What Is Lactic Acid Production?

What Is Lactic Acid Production?

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Cells produce lactic acid when they metabolize carbohydrates anaerobically -- without oxygen. During high-intensity exercise, muscles expend energy so rapidly that they outrun the circulatory system's ability to provide them with oxygen. As they rely more on anaerobic metabolism, they produce lactic acid, which can accumulate in the bloodstream.


The first stage of carbohydrate metabolism is glycolysis. During glycolysis, glucose, or blood sugar, is broken down in a series of steps to produce a compound called pyruvate. Along the way energy is released. That energy is captured and stored in the form of a compound called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP is often called the energy currency of the cell. Cells use the energy stored in ATP to perform work, such as muscle contraction.

Aerobic Metabolism

Glycolysis is a fast process, but it produces only a small amount of energy -- just two or three molecules of ATP for each molecule of glucose. If oxygen is available, the cell can extract more energy from pyruvate by metabolizing it aerobically, yielding up to 36 additional molecules of ATP. Aerobic metabolism is highly efficient, but it is much slower than glycolysis and is reliant on the circulatory system's ability to provide oxygen to the cells.

Lactic Acid Production

During strenuous exercise, muscle cells expend energy so rapidly that the circulatory system cannot supply enough oxygen to keep up with demand. Even with insufficient oxygen, however, muscles can still produce energy through anaerobic glycolysis. Pyruvate is then converted into a compound called lactic acid rather than being metabolized aerobically. Lactic acid breaks down to form a compound called lactate. As you continue to exercise vigorously, lactate builds up in your muscles and blood.

Lactate Clearance

As lactate accumulates, your muscles and blood become more acidic, contributing to pain and fatigue. However, lactate is more than just an unwanted byproduct of glycolysis. It has many uses in the body. Lactate is used as a fuel for other muscles, particularly the heart. Muscles also convert lactate into glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate. The liver transforms lactate into glucose as well as into amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.


  • Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness and Performance; Sharon A. Plowman and Denise L. Smith
  • Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance; William D. McArdle et al.


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