Lactic Acid: What Is It & Why It's Important

Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
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You know that burning sensation you get when you’re having a good workout? That's all down to a little something called lactic acid. For a long time, people believed lactic acid was responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness aka DOMS, but now it's emerged that it's not actually the culprit. Tiny micro-tears in muscles are responsible for muscle soreness after exercise, not lactic acid. Now that we have that cleared up let’s dig into what lactic acid is, what to do when you have too much of it, and how to prevent it from becoming a problem.

What is lactic acid?   

Lactic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that can be produced both chemically or naturally during fermentation. And what are alpha hydroxy acids, you ask? Some of them include:  

  • Citric acid in citrus fruits

  • Glycolic acid in sugar cane

  • Malic acid in apples

  • Tartaric acid in grapes     

  • Lactic acid in sour milk and tomato juice

During the fermentation process, lactic acid is produced -- you'll find it in foods like yogurt, kefir, and koumiss. There are even some beers that contain lactic acid, added during the brewing process. Lactic acid also finds its way into some a variety of wines, introduced to subdue any unsavory or sharp flavors.

Lactic acid in muscles

Lactic acid is not only found in certain foods but is also present in our muscles. Usually, during physical activity, our bodies circulate energy (glucose) aerobically aka oxygen, hence why we breathe faster when working out. The vehicle that delivers the energy around the body is a substance called pyruvate, which is a product of the breakdown of glucose.

However, when performing high-intensity exercises, our body requires energy more quickly than the oxygen can be circulated -- prompting anaerobic energy generation. What does this have to do with lactic acid? Well, when oxygen is limited, the body converts pyruvate into lactate, which enables faster glucose breakdown and energy production. The drawback is that this process can only be sustained for three minutes tops if strenuous activity extends past this period lactic acid in the muscles can accumulate increasing the acidity of the muscular environment, which in turn results in weakness, cramps or soreness until pyruvate is once again oxidated.

Side effects of lactic acid buildup

Lactic acid in the muscles is completely normal and usually nothing to worry about. However, in some cases, it can cause unpleasant side effects. The following symptoms are associated with too much lactic acid in the body:

  • Feelings of extreme fatigue and weakness during exercise

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Muscle cramps

  • Shortness of breath

  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin

If you have any of the above symptoms that continue to persist longer after you've finished exercising, be sure to go to your doctor to rule out lactic acidosis, a condition that occurs when the body can’t cope with the amount of lactic acid in the body.  

What to do to avoid lactic acid buildup

The good news is these symptoms are mostly preventable! As long as you exercise and train mindfully, you should be fine. Below, we list some of the best ways you can prevent lactic acid build up in your body.

Take it slow

Whether you’re weightlifting, doing HIIT workout or training for a marathon, it’s a good idea, despite being super motivated, not to overtrain. It’s always a good idea to begin with a couple of workouts a week, and gradually build it up to a daily training routine.

Watch what you eat

As with so many aspects of health, balanced nutrition can make a world of difference when it comes to preventing lactic acid buildup. Complex carbs like beans, vegetables (especially when eaten a few hours before exercising) can boost your body’s energy levels improving the quality of your workout. Foods high in potassium can also prevent muscle soreness, so grab that trusty banana an hour or so ahead of time.  

Try to vary your workouts

Instead of only doing cardio or only doing strength training, mix things up and keep your body on its toes. For example, if you always do intense workouts, why not give a slower paced yoga session a try? Or, if you’re a runner who only likes to run, try adding strength training to your routine. Better yet, use your 8fit Pro app so that you can mix things up by switching from yoga to HIIT to surf-style training with ease.


Drinking plenty of water will help flush out lactic acid buildup and also help lessen any burn you feel during exercise. Plus, drinking water is one of the best things you can do for your body! You’ll get the most out of your workout keeping you energized, your muscles firing on all cylinders, and your metabolism revved.

Not only does breathing help increase your lung capacity, but it may even slow down the production of lactic acid. In a 1994 study, athletes who used breathing techniques -- specifically pranayama, a technique used in yoga -- during exercise were able to improve their athletic performance without increasing lactic acid levels.

To worry or not to worry?

In most cases, a buildup of lactic acid is not a big deal, and most of the time it leaves the system within an hour or so of doing exercise. If anything, try to see it as your body's way of having you check in with yourself to ensure you're not overdoing it.

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