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Lactate Physiology and Sports Training

Part 4 - Lactate and Energy Systems

A large percentage of athletic training has the objective of producing adaptations in the body's energy systems both, anaerobic and aerobic. Athletes train so they can perform for a longer period of time and at higher intensities. The production and control of lactate is essential for both of these objectives. The sprinter and marathoner both need to produce and control lactate to be successful in their races though they will do it differently. Producing and controlling lactate is only a part of athletic success; however, it is an important part.

While most coaches and athletes associate lactate with both the production of high intensity energy needed to win races and the deterioration of athletic performance, many don't realize the importance of lactate as an energy source. Lactate is one of the most important fuels for exercise and is involved in two of the three major energy systems we use for exercise and athletic performance. An athlete would have a hard time finishing a race or a game if lactate produced in one muscle wasn't being used as a source of energy in other muscles. Because lactate is being used by other muscles as fuel, it moves out of the muscles where it is produced, thus easing the problem of acid build-up in the producing muscles. Controlling lactate is not only one of the keys to good performance, but also essential for the long practices where good performance originates.

There are three important energy systems for athletic performance. These are the creatine phosphate, glycolytic (this is the system we are usually referring to when we use the term anaerobic energy), and aerobic systems. The first two are called anaerobic systems in the sense that oxygen is not needed to produce energy in these systems. It is important to realize that there may be plenty of oxygen available when the anaerobic systems are used. These processes just don't use oxygen. The aerobic system requires oxygen but may be limited by other factors even if there is plenty of oxygen in the system. As mentioned in Lactate Physiology and Sports Training- Part 3,enzymes and mitochondria are important factors in aerobic energy and if they are limited then the amount of aerobic energy is limited. The aerobic system can use more than one type of fuel. Fats and carbohydrates are the two main sources of aerobic energy.

Lactate is a by-product of the anaerobic glycolytic system and a fuel for the aerobic system. Even though lactate is not involved in the creatine phosphate system, the presence of large amounts of lactate while training this system is an indication that the creatine phosphate system is reaching its limits. Also increases in lactate during aerobic training means that less fat and more carbohydrates are being used as fuel. It is important for the coach to understand just what the presence of lactate means if he/she is to design workouts to train all three systems.

The following is a brief discussion of each energy system:

Both the creatine phosphate and aerobic systems (using fats as fuel) are important for athletic activity but neither will produce sustained bouts of intense exercise needed for most athletic success. The body must use a third source of energy, carbohydrates or more precisely glycogen, to fuel the extended high intensity exercise that is crucial for good most athletic events. Carbohydrates are used both by the aerobic system to produce energy and by the third system, glycolysis or the anaerobic lactate system

Two important points to remember from all of this are:

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8. We have tended to simplify the discussion of fast twitch fibers by not mentioning that there is more than one type. One type of fast twitch fibers has a much higher ability than the others to produce aerobic energy.