Leg day? Yeah, you’re going to feel it but not for the reason you might think. It’s an old misconception that lactic acid buildup is the cause of post-exercise muscle soreness. It’s not. But it is the reason you feel a burning sensation during your workout, or why you’re short of breath and probably why you can’t squeeze out one more rep to save your life.
Actually, lactic acid is a key ingredient in the body’s ability to perform strenuous activities. When oxygen levels are low (during anaerobic activity like leg day), carbohydrates break down to energize the body with lactic acid. This occurs because our bodies require more energy than they can produce. As lactic acid builds up, you may experience shortness of breath, muscle exhaustion or that lovely burning sensation felt just before your muscles hit a wall.
Because we all want to be able to perform better and more aerobically efficient, we have to find ways to improve lactic acid usage. Here’s what you can do before, during and after your workout to help prevent — or delay — lactic acid accumulation:
Warm up until you’re warm — This is key. Whether it’s a cardio session or strength training day, perform a quick 15-minute warm-up so you actually break a sweat. For those more advanced fitness fanatics, you should build up to about 60% VO2 max. A good warm-up will awaken the muscles and get adrenaline flowing to prepare you for the much harder workout to come.
Drink on cue — Drink about 16 – 32 ounces of water or an electrolyte-infused beverage no more than two hours prior to working out. By the time you notice you need water during your routine, you may already be dehydrated. Keep drinking water every 20 minutes throughout your workout to help keep lactic acid at bay.
Breathe better — The burning in your muscles is partly due to lactic acid and partly due to lack of oxygen, especially during anaerobic activity. Breathe deeply and slowly, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Do not take shallow breaths from your chest. Instead, utilize your abdominal muscles to make sure you’re breathing from your diaphragm. If you’re congested, a nasal strip across your nose can open up the airways to help get in more oxygen.
Hold that stretch — Save time toward the end of your routine to stretch and let your muscles relax. Stretching reduces the burning sensation in your muscles and any possible cramping. Be sure to stretch softly; no bouncing. Hold the stretch for as long as needed until you can feel the muscles relax or the burning sensation ease up. The best type of aide for stretching is a foam roller. Vitacost.com offers a few different versions, including Valeo’s basic, 18-inch flat roller and Trigger Point Therapy’s denser, grid-constructed design. Stretching with a foam roller is also beneficial in preventing muscle separation, which could lead to permanent muscle damage.
Muscles need consistent activity and proper hydration in order to function at their best. So keep some water with you at all times. Most of all, make sure you’re having fun and focusing on your goals!
Amy Wilson is the @fittrainermama on Twitter who loves motivating and inspiring others to become the best they can be. She became an ACE CPT to teach others that fitness gives more than physical strength; it gives mental strength, too.