Feel the Burn

burning runner

No I’m not promoting Burnie Sanders for president, but I do have to admit I like his ideas. Anyway, that’s about as political as this blog should ever get!

You know the burning in your legs when you run, especially, when you do speed work or hill/mountain climbs? Yeah, it’s a good feeling. It reminds you, that you are working hard and working on getting stronger.

The burn is caused by lactic acid buildup in your muscles. More accurately it’s the breakdown process that causes the burn. Your fast twitch muscles become more engaged when you run harder or your workout is more strenuous (hills or mountains). These muscles break down things into fuel more slowly because they don’t have enough mitochondria to do it at the same rate as you produce it. Read on to find out how to improve the breakdown.

What is lactic acid? It is a byproduct created when we burn glycogen (sugar) without oxygen as we run. The harder you run the more your body produces. The more you push past your limits the more your body produces. Your body breaks the lactic acid down into lactate and hydrogen. Then, your body uses the lactate as fuel. So, the culprit is the hydrogen ions. The hydrogen makes it hard for your muscles to contract, which causes the muscles to burn and running to feel more difficult.

Lactic acid does not cause soreness in your muscles the day following a work out. It is absorbed by your body fairly quickly. The soreness is the result of microtrauma caused to your muscles when you push them hard (this is not a bad thing because they heal stronger).

You can teach your body to process the hydrogen more quickly and delay the onset of the burn. This is done by training beyond your lactate threshold. The lactate threshold is the point where your body has accumulated more hydrogen than it can process. The more frequently you push past your lactic threshold, the more you can delay that burn. You need to train at 120-140 percent of your lactic threshold (80-90% of max heart rate) three days a week for five weeks to increase your tolerance by 25%.

There are physiological and psychological benefits of increase your lactic acid tolerance. The physiological benefits include strengthening connective tissue, improving recovery times, reduced injury, raise the rate of protein synthesis due to increased muscle and blood oxygen levels, reduced muscle and nerve damage due to faster removal and recycling of the hydrogen ions.

The psychological benefit is mental toughness and confidence. The more you are able to push against the burn the more confident you will become at your ability to push back. This confidence increases your mental toughness or fortitude, which allows you to continue to push against the threshold.

The take away: the burn is good. Learn to love it.

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