Leave Lactic Acid Alone!
It is commonly believed that the soreness felt in the days following a tough workout is the result of “lactic acid” build-up in one’s muscles. Intuitively it’s a good enough guess. Most people are aware that lactic acid is produced during exercise and since it’s an “acid” it should burn, right?
Well, not quite. Lactic acid, or lactate as it is properly referred to, is produced during exercise but its existence is short-lived and it serves to fuel muscle tissue, not disintegrate it. The production of lactate is one means by which ATP can be synthesized. No idea what ATP is?
So now that we know that post-exercise soreness is not the result of your body internally secreting a highly corrosive substance, what does account for the aching sensation?
The lasting soreness you might experience after a workout is called DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. While there are a number of possible contributing factors that are not yet totally understood, the main culprit is physical damage to muscle tissue and the resulting inflammation.
Experiencing DOMS is perfectly normal and not typically something to worry about. The degree to which one will experience DOMS is most closely associated with the unfamiliarity or unpreparedness one has in relation to a particular exercise or set of exercises. More simply put: if you are not used to doing a certain thing, and then you do that thing, you’re probably gonna be sore afterward.
As with many things in the world of fitness, specificity is a necessary factor to account for. For example: those who run long distances frequently and have been doing so for some time are unlikely to experience much in the way of DOMS after completing one such run. By contrast, if this same individual were to to perform a particular exercise that they were not well conditioned for, such as something much shorter in duration but much higher in intensity (think: heavy squats), it would be reasonable for them to expect some soreness the following day. The same would be true in the reverse situation (a frequent squatter trying their hand at distance running).
DOMS typically only lasts for a day or two. In the event that you experience particularly intense or long-lasting soreness, there are a couple things that can be done to partially alleviate your suffering.
Massage or foam rolling can provide some immediate relief provided you have access to a masseuse or a foam roller. The compressive force applied to overworked muscles can help relieve tension and improve blood flow to the area.
Other things that will stimulate increased blood flow can also be helpful such as a hot bath or, counterintuitively, additional exercise. Overdoing the exercise will, of course, cause increased muscular damage and additional soreness so keep the exercise light. As a very general rule of thumb, take whatever you did to make yourself sore and try doing a quarter of that a day or two later to make yourself less sore.
In addition to increasing blood flow and stretching out otherwise tensed and shortened muscles, this practice will more rapidly train your body to become accustomed to whatever type of workout you’re doing. Following a practice like this will not only alleviate the soreness you’re dealing with in the short term but also help to soreness-proof you for future workouts. Pre-emptive soreness prevention, what could be better.
So, in conclusion, stop blaming lactic acid for all your woes. You made your damaged-muscle-tissue-bed, now lie in it. Actually, don’t just lie in it, do some foam rolling, get a massage, and then get back in the gym.