Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lactic Acid Myth

The New York Times today contains the story "Is the Exercise Cool-Down Really Necessary?" which refutes the idea of cooling down after exercise. Notice this one part:

"The idea of the cool-down seems to have originated with a popular theory — now known to be wrong — that muscles become sore after exercise because they accumulate lactic acid. In fact, lactic acid is a fuel. It’s good to generate lactic acid, it’s a normal part of exercise, and it has nothing to do with muscle soreness. But the lactic acid theory led to the notion that by slowly reducing the intensity of your workout you can give lactic acid a chance to dissipate.

Yet, Dr. Foster said, even though scientists know the lactic acid theory is wrong, it remains entrenched in the public’s mind.

“It’s an idea we can’t get rid of,” he said."

It's an idea often heard in the bodywork world as well. Many people, including sadly many massage therapists, continue to believe and sell the idea that massage after exercise is important to flush lactic acid from muscles. Typically this is considered part of Sports Massage.

Here is a good article in Massage Magazine written in 2001 on Sports Massage & Recovery Time: Re-examining the Role of Lactic Acid

"For years, many massage therapists have been taught that lactic acid can and should be flushed from the muscles of athletes after intense activity. This truism has been passed on to clients who have also accepted it as fact. Both therapist and client thus have established and perpetuated a mutual belief system that purging of lactic acid is not only necessary, but also efficiently accomplished with the assistance of massage. Some beliefs die hard. This one and others related to lactic acid have been holding their own, not only in some massage schools and practices, but also in the community at large, despite emerging research to the contrary."

So, is there a benefit to massage after exercise?

Absolutely! There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence supporting the practice. While the success of Sports Massage may have been incorrectly attributed to lactic acid removal, it still shows substantial benefit to many people. But why?

My thoughts are that the benefit comes from two things. First, exercise and competition create stress, which massage helps to relax. Nothing like trying to outrun the pack, or holding a hundred pounds of iron over your head, to create stress. Second, the exercise can create hypertonic(tight) muscles or fibers within the muscle that manual pressure, stretching, and neuromuscular techniques may loosen. Note that both intense massage, IE Deep Tissue(also this blog post), just like intense exercise, can cause stress and tissue damage, therefore the more intense the exercise the less intense the massage should be.

The myth of "flushing lactic acid" with massage has been refuted for years, yet I still hear it, and in Googling for other good articles to reference I immediately saw massage providers promoting it. Certainly seek massage after your workout or competition, but be wary of therapists or spas who either don't understand, or knowingly propagate, the lactic acid myth.


Palo Alto survives horrible storm!
The Bay Area had its first winter storm, and the news makes it sound like we were nearly annihilated. Well... I grew up in Ohio, and folks here don't know what a storm is, let alone winter. A light rain at 65 degrees with a 20 mph wind gust does NOT count as a "winter storm." So don't bother sending that care package, except for the really tasty bits.

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