Everything you need to know about lactate: your burning questions answered by an exercise physiologist

Far from being an acidic waste product that makes your muscles burn, lactate is actually a vital source of energy. An exercise physiologist debunks the mistruths around the metabolite

Image shows a person cycling
(Image credit: Future)

Lactate is a much maligned substance that flows around in our blood during exercise. It forms when the body breaks down carbohydrates, and is commonly – albeit wrongly – blamed for the burning feeling in our legs when cycling at high intensities. In this feature, with the assistance of Dr Richard Ferguson, an exercise physiologist from Loughborough University, we answer the FAQs concerning lactate’s role in cycling fitness – and how understanding it can help us train more intelligently. 

Why lactate not ‘lactic acid’ – what’s the difference?

Lactate is lactic acid with one less hydrogen ion. Lactic acid is produced in our cells but almost immediately turns to lactate in the bloodstream because blood has a neutral pH. This is why, in the context of measuring during exercise, it’s more accurate to refer to lactate rather than lactic acid.  

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Tom Epton
Freelance writer

Tom Epton is a freelance writer and data scientist. Originally training as a scientist after completing his studies in physics he realised that cycling was what he wanted to spend his life thinking about. Now he works with manufacturers, athletes and teams using cutting edge data science methods to find performance gains. Tom writes primarily about sport-science and tech!