To overcome an opponent, you often need to push your body to its limit. And when you do this, you may feel that infamous burning sensation in your muscles. The “burn” is no fun and not comfortable, but if you learn to overcome it, you’ll be a better athlete.
The “burn” is often thought to be the cause of lactic acid. But this isn’t the case.
The body does not produce lactic acid during exercise; it produces lactate. In a process called anaerobic glycolysis, pyruvate breaks down into two substances: lactate and hydrogen. Because it’s seen in muscles after arduous workouts, lactate gets a bad rep. It’s blamed for the burning, nauseating effect you feel when you’re working near your max. But actually, this isn’t an effect of lactate; it’s hydrogen ions wreaking havoc on your performance. Actually, lactate works to remove rogue hydrogen atoms so you can continue pushing toward the goal line.
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During demanding workouts (e.g., weight training and sprints), athletes are forced to deal with this limiting factor. But athletes are used to toughening up and dealing with pain. The moment when you begin to feel the burning sensation is called the lactate threshold. At that point, you’re still able to function but your energy is limited. After further effort, you reach a point where you can no longer push forward. This point is called the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA), and it occurs when blood lactate concentrations are upwards of 90 percent.
Any sane individual would call it a wrap, put things away and go at it another day. Not a champion. You work through this with whatever energy you have left, revolting against the incessant throbbing pain of quitting.
And you’re rewarded.
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Research shows that training at or above the lactate threshold raises the threshold and defers OBLA. This means you’re able to perform longer before the burning sensation kicks in. The delay occurs as a result of hormone release, particularly reduced catecholamine release at high intensities and increased mitochondrial content, which allows for greater production of ATP through aerobic mechanisms.
Your body can do more high-demand work for a longer time, with less fighting back. Your muscle cells are capable of breathing better under more stress and in turn generate energy that allows you to keep barreling through.
Exercise techniques like High Intensity Interval Training (e.g., Tabata) can increase your lactate threshold. Incorporating light activity amid the chaos keeps your body at an elevated intensity and allows you to work at or above those intensity points. Jogging, Jumping Jacks and dynamic stretches are a few easy ways to mix in some recovery while training to accelerate lactate removal from the body.
That’s how you’re going to win: by “befriending” insane amounts of physical chaos until the muscle cells that were screaming from the depths of their makeup have nothing left to say. For untrained, less-conditioned athletes—i.e., your opponents—that’s 50 to 60 percent of maximal oxygen use; for you and other like you, that’s 70 to 80 percent.
Take a look at those numbers again. They give you a 20- to 30-percent greater chance of winning if you’re willing to expand your lactate comfort zone.
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Winners do this. It’s why the fast tempo offense is so effective in football. It’s why Rich Froning can win the CrossFit games four years consecutively. And it certainly helps Lindsay Vonn in her Olympic downhill trials.
Top athletes study their opponent. They’re not concerned with their size. They’ve detailed and turned over every possible solution, finding its truth, and using it to calm their bodies—to prepare for the main event. They take on more to become more. Because in winning, more is the only move you should know.