Learn to Love the Burn! Why All Runners Should Get Accustomed to Running With Lactic

Learning to love the burn!

As runners we've all experienced 'the burn'; 'running through treacle' as you struggle to hold it together at the end of a tough hill session or sprint for the finish line.

Though it's unlikely to flood the legs on any race longer than 5k, it's important for all runners to understand how lactic works and to learn to tolerate it in training. Embrace the burn!

But what is lactic acid?

There are lots of myths about this much maligned substance. We all know that lactic acid is an unavoidable by-product of energy production in the muscles. It is produced in larger quantities during high intensity exercise when you cannot take on enough oxygen to break fuel (glucose) into ATP (the power source driving muscle action).

After its production lactic acid is quickly broken down into hydrogen ions and lactate molecules.

It’s the acidic hydrogen ions that cause the burn in your muscles. Lactate molecules, on the other hand, are much more useful. They quickly make their way to the liver where they are reused as building blocks in the production of glycogen.

The acidic hydrogen ions don't hang around in the muscles for long either. They are quickly buffered and dispersed in a number of ways, including the carbon dioxide released in your breathing.

So, the common conception that lactic acid causes pain and stiffness a day or two after high intensity exercise is wrong. Instead this stiffness is due to damage caused to muscle fibres and the subsequent repair and regeneration process (and the swelling involved). A jog to loosen up does help stimulate blood flow, but it doesn't 'flush out the lactic'.

Why should we learn to embrace it.

Though we make a distinction between aerobic and anaerobic energy production, in reality we never use either 'system' exclusively. Being able to tolerate and process (or buffer) these molecules will allow you to run at a faster pace for longer without breaking down.

There are a 2 simple ways you can improve your ability to tolerate (anaerobic capacity) and buffer (anaerobic conditioning). Both sessions are tough workouts which require you to run hard.

Short, fast, high intensity sessions, like hill training or short intervals with lots of recovery, will increase your exposure to anaerobic energy production and improve basic speed. Touching on this every 3-4 weeks during your training is important.

Sustained challenging pace runs or threshold runs improve your ability to prevent lactic buildup. On a simple level they involve running at the 'threshold' at which lactate start to accumulate if you went any faster. Training like this can raise your threshold as it improves your heart’s ability to pump rich oxygenated blood to the body.

There are ways several ways to calculate your lactate threshold pace (some of which require a lab), but for most of us we should aim to run at a pace of controlled discomfort for between 20-35mins at least once a fortnight.  You won't technically feel 'the burn' in this session but rest assured you will be increasing your tolerance.

So, learn to love lactic, you need to because it's not going to go away. After all, we all know, it never gets easier, you just get better at hurting yourself!

Shaun DixonComment