Cramps and burning muscle after exercise aren’t always simply a sign that you got a good workout in. They might be caused by a sneaky little process that occurs in your body that leads to a buildup of a certain acid - lactic acid. Here’s how it can affect your body:
1. What is lactic acid?
Lactic acid is naturally produced by the body. Under normal circumstances, your body generates energy for a workout using oxygen. When you’re exercising strenuously, you’ll likely start breathing harder, indicating your body needs more oxygen to continue converting energy. However, when you can’t get enough oxygen quickly enough, your body turns to its backup, glucose. Glucose is turned into pyruvate, and pyruvate is converted into lactate. This rapid chain of conversion gives your body bursts of energy for up to about three minutes.
2. What it does to your body.
Lactate buildup makes your muscle cells more acidic, which is not an environment they like. This causes them to slow down and work less efficiently, which might sound counterproductive but in fact it’s your body’s defense mechanism to ensure you don’t push too hard and damage your muscles. You feel the acidic buildup as a burning sensation which encourages you to stop.
3. Is lactic acid always a bad thing?
Most of the information you’ll find on lactic acid tells you how to prevent or get rid of it. This gives you the impression that lactic acid is harmful, when in fact it doesn’t do anything to hurt your body. It can actually help you avoid injury by telling you when you’re pushing too hard and forcing you to end your workout. Your body knows how to break down the excess lactate and will do so shortly after the period of buildup. If you find the sensations caused by lactic acid uncomfortable, try not to push yourself beyond your limits when you exercise.