Hey, folks. Coach Alex here. And today I’m going to be answering one of my email subscribers questions relating to lactate acid tolerance, specifically how to develop or how to build tolerance to lactic acid.

If you’ve not read my content online before then I’m Alex. I’m a professional strength and conditioning coach. I’ve been doing that for about a decade now. I’m also an assistant lecturer over at the University of Hull where I’m studying for my PhD in S&C. Lastly, I provide an online coaching service where I guarantee athletes and lifters measurable improvements in their performance (or they don’t pay) so I literally put my money where my mouth is when it comes to topics like this.

Alright, let’s jump into the topic.

The Athlete’s Email: Burning Legs (Lactic Acid) Causing Training Troubles

So hey, coach, I’ve been let’s see, I had a background in strength training and I’ve made the transition to crossfit. I’ve been getting better and better slowly in some areas, more quickly in others.

That makes sense. If you’ve got a background in strength, you’re likely to be maybe better at the weightlifting and the strength components.

one area where I’m really struggling is, let’s see, leg fatigue, or rather leg burn. After I start some workouts, I get a minute or two in and my legs feel like they’re on fire. yeah.

Okay, so your legs feel like you’re on fire. my legs feel like they’re on fire.

How do I start to get around this? One of the biggest issues I’m having is that I just don’t feel able to complete the workouts. I feel like I’m strong enough and I feel like I have the fitness, but my legs, especially seem to be burning so much that I don’t seem to be able to continue.”

Coach’s Analysis: What’s Happening? What’s the Underlying Cause?

All right, so, phenomenal question. What I really like about this one is that I’m going to give you an answer and you’re going to hate it because of how mean it is.

So what we’re talking about is developing lactate acid resistance or tolerance, right? So what is this? So, when you perform an exercise. So let’s just take a really simple one. Bicep curls, right? If you do five bicep curls, you’re probably fine. If you do ten, you’re probably fine. But if you’re doing 15, 20, 30 reps and now your set’s becoming 40, 60, 90 seconds of work, what ends up happening is you get all these built up hydrogen ions, all this kind of waste product in the muscle, right?

And this build up stings, like it stings a lot. I’m trying not to swear because I know the various algorithms don’t tend to like that, but it burns something crazy, and it can really hamper your performance.

Some good examples of really lactic acid prone sports are things like swimming and 400-800 metre runners. I’ve worked with athletes in both sports and they tend to get absolutely buried by lactic acid. So It’s something I have a lot of experience helping athletes develop a tolerance to.

runners lactic acid

My Suggested Solution (How I Help My Athletes Build Lactic Acid Tolerance)

The fun answer to this though, and this is the bit that people don’t like, is that…

“the way that you develop tolerance to something is by exposing yourself to it over and over and over again.”

Me, Coach Alex, said right now

But the trick is to do so in a manageable, incremental and progressive way. You don’t just want to jump into a session that absolutely annihilates you, that you have no ability to progress from. So what you want is the session that allows you to just touch into that lactic acid zone, get a little bit of it building up and then just start to flush some of it away, not all of it. And then we go again.

Let me provide an example.

An Example Lactic Acid Tolerance Workout

So I’m going to give you an example of a workout I used actually with a crossfit athlete. What I’ve had her doing is getting on like an airdyne bike. So like an assault bike, right. So you’ve got legs and arms going at the same time.

I’ve had her doing work intervals of 1 minute. So you’re going to do 1 minute, fairly hard work. We’re talking RPE. Eight out of ten. It’s not a max effort, but it’s close.

Then what she’d do for the minute afterwards is she dropped that effort. Not quite to a rest, but to an active recovery. A two or three out of ten RPE. She’d do that for 1 minute.

What that would do is allow some of those waste products to build up in the minute of work. And then that 1 minute rest would allow some of them to dissipate. Not all of them, just some of them, and it provides a little bit of psychological relief from the pain in your legs. And then, guess what? Then you go again with another minute of work at RPE 8, let those lactate build up even more, and then you have another minute of rest.

What I had her doing for the first week or two is you would do that maybe like four or five times. So four or five sets of a minute. And then after that, what you do is you actually have a longer rest, three to five minutes to actually allow that lactate to properly, really clear out, to refresh your legs a little bit. And then after that, you could perform another round.

Lactic Acid Tolerance Workout

How I Progress My Athlete’s Lactic Acid Workouts

To progress your lactic acid workouts the simplest option is to increase the total number of rounds you perform. For the athlete I described above, by week four she was doing four rounds of that.

And then over time, you can also work to increase the number of sets within each round. So instead of 1 minute on, 1 minute off done 4 or 5 times, you might do 1 minute on, 1 minute off six times or 7 times.

So, in essence, at the start, if you’re doing two rounds of four sets/exposures, you’re getting 8 total exposures to lactic acid. By the time you build up to doing four rounds of six 1 minute exposures, you’re actually getting 24 total exposures to that lactic acid.

Lactic Acid Workout Progression Over Time

So you build up the total amount of exposures you get, and over time, your tolerance to that gets better and better and better.

  • The total amount of work you can do gets better
  • The work rate you can manage gets better (e.g. more distance covered in the minute of work)
  • Your body gets better at clearing lactic acid – which means less burning pain

So if you. By the time you get to, like, week eight, if you return to doing the workout that you did in week one, you’re barely going to feel anything. Your body’s going to clear lactic acid so fast, it’s going to feel easy. Easy peasy.

All of which means less pain and better sports performance – win win

Real Talk, Lactic Acid Workouts Are Tough

If it sounds to good to be true, here’s the drawback…

“These lactic acid workouts are some of the toughest and some of the most disgusting workouts you will ever do in your entire life. They are horrible.”

Me, Coach Alex, speaking from experience

They are horrible because you’re constantly pushing your body, whether it be your legs, your arms, whatever you do, to the point where it really hurts. And you’re doing that repeatedly, multiple times in the same session. And you’re doing this progressively week in, week out.

Because that’s the only way. If you want to build up tolerance to lactic acid, you need to get used to the feeling of lactic acid and you need to give your body enough stimulus that it learns and it develops the ability to clear it, which sucks.

So that’s the trade you make. You performance will improve, and in a few weeks you’ll experience far less pain, but for the next month or two, you have to perform workouts that will be incredibly painful, and probably make you a bit nauseous.

I it’s not the answer that most people are looking for. A lot of people want the secret tip. The trick, the thing they can do, the technique or the “special exercise”. There is none. Right. It’s hard work applied progressively over time. So that’s the answer no one likes, but that’s the truth about it. Sorry folks, that’s, that’s strength and conditioning, and sports, and probably life itself in a nutshell for you.

Next Steps

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To Your Performance!

Alex Parry