How to Run a Smart Race

Getting ready to race smart!

Getting ready to race smart!

For possibly the first time ever, I felt like I ran a smart race at the Cherry Creek Sneak 10 Miler this past April. That’s not to say that all of my other races have been “dumb”, but they didn’t feel quite like this. For instance I set a PR at the last 5k I did, back in November, so clearly the race wasn’t bad, but my splits were wildly inconsistent due to starting out faster than I could handle and blowing up my legs. That’s not smart. For the Sneak my splits were as consistent as they have ever been in a race, a sign that I was racing within my abilities.

That consistency not only helped me meet my time goal, but actually to beat it by a little over a minute! I was working hard the whole time but it totally felt within my capability. I was pushing but there was no fear of blowing up. There’s no other way I can describe it, but to say that I feel like I ran a smart race!

This was a new and awesome feeling for me. I think that learning to race smart is part of the evolution of a runner and I’m hoping it means I’m reaching new territory with my running and more specifically my racing. This is the first season that I’ve been following a fairly specific training scheduled given to me by a coach (well my sister, but she certainly knows what she is talking about when it comes to running and racing!), but what else helps a runner have a smart race? This is what I’ve learned:

  • Set specific goals, both short term and long- It helps to have a large goal to train for, such as a PR time at a race. For me this turns an everyday run into a specific training session, giving it more purpose and making me less likely to bail on it. It also helps to set smaller short term goals, such as what you want to accomplish for the week, as sometimes the long term goals seem so far off that it’s easy to justify not training for them in the moment.
  • Have a schedule, and maybe even a coach- I’ve always made schedules for myself to plan out my workouts, but I tend to be general with them. Having a more specific schedule this season is keeping training more interesting and productive. It’s also been helpful to have a coach to rely on. Not only do I no longer have to worry about creating my own training schedule, but I’ve found that it helps hold me more accountable knowing I’m going to have to fess up if I bail on a workout.
  • Don’t make your main race your first race- Plan at least one shorter race leading up to the big event. This will help you get into “race mode” and also give you time to address any fueling or clothing issues that could pop up during the main race.
  • Train your mind, not just your muscles- I’m a big fan of visualization leading up to a race, as there are a lot of studies showing it helps improve performance and I find it makes me feel more in control of my race. The more specific you can visualize yourself attacking the course with ease the better. It also helps to pick a mantra that you want to recite to yourself during the race and to practice it on training runs. For instance, tell yourself “I feel fast, efficient, and strong”. Accept that it will hurt, and remind yourself the pain is temporary and tolerable.
  • Know the course- Train on the course if you can, and at least spend a fair amount of time on the website looking at the map. Knowing where you’ll need to push hard and where you’ll get little breaks helps the race feel more manageable.
  • Pay attention to your fueling and hydration- A smart race can be easily foiled by dehydration. Make sure you are hydrating and fueling appropriately for your body and the race distance. Hopefully you practiced this on your training runs also!
  • Stay within your means- It’s so easy to get excited and start a race too fast, but it usually comes back to haunt you. Pay attention to your exertion rate and breathing, as well as your pace, and make sure you are not exceeding your abilities. Your race pace will likely be faster than your training runs, but be careful that it is not drastically so. Some people may be able to get away with this, but it ain’t a smart strategy!

 

  • Lastly, practice acceptance- Not all races will be good, and that’s okay. Same with all training runs. I haven’t had a single good tempo run since my smart race. It’s frustrating and discouraging, but I’m moving on and letting go of that. Sometimes just doing the training run or finishing the race is a victory in itself. Learn from the mistakes (for instance, were you over-trained or under-trained, or was it just a bad workout?), but don’t beat yourself up about them as it will only make you feel worse, and that’s not smart either.

 

 

Can You Improve Your Pain Tolerance?

Pikes Peak 2013

Suffering through the final mile of the 2013 Pikes Peak Ascent

I am in a daily plank competition, and it’s really starting to hurt.  It started at 4 minutes and now it’s up to 22, and it just keeps hurting more every week.  I’m not even sure how I’m doing it frankly, as there have been so many days I wanted to quit. I won’t go into the details of the competition, because that’s not the point of this blog.  What I’ve been wondering is if all this painful planking is making me mentally stronger (I know it is physically!)  To be a successful athlete, you have to be able to deal with a certain amount of pain.  I know that I’ve had experiences that taught me just what level of pain I can really handle.  For instance, when I went to France and rode my bike around the French Alps on some of the classic Tour de France climbs.  There were hills that were so steep that, by looking at them, I didn’t think I could physically pedal up them without tipping over.  But I dug deep and I did it, and in the process I learned just how much my body could hurt and still not blow up- literally.  I also think that I made some breakthroughs in my ability to handle pain during races this past summer.  It was mostly mental adjustments that I made- accepting it would hurt, and finding a way to deal with it such as reminding myself of my goal or why I was doing the race.  You’ve probably heard that when it comes to exercise your mind will give out long before your muscles.  It’s so true…but what to do about that?!

I’ve read that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the general population, and that elite athletes have higher pain tolerances than their recreational counterparts, but this is one of those “which came first, the chicken or the egg” situations.  Do elite athletes develop a higher pain tolerance because of their training? Or do they get to the elite level because they can naturally better deal with the pain of training?  I’m not sure that can be answered, just like I still don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first!

But, even more importantly, can you train to improve your pain tolerance?  I think that you can, both mentally and physically.

I once read an interesting article in Outside magazine (see link at bottom) about pain tolerance.  The article stated that researchers found people who had experienced more physical pain in their lives (like from injuries or childbirth) had a higher pain tolerance than those who didn’t.  One of the ways they discovered this was by having study participants stick their hand in freezing cold water for as long as possible. Those who had more past physical pain tended to be able to keep their hand submerged longer.   To me, that means that training your pain tolerance for exercise is quite possible.  So aside from sticking your hand in frozen water, how can you increase your pain tolerance for exercise?

I did some online sleuthing and also spoke to my sister Kim, who regularly sticks her feet in a bath of freezing cold water after training runs, and here’s what I found out.

*Side note: it’s important to clarify that we are talking about mental pain during exercise and the pain from exhaustion/pushing yourself hard and NOT about the pain from injury, which you should not push through!

Physical Training:

  • Do interval workouts close to VO2 max.   They hurt.
  • Try “trick yourself workouts”, such as going for your planned 8 mile run, then making yourself go a mile or two more.  Having to manage more than you originally planned helps teach your mind to deal with painful changes.  For these it helps to have a coach or running partner spring the change on you, since it’s harder to trick yourself!
  • Practice negative splits- where you run the last miles of your training run faster than the first ones.
  • During challenging workouts don’t stop just because it starts to hurt and your brain tells you to (which it will).  Instead, tell yourself you’ll go another 5 minutes and then reassess if you can slow down. After those 5 minutes are up, tell yourself the same thing.
  • Ice bath!  There is conflicting data on whether or not ice baths help with recovery, but man do they hurt.  A cold Colorado stream works well. Be sure not to give yourself frostbite though.

Mental Training:

  • Practice positive self talk: such as “I don’t feel this pain” or as Jens Voigt says “Shut up legs!”.  Think about how much you have accomplished so far, not how much you have left to go.  Try reciting a positive mantra such as “I feel fast, efficient, and strong”.
  • Have a purpose/goal for the pain and remind yourself of that goal.  Remind yourself the pain is temporary. For instance, the most helpful sign I saw during my last half marathon was one that read “Pain is temporary, but Facebook is forever”.  It’s lame, but I really wanted to post that I had PR’d on my Facebook page, and that little reminder helped me to pick up the pace during my roughest miles.
  • Don’t think too much about how tired you are or how long you have to go.  If those thoughts arise, try to let them go and instead focus on the things you can control, like breathing and good form.
  • Commit to hurting. You have to accept it to deal with it.  Visualize yourself doing it anyway, successfully, and tell yourself that you can do it despite the pain.  As one of my favorite quotes goes “ You aren’t gonna get out of this pain free so pick your pain- the pain of the race or the pain of regret!”

To read the Outside article:

http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/The-Wimp-Gene.html

Reclaiming Your Motivation

photo(7)

Motivation at its highest- at the end of a race!

In every athlete’s life there will be motivational ebbs and flows.  It’s hard to be 100% into your sport all the time, so it’s natural to go through time periods where you just can’t motivate yourself to get out the door.  Winter can be a particularly hard time of year to keep your motivation up, especially if you live in a colder climate and work full time like I do.   Not only that, but by wintertime most of the races you’ve been training for are probably over, giving your workouts a little less sense of purpose.  The shorter daylight is brutal.  It’s dark when you wake up, which makes opting for an extra hour of sleep in a warm bed sound much better than a chilly dark run or ride!  Things aren’t much better when you get off work, as the sun is already setting and the temps are dropping. You might decide to move your workout indoors, but then there are the crowds of the gym to hassle with-parking lots with no spots, treadmills with waiting lines. No wonder your motivation is down! It’s kinda depressing, really. But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom!

Here are my tips for reclaiming lost motivation:

  • It might sound counter-intuitive, but instead of fighting the loss of motivation, give in to it…but just a little.  If you fight it too hard you risk real burnout, so give your mind and body a break by scaling back for a week or two (or three).  Sadly, you can lose a fair amount of fitness in 2-3 weeks of couch surfing, so don’t stop working out completely, but cut your volume down significantly (cutting it in half is okay).   Focus on shorter, more intense workouts, as these will help you maintain your fitness best while scaling back.  It’s also a lot easier to motivate yourself for a shorter workout!
  • Buy some fancy new duds.  New shoes, a new shirt, even new socks can be motivating because you’ll want to try them out.
  • And update your playlist.  The only time I ever get excited to go to the gym is when I have new music on my iPod to listen to as I trudge along on the treadmill. So try down loading some new tunes, or ask a friend to create a new workout playlist for you.
  • Join a club. Most bike shops and running apparel stores have clubs that do weekly runs or rides.  Or if that’s too much of a commitment recruit a friend.  You don’t have to rely solely on your own motivation- you can rely on the motivation of others! I can’t tell you how many early morning runs I wouldn’t have gone on if I hadn’t known there was a friend waiting to meet me for it.
  • Buy a magazine or book.  I don’t think there is any other time I am more excited about all things outdoors then the day I crack open the new issue of Outside magazine. Immediately I am inspired and ready to plan my next great adventure.  So go pick up a magazine or book about your sport and get re-inspired.
  • Sign up for a winter race.  Just because your traditional racing season is over doesn’t mean you have to stop racing altogether.  Obviously you need some sort of an off season, but I find that my motivation to run or ride is way higher when I have a race to train for.  It gives the workout a sense of purpose. Even in (sometimes!)snowy Colorado there are plenty of winter races, so get an epic winter race on your calendar.  Then as you are training recite this Shalane Flanagan quote to yourself : “In the midst of an ordinary training day I try to remind myself that I am preparing for the extraordinary”!
  • Try a new sport.  Part of burnout is doing the same thing over and over again.  If you are a runner, try snowshoeing. If you are a cyclist, try skate skiing.  You might even end up being good enough to sign up for a race (see previous tip)!
  • Invest in the appropriate gear.  You’ll have fewer excuses to not get outside in the snow if you own the appropriate gear.  I found out last winter that when dressed appropriately 12 degree runs aren’t that bad!  Really! Neither is running in snow. It’s actually kind of fun, more like an adventure than a run!  Remind yourself that you’ll feel better after the workout! It’s so simple, but it helps.  The more you do it the more you will believe it!

Good luck out there! Feel free to share tips on how you keep your motivation up!!

Racing Weight and Healthy Weight Loss

food scale

Don’t try this at home. Actually, don’t weigh your food anywhere. Ever.

It’s a diet obsessed world out there.  It’s sad, really, how much our society focuses on looks and thinness.  Working in the eating disorder field I’ve grown to hate the “D” word.  But this is not a blog about the pitfalls of our society.  No, this is a blog about finding the balance between managing ones weight for sports performance and not sacrificing ones mental and physical health in the process.  There are many athletes with unhealthy and disordered eating habits and athletes are thought to be at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.  This is not surprising seeing as the reality is that weight does, to some extent, affect endurance sports performance.  Some runner’s talk about their racing weight as if it was a holy grail that they would do anything to obtain.  You hear stats like “your mile time improves by 10 seconds for every pound lost”, or some crap like that.  Cyclists talk about how every pound lost improves power output by so much.  I don’t remember the specific statistic because I don’t care.  I mostly ride my bike because it’s fun.  It’s important not to lose sight of that in the process of trying to lose weight.  You probably started running or riding because it was fun too.  Sure there is a correlation between weight and performance-to some extent– but I challenge any athlete to cut off their hand (that weighs about a pound right?) and suddenly drop 10 seconds from their mile time! Okay, I kid, but seriously, the point is that the mere act of losing weight will not necessarily guarantee that your performance improves.  Lose too much weight or lose weight too quickly and your performance will suffer.  And you might lose your love for the sport in the process.

If you want to lose weight solely because you feel you don’t look like the stereotypical runner/cyclist/fill in the blank kind of athlete then stop right there.  Athletes come in all shapes and sizes and I am a firm believer of not modifying ones diet and exercise in order to change how one looks.  If your only motivation for weight loss is because you think you “have” to or because you want to look better in your underwear then this is probably not the blog for you.  Trust me it’s not worth risking falling into disordered eating or even a full blown eating disorder.  I’ll even admit to my eating disorder patients: sure you can modify your nutrition and exercise to manipulate your body to look however you want, but at what cost? What kind of life would that be? How about working on body acceptance instead of weight loss?

Losing weight for health or sports performance is different, but even those motivations can be taken too far.  It’s not always easy to know when an innocent desire to drop a few pounds to become a better athlete starts to become an unhealthy obsession with weight. As an athlete AND an eating disorder professional, I am acutely aware of the issue and believe that I have developed a pretty healthy and moderate approach to the subject.  I truly believe that if you focus on training right and eating well your weight and body composition will take care of themselves over time.  However, if you feel that some weight loss is truly justified and want to get a jump start read on to learn how to do it as healthfully (for your mind and body) as possible.  I could probably write a book on this topic (maybe I will someday…..) but below are some of my top tips.

  • Don’t count calories.  Just because you meet your body’s caloric needs doesn’t mean you are eating right or getting the nutrients your body needs.  You could meet your daily caloric needs with ice cream for Heaven’s sake!  Calorie counting can easily become compulsive, as it puts so much emphasis on hitting numbers and looking at nutrition labels.  Instead of counting calories, count servings from the food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, proteins, and fats.   All the rest, desserts and alcohol for example, would fall into the category of extras and you wouldn’t have a target for those, you would just aim to not have too many of them! (Not sure how many of each group you need? Consult an RD!)
  • Keep a food journal.  But not all the time, especially if you know this tends to become a compulsive “diet” activity for you.  Keeping a food journal for a few days will give you a picture of how much you are getting from all of the food groups mentioned above.  Once you know your baseline, you can work on eating more from some of the food groups, and possibly less from others.  Keeping a food journal can also help you keep tabs on mindless eating and boredom eating, which are common problems.  A handful of food here and there might not seem like a lot in your head, but it can add up quickly, and having it on paper helps put it in perspective.
  • Keep an eye on portions.  Most people have no concept of portions, and it’s not surprising given the ridiculous amount of food we are served at some restaurants.  Note: a giant plate of pasta does not count as one serving.  One grain’s worth of pasta is actually only ½ cup- the size of ½ of a baseball.
  • Focus on what you want to eat more of, not less.  The answer will probably be vegetables and fruits, as most Americans don’t meet the minimum recommendations of 5-9 servings/day.  I think that it’s mentally more helpful to focus on what you want to eat more of, instead of what you want to eat less of, since telling yourself you can’t have something will likely make you want it more (blame human nature). Plus, I find that when I’m able to up my vegetable intake I naturally do not have room for, or crave, the less than healthy foods I typically like (desserts and wine mmm!).
  • Choose foods that don’t come in a package more often than not.  You’ve also probably heard that it’s best to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s because that is where most of the whole foods are, like fruits, veggies, meats, dairy, and to some extent whole grains.   There are plenty of healthful foods that come in packages though, so don’t avoid the inner aisles completely.  When buying packaged products aim for ones with very few ingredients (i.e. if you are buying brown rice the ingredient list should look like this- ingredients: brown rice).
  • Don’t make food rules.  Then you fall into the good food, bad food trap and feel like a bad person when you eat a “bad” food.  Take the judgment out of eating. There are no “good” foods and “bad” foods.  Just foods. Some foods you should eat more often and some foods should be occasional treats.
  • Don’t skip breakfast.  I truly believe it’s the most important meal of the day and studies have consistently shown that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than breakfast skippers.  This could be because skipping breakfast makes you hungrier and more likely to overeat later in the day.
  • Listen to your body.  Try to check in with your hunger.  If you are hungry eat.  If not, wait until you start to feel some hunger.  Don’t wait until you are starving to start eating, as you will be more likely to reach for high sugar/more processed foods and to over eat.  Eat until you are satisfied, not stuffed.
  • Plan ahead.  Think about what you want to make for your meals during the week and make sure you have the food on hand.  I know that if I leave work hungry and with no dinner plan I’m not going to have the patience to go to the store and cook something healthy. I’m doing take out.  Same with snacks. Bring your own snacks to work so that you don’t have to rely on the office donuts for a mid afternoon pick me up.
  • Drink up.  Water that is.  Thirst is often mistaken for hunger.  Make sure you are meeting your fluid needs.  Not sure if you are? Hint: your urine should be a very pale yellow.
  • Know when to use sports nutrition products.  Sports drinks, energy gels, and protein shakes are all great when used appropriately.  But if you are drinking Gatorade throughout the day or eating gels on 45 minute runs you are taking in more sugar and calories than you need to be.
  • Be safe.  DO NOT use diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, or any other weight loss aid. Period.
  • Monitor your body fat too, not just weight.  Your body fat percentage tells you a lot more than a number on the scale. Healthy ranges are:
Males Females Rating
5-10 8-15 Athletic
11-14 16-23 Good
15-20 24-30 Acceptable
21-24 31-36 Overweight
>24 >37 Obese

(from Sport Nutrition, 2nd Edition, by Asker Jeukendrup, PhD, and Michael Gleeson, PhD, on the Human Kinetics publishing website)

  • Don’t weigh yourself more than once a day.  Don’t even weigh every day if you can help it. Your weight will fluctuate naturally from day to day and seeing those fluctuations may just psych you out. It’s more important to look at overall trends, taken into consideration with body fat percentage, than daily numbers.
  • Be realistic. Set small and slow weight loss goals.  If you lose too much weight or lose it too quickly you will sacrifice your performance. You shouldn’t lose more than 1-2 pounds/week.  You might not lose any weight one week, and that’s okay too-it doesn’t mean you need to lose more the next.
  • Monitor your sports performance as you lose.  You may not need to lose as much as you think to hit those time goals.  You may also need to accept that your body may be built a certain way, and to change that may involve extreme deprivation or excessive exercise.  If you find that you have to cut your intake to the point of starving to drop weight your body is telling you something. Listen to it.
  • Train right.  As I mentioned above, to some extent your body will adapt and change naturally in response to your training. Be patient with this process.  Try to focus more on your training then your weight.
  • Don’t try to lose weight during the middle of your racing season.  Your performance will likely suffer if you do so.  The off season and pre-season are actually the best time to tackle weight loss goals.

Electrolytes and Muscle Cramping

photo(4)

Finishing the Pikes Peak Ascent in 3:51:55 (goal was sub 4 hours)

Oh Pikes Peak, how I miss you already!  I’m feeling a little lost now that my main race of the year is over, but it went well so I’m happy about that.  Time goal met!  And I was able to finish without feeling like absolute garbage, which I was pretty worried about going into the race. My stomach started feeling a little nauseous during the last 2 miles but other than that I felt pretty good, which is not something a lot of runners at the Pikes Peak Ascent can say at the end (or middle) of the race.  One of the many interesting things about the race was how many people I passed who were pulled over to the side of the trail stretching due to muscle cramps.  I’ve been lucky in my training and racing that I’ve never (knock on wood) experienced issues with muscle cramping.  Stomach issues, sure, but no muscle cramps.  Or is it luck? I’m pretty good about taking in adequate amounts of fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates. I even added an electrolyte tab to my Nalgene the day before the race in an attempt to start the race with all my electrolytes topped off, since I’ve recently read about the benefits of this (not to be confused with eating a high sodium diet on a daily basis, which is not good for your health).  Muscle cramps are an interesting, if not painful, subject and researchers are still trying to understand them completely. It’s commonly believed that electrolyte imbalances, namely lack of sodium, potassium, calcium, and/or magnesium, are the cause of muscle cramps, but many scientists now believe that muscle cramping may actually be related to muscle fatigue from overexertion, not electrolyte issues.

The bummer about scientists not knowing what exactly causes muscle cramps is that there is not one perfect solution if you get them, but there are some things you can do.

–          Eat from a wide variety of foods that provide adequate electrolytes on a daily basis.  For potassium: bananas, potatoes, dark leafy greens, beans.  For magnesium: dark leafy greens, seeds, beans, nuts, whole grains.  For calcium: dairy products, dark leafy greens, (noticing a trend here?) sardines, fortified orange juice.  Consume  moderate amounts of sodium (no more than 2300 mg/day).

–          Adequately hydrate before, during , and after your races and training runs.  Determine your personal sweat rate by weighing yourself immediately before and after a 60 minute run (don’t drink water on the run if possible, or if you do factor it into the equation).  For every pound lost, you need to drink 16 oz of water.

–          Replace electrolytes during exercise when appropriate, such as when exercising for extended periods of time (>2 hours) or in the heat.  Aim to consume 110-170 mg Sodium/ 8 oz fluid, 20-50 mg potassium/ 8 oz fluid, as well as small amounts of calcium and magnesium

–          Be properly trained for your event.  Include high intensity workouts that mimic running on tired legs.

–          Warm up and stretch pre race.

–          If you do get  a cramp, stretching and massaging the affected area will usually lessen it.

–          A lot of people swear by pickle juice to cure cramps, possibly due to the sodium content. I’ve never tried it myself but if you can stomach it go for it!

What other “tricks” do you use to manage muscle cramps?

High Altitude Training and Racing

Kim during the final stretch of her record breaking 2012 Pikes Peak Ascent race

I think that the weekend of August 17th just might be the most epic weekend in trail racing in Colorado, if not the country.  Not only is it the weekend of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, but also the Leadville Trail 100 Run.  This summer training for the PPA I’ve learned what these athletes already know: training at altitude is a whole different ball game than training at sea level, or even at a mile high in Denver.

Given this, I thought I might recruit the girl once dubbed “The Queen of Uphill”, my sister and the Pikes Peak Ascent female course record holder Kim Sommer Dobson, for her advice on training and racing at altitude. Here’s what she said:

What’s the secret to running well at high altitude?  Unfortunately, there is no secret or magic supplement.  Running at high altitude is grueling, but just like the old adage “practice makes perfect” suggests, any runner can improve their altitude performance with a little practice.

In the three months prior to when I set the Pikes Peak Ascent course record in 2012, I hiked or ran above 13,000 feet as much as possible.  I knew that I would race my best if I spent as much time as possible above treeline.  That time included tempo runs, intense intervals, long runs, and several hikes.  With each bout at altitude, I could feel myself getting more and more acclimatized.

If you want to perform well at high elevation, you must prioritize training up high.  Here are a few tips for you to think about next time you are running or racing at altitude:

  • Stride:  Focus on taking short, quick steps and using a powerful arm swing.  Think forward momentum!
  • Breathing:  Focus on rapid, deep breathing.  If you are worried that everyone around you can hear how loud and fast you are breathing, then you are breathing correctly.
  • Fueling beforehand:  Running on an empty tank can increase the lightheadedness and nausea often experienced at high altitude.  Make sure you are properly fueled and hydrated before your activity.
  • Fueling during your activity:  Exercising at high altitude suppresses appetite, so plan what and when you should eat prior to your activity.  Make an effort to stick to your plan even if you don’t feel hungry.  Chose foods or gels that require a minimal amount of chewing.
  • Pacing:  Start out slow and gradually increase your effort.  Stay in tune with your heart rate, breathing, and movement.   Focus on being relaxed and efficient as you power your way through the thin air.
  • Practice:  Run, hike, bike, camp, sleep…any activity at altitude will help you acclimatize.  Believe that it will get easier, get creative about fun altitude activities, and enjoy being up high.

It’s race week! Up later this week: nutrition the week before the race

Lactate: Friend or Foe?

Are you confused by lactate? It’s okay if you are.  I sometimes am too.  The problem is that researchers are constantly learning new things about the molecule, and even some of what I learned in my graduate program in exercise science in 2007-09 has already changed a bit.  In reality there is enough info on lactate to write a whole book (or at least a chapter) so this will be a brief lesson in lactate. A “Lactate for Dummies” if you will!

Often you hear people complain a day or two after a hard workout that their legs hurt from lactate build up, but that’s actually not what causes the pain that far post workout.  That would be DOMS- delayed onset muscle soreness, which is caused by tiny micro tears in your muscles from the exercise.  Not to worry though, these micro tears are all a part of the process, because your body will repair the tears and your muscle will actually get stronger! lactate

So now that we’ve got that straight, let’s make this clear: its lactate, not lactic acid!  Although people use the words interchangeably, there is a slight difference; namely a hydrogen atom.  At physiological pH (i.e. inside your body), however, the hydrogen ion is disassociated from the lactic acid molecule, rendering it lactate.  But whatever you call it, the burning in your muscles feels the same right?! Why?  Well, lactate is produced in your body all the time, but production increases during exercise.  Your body is actually able to utilize lactate as fuel, but only at a certain rate.  The more intense your workout becomes the more lactate that is produced, and at a certain point your body can’t keep up utilization and lactate starts accumulating.  This is commonly referred to as lactate threshold.  And here comes the muscle burn!  So when you feel that burn during exercise, it’s lactate to blame…or is it? More recently, scientists have suggested that it’s not lactate that actually causes the muscle burn during intense exercise, but instead hydrogen atom build up as a by-product of ATP utilization for energy.  Researchers have also discovered that lactate can actually help this situation, because it can be formed from pyruvate (a by-product of carbohydrate breakdown for energy) combining with a free floating hydrogen and then used for fuel.  So in reality, lactate is a fuel not a waste product and helpful to sports performance, not detrimental.

So why the confusion about lactate? Probably in part because of the complicated metabolic processes involved.  There is a lot going on in the body during exercise, and the scientists who first discovered lactate didn’t get to see the full picture.  What does all this mean for your sports performance? Well, not a whole lot.  Although you can improve your lactate utilization with endurance training, if you are following some sort of program (including steady state endurance workouts, tempo runs and interval workouts), you are likely already improving your lactate utilization.  So keep it up!

The bottom line is lactate is actually more friend than foe.  So let’s all stop bashing lactate and give it the appreciation it deserves!

 

If you’d like to read more about lactate:

http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/lactate.html