challenged and there are journals upon journals to explore on your own. I implore you to look at the research for yourself and feel your way to the information you would like to share as the most tried and trued.


1) Investigation of the lactate shuttle in skeletal muscle mitochondria
by George A Brooks, Takeshi Hashimoto…The Journal of Physiology (2007)
Volume: 584, Issue: Pt 2, Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Pages: 11P

2) The lactate shuttle during exercise and recovery
by G A Brooks …Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (1986)
Volume: 18, Issue: 3, Pages: 360-368

by Thomas Fahey, Ed.D., Professor of Exercise Physiology, California State University at Chico

4) Von Ahsen, Van Dam in Biochemical Society Transactions (2002)
…Biochemical Society Transactions (2002)
Volume: 30, Issue: 2, Pages: 258-264

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