Traditionally, a huge focus has been placed on gauging the quality of your workouts -regardless of your training objectives or goals - by the feeling of the "burn” in your muscles.
- Want to grow muscle? Better get your pump and feel the burn.
- Want to get stronger? Burn it baby.
- Want to shed fat? Then you better feel the burn!
But does the feeling in your muscles as you exercise actually improve your ability to accelerate and move faster as an athlete? The overall answer is no.
Before I continue, I’m going to provide you with a list of pros and cons for why you want to rely on this energy source…
Pros of Lactic Acid Training
- Serves a constant role in energy metabolism
- Lactic Tolerance Training (LTT) prevents performance downfalls
- Growth Hormone Release
- Second Wind Theory
Cons of Lactic Acid Training
- Research say it makes you slower
- Negative physical effects
- Conditioning effects occur very fast
- Moderate effort speed isn’t real speed
Why It Works
Let's first look at and disucss the pros of lactic acid training. Regardless of what level of intensity you are training at, there will always be energy production from the lactic acid pathway at various tissues of the human body. It’s quick, easy, and very convenient for working cells.
Secondly, since the system is always working from one degree to another, being able to “buffer” and reduce the negative effects lactic acid may create is a must if you are an athlete. Research in this area seems to be controversial based on what I have read, but the theory is very logical. As you will see later on, lactic acid has the capacity to shut down working muscles, or lower the productivity to contract forcefully.
So it may help to train specifically for lactic buildup. This way the body can learn how to adapt and keep levels at bay.
Growth hormone can help build tissues, and it has a secondary role in lipolysis (fat oxidation or burning). If your goal is to primarily burn fat and calories quickly, then training in the lactic acid zone is essential for optimal success. Read more about this HERE and HERE.
Last but not least, when athletes feel their second wind in competition, increased systemic lactate levels occur to readily help fatigued muscles acquire the necessary amounts of fuel to be able to overcome exhaustion.
I know many have witnessed and experienced this conditioning effect before. Since lactic acid is produced quickly, it would make sense. Creatine’s pathways are faster, but recovery periods are longer and the availability of creatine after initial bouts of maximal effort may be compromised quite heavily. So the body has to seek out option b and maintain performance to some extent.
But What About Blazing Speed?
Now lets find out why lactic acid isn’t what you want when the primary goal is to “get faster.”
Conditioning has to take somewhat of a backseat if you want to get faster, as gene expression for speed will be shifted downward reducing speed gains. Research and real word evidence supports it.
- For instance, in a study from 2011 by Majumdar, any predominant activation of the lactic acid system in a sprint would decrease speed.
- Another study in 2012 from Wilson identified that there existed “interference effects” of development between conditioning and power, strength, and hypertrophy.
Along these same lines, prominent research and training expert Dr. Brad Schoenfeld has shared some work which showed the same effects between strength and conditioning gene expression. Of course, there is some overlap between the two, and you can actually improve each via the other. But there is definitely a point where too much of one will hurt the other, as is the case with too much muscle burn and lactic acid development when the primary goal is to become as fast as possible.
So why does this happen exactly?
Well, when there is too much intracellular acidity, the enzymes responsible for energy transfer are inhibited and muscle contractions suffer. Just put 50-75% of your 1rm in a given exercise on the bar and rep out till you feel a burn... and you will automatically notice you are weaker and your muscle contractions have weakened.
So obviously if you are trying to run faster, this is the last thing you would want to create with your movements. (And it’s actually the Hydrogen Ion, a by-product of lactace formation, that causes the burn rather than the lactate itself - in case you were interested.) Coordination levels and fatigue also occur, which can really hamper speed output and more.
And the final reason why too much conditioning and lactic acid training is counterproductive is this: it’s not energy system specific and cardiovascular and metabolic adaptations or changes in the body happen the fastest! Mike Boyle said in one of his books that it can take months and even years to make an athlete faster and more explosive, and only weeks to improve their fitness or conditioning.
Outside of initial acute speed gains that occur with most athletes, progress tends to be very incremental over training weeks, so why in the hell implement training methods that can potentially be a detriment to your training goals?
Also, speed work is “alactic” - where energy is supplied for 5-30 seconds at very rapid rates in high volumes before we switch over to lactate production. The body has to learn to increase its ability to operate metabolically with this type of energy system and adjust specific enzyme levels to meet the training demand. Pretty simple.
And on a final note, you still have to consider “The Speed Governor Theory” - what I like to call the “Francis Rule.”
World class track and field coach Charlie Francis stated in at least one of his books that any work below 95% effort was pretty much useless. He hated the classic lactic acid zones and knew it wasn’t necessary to maximize his athletes' speed.
I have witnessed the same in all of the athletes we have made faster over the years. Even those that rely on the lactic acid system (400m, 800m, mma fighters, etc.) still need create a higher speed reserve they can call upon in training and competition.
The only way to do that is to follow everything I discussed above and then integrate more specificity when the time comes.