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Breaking Down the Role of Lactate in Post-Exercise Soreness

When you start to feel the strain from the sets and repetitions during exercise, you start to breathe faster. This happens because the body is trying to bring more oxygen to the muscles and because the body prefers to use aerobic or oxygen-fueled methods of generating energy. In some situations, though—like when you lift weights—you need to produce energy faster than the body can deliver oxygen. 

In cases like these, the muscles use anaerobic processes to generate energy. This process is called glycolysis, which breaks down or metabolizes glucose into a substance called pyruvate. This substance leads to the production of another substance called lactate or lactic acid, which people say is the cause of muscle tightness and pain after exercise. Here are things to know about anaerobic processes and their effects.

How Does Glycolysis Occur?

If the body has plenty of oxygen, it shuttles pyruvate to an aerobic pathway to break it down further to produce energy. When the body does not have enough oxygen, it converts the pyruvate into lactate, facilitating glucose breakdown for energy production. The process that converts pyruvate into lactate and breaks glucose down is called anaerobic production.

Muscle cells can sustain anaerobic energy production for one to three minutes, providing the body with enough strength for intense activities like lifting weights. The side effect of high lactate levels is it produces an increase in the muscle cells’ acidity. It also causes disruptions of other metabolites. These same pathways allow the breakdown of glucose to energy despite the acidic environment.

It seems counterproductive for muscles to produce a substance that slows down their capacity for work. However, anaerobic energy production is a natural defense mechanism. It prevents permanent damage to the body during extreme exertion and slows down the systems the body needs to maintain contraction. After the body slows down, lactate reverts to pyruvate and allows aerobic metabolism and recovery from the exertion.

Does Lactic Acid Buildup Cause Muscle Tightness?

Lactate or lactic acid buildup is not responsible for muscle soreness. Instead, it is the production of lactate and metabolites during exertion that results in the burning sensation in muscles. Many people take this painful sensation as a sign that they are overworking their bodies and should stop to rest.

Researchers examining lactate levels after exercise have found little correlation with the body’s level of muscle soreness post-exercise. What the body usually experiences is DOMS or delayed-onset muscle soreness. This condition usually reaches a peak of 24 to 72 hours after the exercise event. DOMS can cause loss of strength, limited range of motion, and muscle tenderness. Though the exact cause of DOMS is still unknown, research points to muscle cell damage and the release of metabolites into tissue surrounding muscle cells.

When you lengthen your muscle against a load—when you flex your arms to catch a three-hundred-pound weight, for example—you are creating eccentric muscle contractions. In this type of contraction, the muscle is actively attempting to shorten its length but failing. Eccentric contractions result in more muscle cell damage than what you see in typical concentric contractions. Downhill running and other exercises with plenty of eccentric contractions result in the worst DOMS even without noticeable burning sensations.

How Can You Alleviate Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness?

DOMS is so common that many exercise physiologists are searching for ways to prevent and treat this condition. Currently, there are no conclusive recommendations, but anti-inflammatory drugs appear to reduce the soreness. However, they might slow the muscle’s ability to repair the damage, negatively impacting muscle function in the weeks after the strenuous event. Using a muscle massager can also help since it helps release toxins and lactic acid from the muscles and reduces the risk of muscle soreness from prolonged exertion.


Lactic acid gets a bad rap and receives the brunt of the blame for delayed-onset muscle soreness. However, as we’ve explored in this article, it takes more than lactate to cause DOMS, and physiologists are continually researching ways to prevent or treat this condition. Exploring how you can alleviate this soreness is worth it, especially if you lead an active lifestyle.

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