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Past the Lactic Threshold

When exercise is too intense, you may suffer lactic acidosis. Here’s what it is and how you can avoid it.

Maybe you’re new to exercise and jump in way too fast. Or maybe you’re feeling extra motivated and push yourself harder than normal. As you exercise, your muscles begin to burn, it’s hard to catch your breath, and you feel nauseated. Chances are you’re experiencing lactic acidosis. Thankfully it doesn’t last long, but you won’t ever forget it. This unpleasant condition can occur for various reasons, but the most common is intense exercise.

What is lactic acidosis, what causes it, and how is it treated? Keep reading to find out.

Lactic Acid Buildup

As you huff and puff during exercise, your body uses the oxygen you breathe to convert glucose into energy. During especially intense exercise you may need more energy than you have oxygen. When this happens, your body produces lactic acid, which can turn into energy without the use of oxygen. Sometimes the lactic acid begins to build up in your bloodstream at a faster rate than you’re using it for energy. When this happens, you’ve hit the “lactate threshold.”

This threshold is considered the limit of your fitness ability. The better shape you are in, the higher your exercise threshold. Once you exercise past the threshold, your muscles are unable to efficiently process glucose and lactic acid quickly builds up in the muscles and blood.

Time to Stop

Some degree of lactic acid buildup is normal during intense exercise. That said, overdoing it during a workout can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This type of muscle soreness subsides in a few hours after the lactic acid leaves the muscles. An adequate cool-down after your workout can help remove lactic acid buildup and prevent the soreness it can cause. Soreness that lasts longer than a few hours isn’t caused by lactic acid.

Lactic acidosis, however, is different than DOMS. Occurring in the moment of exercise, lactic acidosis causes muscle burning, aching, and pain. You may experience cramps, nausea, weakness, and utter exhaustion as you continue to push your body. Your heart pounds and you can’t seem to catch your breath. Your body is telling you it’s time to stop exercising.

What to Do About It

What should you do if the telltale signs of lactic acidosis hit you? Listen to your body. As soon as you start to feel symptoms, it’s time to start cooling down. Reduce your pace and gradually stop exercising. Drink plenty of water and get some rest. In most cases, treatment isn’t necessary and symptoms go away on their own. When caused by intense exercise, lactic acidosis poses no lasting harm to your body.

How to Prevent It

While lactic acidosis from exercise isn’t dangerous, it is something you want to avoid. Because your lactate threshold changes depending on how fit you are, it’s best to gradually increase the intensity of your exercise over time. In other words, don’t expect to run a marathon a month after starting to run. As you work out, listen to your body. Slow down or take a break when you start to feel pain or fatigue. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water to flush extra lactic acid out of your blood. And take a day off of exercise between strenuous workouts to help your muscles recover.

Other Causes

While lactic acidosis is normally harmless, it can be caused by certain medical conditions including carbon monoxide poisoning, liver failure, severe blood loss, sepsis, cancer, seizures, vitamin B deficiency, or disorders of the mitochondria. Drugs used to treat diabetes or HIV/AIDS can also lead to lactic acidosis.

So if you suffer from lactic acidosis without an exercise-induced cause, seek medical attention as soon as possible.