Wrong Assumption: The Truth about Lactate


Lactate is harmful – this is what many athletes still wrongfully believe. However, lactate is a vital fuel and provides energy for muscles and organs.

There are many myths about lactate. It is said to cause muscle acidosis, to be a sign of fatigue and it is used in laboratory diagnostics and field tests to determine performance. Alpecin Cycling wanted to know from professional coach Björn Geesmann of HYCYS (www.hycys.de) which of these statements are true and which aren’t.

The most important facts about lactate

Lactate is always produced. This is because as soon as our muscles process carbohydrates, it is created as a product of glycolysis. Since this glycolysis is always in operation – at different levels – lactate is always produced in the anaerobic metabolism.

Lactate provides energy and is therefore also a fuel. Our organs such as the kidneys or the heart, the largest human muscle, obtain their fuel mainly from lactate, too.

The well-known burn in the muscles is not caused by lactate. Responsible for the pain is an acidosis, which can come along with a higher lactate production or intensive load. The change in the acid-base balance – and the lowering of the pH value in the blood ultimately lead to the burning sensation.

By training in the predominantly aerobic zone – i.e. below the individual anaerobic threshold – the lactate produced can be removed more quickly than at rest. This is because the organism metabolises it with the help of oxygen, which in turn is processed linearly to intensity.

Lactate transport from the muscle into the blood or into other tissues or cells takes place via so-called lactate shuttles and can be trained.

Many parameters are responsible for the level of lactate concentration in the blood. Not only the load, but also, e.g., blood flow or nutritional status can have an influence on it.

The concept of lactate tolerance is a bit contradictory, as lactate is an energy supplier and carrier. The decisive factor is rather how quickly the body can “process” the lactate.

The lactate level measured in the blood is the result of the constant production and removal of lactic acid throughout the body. If a certain intensity is exceeded, the organism can no longer remove or metabolise lactate quickly enough and the lactate concentration increases.

A high lactate accumulation is not the reason for sore muscles. This phenomenon results from smallest injuries in the muscle fibres due to excessive loads. You can read more about sore muscles here.

It is primarily fast-twitch fibres (type II) that are responsible for lactate production. This lactate is then transported into the slow-twitch (type I) muscle fibres and is metabolized there via oxidative metabolism.

Lactate is considered a “pseudo hormone” and is, among other things, co-responsible for the formation of new blood vessels. It does not destroy the mitochondria – small power stations in the musculature – as wrongfully assumed.

Lactate cannot be buffered by certain food supplements. Bicarbonate and beta-alanine, which is converted intramuscularly to carnosine, can in appropriate doses and if tolerated prevent the pH value and as a consequence the performance from dropping.

Expert article about lactate

Those who want to learn more about lactate will find an expert article on the website of renowned training institute HYCYS, formerly STAPS.