Accumulating lactic acid in your muscles makes you a better athlete, helps to prevent diseases and may even prolong your life.
Athletes use a form of interval training to make themselves faster and stronger, and everyone with a healthy heart can benefit from this technique. Interval training means to exercise so vigorously that you get short of breath, slow down and when you recover your breath, you exercise intensely enough to become short of breath again. Then you alternate intense intervals and recovery until your legs start to feel heavy or hurt, and then stop the workout for the day.
Intervals to Make You a Better Athlete
You cannot enlarge a muscle and make it stronger unless you damage it with vigorous exercise. When it heals, it is larger and stronger. You cannot improve your ability to take in and use oxygen unless you exercise vigorously enough to become short of breath. Interval training allows you to exercise more intensely than continuous training and therefore provides you a stronger training effect by causing more muscle fiber damage and greater oxygen debts.
Intervals to Prevent Disease and Prolong Your Life
A regular exercise program helps to prevent diabetes, heart attacks, and cancers. Interval training may be even more effective in preventing heart attacks and cancers because it helps to lower high blood sugar more effectively than continuous training by making cells far more sensitive to insulin (Int J Sports Med, published online November 6, 2014).
Vigorous exercise increases the number, size and efficiency of mitochondria in your muscle cells. All of the cells in your body (except mature red blood cells) have anywhere from a few to thousands of organelles, called mitochondria, that turn the food that you eat into energy. Muscle cells need a lot of energy, so they have lots of mitochondria. Nerves don’t need a lot of energy to transmit messages so they need only a few mitochondria.
When you exercise so intensely that you can’t get all the oxygen you need and you become short of breath, you increase the number, size and efficiency of mitochondria in cells everywhere in your body. Accumulating evidence shows that this helps to prevent being overweight, helps prevent diabetes, heart attacks and certain cancers. It helps to explain why exercise increases memory and nerve function. Exercise also helps to reduce the loss of mitochondria in cells that occurs naturally with aging (Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, April, 2007). See More Mitochondria for Better Athletes.
Lactic Acid Helps to Prevent Disease and Prolong Life
Interval training has been used in all endurance sports since the 1920s. George Brooks of the University of California at Berkeley has shown why interval training makes you a better athlete (American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, June 2006). A major fuel for your muscles during exercise is the sugar, glucose. In a series of chemical reactions, glucose is broken down step by step, with each step releasing energy.
When enough oxygen is available, the glucose releases all of its energy until only carbon dioxide and water remain; these are blown off through your lungs. However, if you exercise so intensely that you can’t get all the oxygen you need, the chemical reactions stop at lactic acid, which accumulates in the muscles and spills over into the bloodstream. Lactic acid makes muscles acidic and causes a burning feeling that forces you to slow down. Thus lactic acid helps to prevent severe muscle damage by slowing you down when you run low on oxygen.
When you slow down after each intense interval, you catch up on your oxygen debt, and your body uses lactic acid as its most efficient source of energy for muscles. Muscles require less oxygen to turn lactic acid into energy. So when your muscles produce lots of lactic acid, they can use this chemical for energy. This allows you to move faster and stronger for longer periods of time (Sports Medicine, Volume 36, 2006).
Anything that helps muscles to break down lactic acid faster will make you a better athlete because it will increase your endurance and allow you to move faster when you are tired (Fed. Proc, 45: 2924-2929, 1986). Lactic acid can also be used by your liver to make even more sugar to feed your muscles during exercise.
Caution: People with blocked arteries leading to the heart can get a heart attack from intense exercise. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program or making a sudden change in the intensity of your program.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.