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Lactic Acidosis

Ways Acid Might Be Affecting Your Swimming

Did you know that the body needs to maintain a balance of acidity for maximal health? If the body becomes too acidic or too alkaline, it is known as acidosis. Acidosis occurs when your kidneys and lungs can't keep your body's pH in balance.

High levels of acid in the body cause the body to compensate and try to remove the acid. There are two types of acidosis- Respiratory and Metabolic. While there are 4 different types of Metabolic Acidosis, the one we are going to focus on is Lactic Acidosis.

A Term Most Athletes Are Familiar With

Lactic Acidosis or lactic acid is a term most athletes hear repeated often by coaches. It is why we are told to cool down or stretch. But what is it?

Well, Lactic Acid is an organic acid, mainly produced in muscle cells and red blood cells. It forms when the body breaks down carbohydrates to use for energy when oxygen levels are low. Times when your body's oxygen level might drop include:

  • During intense exercise

  • When you have an infection or disease a form of metabolic acidosis that begins when a person overproduces or underutilizes lactic acid, and their body is not able to adjust to these changes. People with lactic acidosis have problems with their liver being able to remove excess acid from their body.

Signs And Symptoms

  • abdominal or stomach discomfort

  • decreased appetite

  • diarrhea

  • fast, shallow breathing

  • a general feeling of discomfort

  • muscle pain or cramping

  • Unusual sleepiness, tiredness, or weakness

New Science Suggests It Might Actually Make You A Better Swimmer

Lactic Acid has been blamed for poor recovery, delayed muscle soreness, and fatigue. Historically were have deemed Lactic Acid as little more than a waste product responsible for affecting swim performance, but science is starting to tell a different story- That it is a supplemental fuel!

The true cause of your poor recovery and fatigue is actually a build-up of hydrogen ions. As your body produces lactate molecules it also produces equal amounts of hydrogen molecules. It is the ions found in hydrogen that are actually lowering the blood pH and making the muscles acidic. This acidity irritates muscle nerve endings and causes that pain, heaviness, and burning mistakenly attributed to Lactate Molecules.

Lactate is the complicated byproduct of your body breaking down glucose for energy to be stored up for energy when oxygen levels are low. During easy training your body reconverts and recycles this lactic acid back into energy and carries away the hydrogen ions with ease, and will continue to do so while the body doesn’t require a huge demand for energy. But that changes, as your speed increases so does your bodies demand for energy. In fact as you continue to push yourself the production of Lactic Acid will overwhelm your bodies ability to convert it back into energy. That is when struggles with recovery begin. The lactate can no longer grab the hydrogen ions. The result is a cellular build-up that leads the muscles to respond with tightness, pain, and heaviness.

What Can Athlete's Do?

Lactate Clearance or the reduction of lactate concentrations during workouts or meets.

The most effective way to reduce athletic induced Lactic Acid accumulation is to start in pre-season and gradually build-up your workouts. Increasing the amount of distance and duration each week so your body builds up a tolerance which will allow your "lactate threshold," to increase.

As research is starting to suggest, the goal of endurance training shouldn’t be to reduce the production of Lactic Acid but to instead better the ability to clear lactate from the blood. Perhaps increasing our tolerance for lactate production will increase how efficiently we utilize lactate as an energy source thus improving performance while, hopefully making lactic acidosis less likely.

Lactate Clearance Workouts

  • Long slow distance training (LSD) has great benefits for lactate clearance. LSD is performed at low intensity and helps to improve the aerobic system. Having a strong aerobic base usually comes with good proportion of type 1 muscle fibers. Recent studies have shown these fibers to be very efficient at consuming lactate as fuel through a shuttle system which transports it from the blood into these muscle cells. LSD training in conjunction with Lactate producing activity can teach the body to consume lactate in this way, helping to prevent accumulation during higher intensity competition. *Something to remember, LSD training is designed to teach your body how to become efficient at processing lactate. Swimming faster just because you can reduces the effectiveness. TRAINING FASTER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER.*

  • Threshold training- Training at and around the tipping point when your body produces more lactate than it can use and accumulation of hydrogen ions that can't be cleared. Arguably the most effective zone to train at as it is the “Threshold” at which the body can balance accumulation with clearance. Training at this zone will result in effective lactate management.

  • Tempo runs- A combination of the previous methods. During a longer session an athlete will perform a series of high paced intervals spread throughout a longer interval held at a lower, sustainable pace. This allows blood lactate concentrations to increase, then when the intensity drops, the body will be able to clear lactate at manageable levels. This trains athletes to recover from lactate accumulation while swimming.

  • Sprint intervals- Cultivate rapid production of lactate as large type 2 fibers increase activity. This forces the body, which does not have time to properly respond to rapidly stockpile molecules. Short rest periods will give the body a small window to re-establish self-regulation and so force hydrogen ions clearance.

Other things You Can Do

  • Vitamin B Supplement- Thiamine deficiency has been shown to trigger acute Lactate Acidosis.

  • Make sure you drink lots of water- it helps get rid of any excess Lactate concentrations.

  • Eat a balanced diet which includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.

  • Get plenty of sleep at night and give yourself time to recover between bouts of exercise.

Further Reading


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