Lactic Acid and its Role in Combat Sports

By: Joe Mullings

We’ve have all seen it. We’ve all heard it. We’ve all felt it. It makes our biceps burn during an intense set of curls. It causes the excruciating pain in our quads during a set of leg presses to failure and, supposedly, lactic acid is what makes a fighter “gas out” in a match. Lactic acid sounds like something bad. Well, it is…and it isn’t. Too much of lactic acid is bad for you….but just the right balance is actually beneficial. A similar argument can be made about red wine – a glass can be good for you, a whole bottle in a night…not so much.

Jiu Jitsu or MMA requires huge slugs of energy, most of which must be produced in an anaerobic (oxygen deprived) state. Our muscles use fats, proteins and carbohydrates for energy. Depending what type of exercise, its intensity and how long you are into the activity, all affect the load on your energy systems. One of the byproducts of intense exercise in an oxygen deprived state is lactic acid. That lactic acid will accumulate in the muscles and eventually get dumped into your bloodstream. The lactic acid that is in your muscles may get re-directed and then converted to energy, beginning a cycle that actually feeds your muscles more energy and allowing them to work a bit longer, even without sufficient oxygen supplies. Lactic acid is bad per se, but rather the delicate balance controlling lactic acid build-up while you’re on the mat is what is really important.

During the fight, it is critical that you meter our moments of high intensity with times of “coasting” where you will need to slow down and allow your body to make up for that oxygen deficit. This is that time during the fight that you are sucking air in hard and your heart is pounding. This is the body catching up in order to feed the muscles the required oxygen so they don’t overload, become too acidic and seize up on you.

Enzymes require oxygen to turn food into energy. When you exercise so hard that you can’t get all the oxygen you need to break down sugar (glucose) in the cell for energy, lactic acid accumulates in muscles and spills over into the bloodstream. This makes muscles acidic (at a cellular level) and it is this acidity that makes muscles burn and function less efficiently. The good news is that muscles require very little oxygen to re-direct and turn lactic acid into energy. So when your muscles produce lots of lactic acid, the enzyme systems used to process this lactic acid become more active and efficient over time (months of training) so that during times of “coasting” during a fight you can catch up and “repay” your oxygen debt and recover more efficiently. So a balanced “dose’ of lactic acid is good for you and can condition your body to exercise longer with less available oxygen.

Here is the rub though. Even though the lactate we produce is released into the bloodstream and through a series of “Cycles” in your body is used to produce blood glucose and glycogen – both of which can be used as energy sources. An over production of lactic acid will create an acidic environment in the muscles which inhibits the contractile elements of the cell and the nervous system from functioning optimally and eventually will lead to muscle failure. This can also lead to feeling nauseous and dizzy. Remember that feeling at anytime in your training? Sure you do.

Think of managing your lactic acid levels in your body as “surfing the lactic acid wave”. Managing your lactic acid as an energy resource requires being able to slow down the system in order for the oxygen debt to be re-paid, re-balancing to functional levels and avoiding an energy crash.

There are a few components that can improve your management of your lactic acid capacity and threshold and therefore improve fight endurance.

  • Increase your aerobic capacity. By introducing loner cyclical training (runs, biking, rowing, etc) you increase your aerobic capacity by forming smaller blood vessels which in turn improve your oxygen transport to your muscles. Greater aerobic capacity allows for more oxygen which can delay the overload of lactic acid in the system – and repay the oxygen debt at a faster rate.
  • Increase Your Lactic Acid Threshold. Training at 85 to 90% of your Maximum Hear Rate (MHR) for 20 to 25 minutes at least 2 times per week will increase your tolerance of lactic acid. This should start about 8 weeks out from your competition. The idea is to overload your system and train your body to deal with the acidic environment that will occur due to lactic acid over load.
  • Supplement Your Diet. There are also dietary, nutritional and supplement activities that you can introduce to effect your enzymes in the body to oxidize pyruvate, increase mitochondria and improve the muscles heart and other tissues that extract lactate from the blood. We will touch more on these areas in future articles.

In a follow up article we will get into more specifics on how to manage those energy systems which means “surfing your lactic acid wave”. We will also explain as to how there is a huge difference in managing the energy systems in a BJJ / Grappling match versus an MMA fight. The training for those types of competitions and managing the strategies are therefore vastly different.


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