16 January 2008

Lactic Acid woes

Nik asks…

is there any way of decreasing the production of lactic acid?

I’ve heard that drinking a lot of water while doing a long climbing session flushes the lactic acid out,
shaking your arms,
breathing deeply while on a route,
not drinking caffeine as this dilates the blood vessels,

Any thoughts or advice?

The answer to this, frustratingly, is that it’s not really the question that needs asking! Muscle fatigue is a complicated subject in general but for the type of contractions we make (I’m talking about forearms here – intermittent isometric contractions) it’s even more complex. If I launch into an explanation it could bring on headaches all round but let me summarise by saying that lactic acid is just one among a long list of chemicals that cause our forearms to fail. Potassium ions, hydrogen ions and many others build up beyond their normal equilibrium and interfere with running muscle metabolism as fast as we’d like.

The goal is not so simply to decrease production of lactic acid, rather to delay it or prevent it to as high intensities as possible, and then tolerate it’s presence for as long as possible at higher intensities. Lactic acid build up in climbers bloodstreams is miniscule compared to most other endurance sports that engage much more muscle at a high intensity. In fact the small amounts of lactic acid we do produce in our forearms are probably easily taken up my the other muscle groups and recycled. So we should focus on the forearm.

Not enough is known about what goes on chemically deep inside the forearms at the moments before we fail on routes. That’s mostly because it’s so difficult/unethical to research (would you like a big apple core of muscle ripped out of your forearm by a man in a white coat just as you pump out?). But it appears that local and pretty transient chemical changes account for a larger part of our forearm fatigue.

The main (non technical) method to avoid forearm pump is of course endurance training! There are no short cuts or tactics that substitute hard hours on the circuits. But breathing well and shaking arms are indeed useful for helping diffuse the local build up of chemicals, delaying the point at which they will inhibit metabolism and also assisting blood flow. Thorough warm-up is also critical, not just at the start of a session but also if you stop and let yourself get cold between climbs.

It’s important though to keep perspective though. Good climbing technique will be far more effective for delaying pump, and spotting rests will do more to get you through a pump than anything else. No hands rests are everywhere, even where you least expect them. Make yourself an expert on kneebars, heel-toe locks, toe hooks, bat hangs, and various scums and body bars. Look out for them everywhere as you climb, and take note of how they are used when you see other using them. They will give you a killer advantage, not to mention make your belayer choke with jealously as you relax and chill in the middle of the crux.

What I’m saying here is that if you are at the stage to be worrying about having a cup of coffee before a climbing session your technique should be virtually perfect!


Ian Mulvany said...

Hi Dave,

That's the first time I've seen this question tackled in this way, and it's a very refreshing perspective. I think there is a tendency to cry 'lactic acid' as soon as our forearms begin to burn. It's almost become a slogan rather than a description.

Neal said...

Interesting read. Having played soccer, basketball for many years before taking up climbing, it's great to see it confirmed that it's not the same 'type' of pump. Taking a low-tech answer, it just doesn't feel the same.
It's fascinating that I have to do less endurance work as the years go by as I get stronger. Taking the comparison to soccer players, who have to continuously work on endurance, I never find as much of a requirement to keep doing endurance laps to keep my stamina up in climbing.
that probably doesn't make complete sense either though :)

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Roxy said...
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do you know how to control lactic acids through a good died? I wonder if is possible...

Anonymous said...

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Hello David. Many people are lactose-intolerant. Maybe that's why they are having these woes.