Chapter 1: The Confusion Over "Lactic Acid"

It is important to begin this post with a disclaimer: there are a host of resources on physiological topics relating to lactate and lactic acid. I do not portend, by any means, to be an industry thought leader on this topic. Nevertheless, experience and personal research has given me a decent handle on them and I hope to make them digestible and perhaps simply them for the average athlete.

Now, let’s get nerdy.

Confusion over these terms “lactate” and “lactic acid” has been a favorite past time in physiology circles (and swimming pools) for many years. The debate rages, simply because there is no one universally accepted definition (Rushton,

We will be spending the next few blog posts breaking down these terms and their inseparable impact on your training. Today, we begin with some definitions.

For the purposes of our exploration, we turn to our source for all things lactate, Dr. Jan Olbrecht.

Lactate is a naturally occurring organic compound produced in everyone’s body and is both a by-product and fuel for exercise. It is found in the muscles, the blood, and various organs. A term that is often associated with lactate is lactic acid. They are very close chemically. We use the term lactate even though in many places lactic acid might be technically right. The use of lactate instead of lactic acid should not interfere with any interpretation. The primary sources of lactate is the breakdown of a carbohydrate called glycogen. ~ Olbrecht, The Science of Winning.

Let’s break that down- Dr. Olbrecht makes an important point here when choosing not to draw a distinction between these terms. Both lactate and lactic acid most certainly exist; they are closely related chemical compounds which exist naturally in our bodies. However, for the purposes of determining training composition and effect, we should feel comfortable using them interchangeably.

In attempting to put this as simply as possible; lactate is central to a unique metabolic process but also because it is an accurate means of measuring the effectiveness of training on a number of criteria.

Carefully designed training can:

  • Improve Lactate Steady State: performance where lactate levels are steady- more than 20 mins

  • Improve Lactate Threshold: the maximum effort that can be sustained without accumulating more lactate.

Slightly Different:

  • Lactate Tolerance: … the ability of the person to withstand the intense pain that is produced by high acid levels in the muscles. It is primarily a mental training as opposed… to physical training (Olbrecht, The Science of Winning).

However you define the terms, one thing is for certain, the production, elimination and tolerance of lactate are central to guiding us through effective training.

Check in next week, as we continue our lactate series with training advice and specific sets to help improve your lactate threshold.

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Thanks for reading and sharing,

-Jeff Gross

Founder, Techniq Group