What foods help reduce lactic acid before and after a workout?

INDIA - FEBRUARY 28: Red chillies, turmeric and ginger root on sale at Khari Baoli spice and dried foods market, Old Delhi, India (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
INDIA - FEBRUARY 28: Red chillies, turmeric and ginger root on sale at Khari Baoli spice and dried foods market, Old Delhi, India (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images) /

When you exercise with high intensity or for extended periods, your muscles produce lactic acid. This build-up can lead to a burning sensation deep in the muscle and decreased exercise performance. Your body clears lactic acid over time, but there are specific foods you can incorporate into your diet to speed up this process. Here’s how to get rid of lactic acid fast:

Foods That May Decrease the Buildup of Lactic Acid

The perception of lactic acid has evolved in the fitness and medical community. Once deemed merely a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism and a culprit for muscle soreness, it’s now understood to play integral roles in energy production, muscle function and exercise adaptation.

1. Complex Carbohydrates

Before hitting the gym, fuel up on complex carbohydrates like whole grains, oatmeal and brown rice. These carbs break down slowly in your body, giving you a steady supply of energy during your workout. This consistent energy flow helps you avoid premature muscle fatigue and the overproduction of lactic acid.

2. Fruits High in Potassium

You need potassium — a critical mineral — to help balance your body’s electrolytes. Load up on bananas, oranges and sweet potatoes. By doing so, you aid muscle contraction and relaxation and ensure their proper function during exercise. This minimizes lactic acid production and keeps you hydrated throughout your workout.

3. Healthy Fats Fatty Fish and Nuts

Indulge in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. These fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Consuming them can reduce muscle soreness and promote efficient muscle function, potentially decreasing lactic acid build-up.

Include almonds, walnuts and other nuts in your diet, too. They’re a protein source containing magnesium and antioxidants that aid muscle recovery and decrease inflammation.

4. Antioxidant-Rich Foods

You can prevent muscle cramps and fatigue by eating magnesium-rich foods like spinach, chard and kale. Magnesium is essential for energy production and helps regulate the transport of calcium and potassium ions, crucial for muscle function.

Opt for vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, lemons and berries. They help speed up your recovery by combatting oxidative stress and inflammation from intense workouts.

5. Ginger, Turmeric and Black Pepper

Integrate these spices into your meals. They’re known for their potent anti-inflammatory properties that reduce muscle soreness and aid in a quicker recovery. Curcumin, found in turmeric, helps in minimizing exercise-induced muscle damage. Black pepper potentiates the antioxidative properties of curcumin, making it more bioavailable.

6. Water and Vitamins

When engaging in strenuous physical activities, remember to stay hydrated. Drinking enough water ensures your metabolic processes run smoothly and aids your kidneys in flushing out excess lactic acid more effectively.

A balanced diet typically provides all the vitamins and minerals you need, but if you follow any elimination or calorie-restricted diet, consider taking supplements for energy and muscle recovery.

Post-Workout Lactic Acid: Foods To Avoid

While lactic acid isn’t necessarily harmful and is a natural byproduct of anaerobic energy production during exercise, you may want to minimize its effects or reduce muscle soreness. Here are some foods and substances you might consider avoiding to help alleviate post-exercise lactic acid buildup:

  • High Lactic Acid-Producing Foods: These include foods that are high in refined sugars, as well as processed and fried foods. Reducing the consumption of these items may aid recovery.
  • Dairy Products: Some believe dairy products can increase mucus production and exacerbate muscle soreness, although scientific evidence is limited. If you suspect that dairy affects your post-exercise discomfort, consider reducing your dairy intake or avoiding it altogether.
  • Alcohol and Sodium: Alcohol and excessive salt intake can dehydrate the body, potentially worsening muscle soreness and recovery. It’s a good idea to avoid alcohol and salty food or consume it in moderation after intense exercise.
  • Caffeine: While caffeine can have performance-enhancing effects before exercise, it can also increase heart rate and blood pressure, which might intensify post-exercise muscle soreness for some individuals. Be mindful of your caffeine intake and how it affects your body.
  • Excessive Protein Intake: Protein is essential for muscle recovery but excessive protein intake can increase ammonia production, contributing to muscle soreness. Balance your protein intake based on your specific needs.

Understanding Lactic Acid

Often associated with the burn felt during intense exercise, lactic acid plays an important role in the body, especially post-exercise. Here are some facts about lactic acid:

Lactic Acid Formation and Its Role in Muscle Building

When you exercise, especially during high-intensity activities where oxygen consumption outpaces its delivery to muscles, your body resorts to anaerobic metabolism. This process breaks down glucose and glycogen in muscle tissues into pyruvate. In an anaerobic state, the body converts pyruvate into lactic acid, which then disassociates into lactate and hydrogen ions.

Contrary to common belief, the accumulation of hydrogen ions — and not lactate itself — leads to muscle fatigue and the burning sensation during intense workouts.

Muscle Recovery and Soreness

While fitness enthusiasts and athletes blame lactic acid for post-exercise muscle soreness, research suggests this isn’t true. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) results from microscopic muscle damage during exercise, not lactic acid accumulation. However, lactic acid can contribute to the ‘burn’ felt during exercise and the immediate stiffness or discomfort following a workout.

Adaptation and Training

Regular training can enhance the body’s ability to handle lactic acid. The body becomes more efficient in its uptake, production and clearance of lactate, improving exercise performance over time. Trained athletes often have a higher lactate threshold, meaning they can exercise at higher intensities before lactate accumulates to levels that cause fatigue.

Aside from food, wearing compression gear minimizes lactic acid buildup during your workout and optimizes elimination and reuptake afterward.

Energy Source

Post-exercise, the lactate produced during anaerobic metabolism isn’t just waste. The body shuttles it to the liver, where it undergoes gluconeogenesis, a process by which it’s converted back to glucose that the muscles can use as an energy source. This is part of the Cori Cycle, a critical recovery pathway in the body.

Buffering Capacity

Lactate helps buffer or neutralize the acidic environment inside muscle cells resulting from the accumulation of hydrogen ions. This aids in maintaining the pH balance within muscles, helping with muscle function and reducing fatigue.

Hormonal Effects

Intense exercise, coupled with the rise in lactic acid, can increase the production of certain hormones like epinephrine. This rise can stimulate further lactate production but also trigger various physiological responses like increased heart rate, which helps deliver more oxygen to working muscles.

Recovery Food Is Crucial

Too much lactic acid can impact performance and progress, especially if you just started training. While your body can manage lactic acid levels during and after exercise, certain foods can support and speed up this process. Adding a balanced mix of these foods to your pre- and post-workout meals enhances your workout performance and speeds up recovery.

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