It was once believed that a post-exercise massage assisted in the removal of lactic acid from muscles. Lactic acid was thought to be a waste product that accumulated, as a result of strenuous exercise, and caused muscle soreness (delayed onset muscle soreness – DOMS). Massage supposedly helped in the removal of lactic acid, reducing DOMS. Research has shown this to not be the case.
A study published last year tested the hypothesis that one of the ways massage aids muscle recovery from exercise, is by increasing muscle blood flow to improve “lactic acid” removal. It was found that massage actually impairs the removal of lactate (La- and H+) from muscle tissue after strenuous exercise, by mechanically impeding blood flow. This was reported on in the New York Times.
So massage may not help with lactic acid removal. But does that matter? It is now thought that DOMS is not caused by the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles. Instead, DOMS is attributed to inflammation and micro-tears in the muscle fibers. And the current research supports that massage can be effective in reducing DOMS.
But what about the lactic acid (or blood lactate) that we used to blame all our muscle soreness on? As it turns out, muscles make lactic acid to fuel cells not only in the muscle that produced the lactate, but also as an energy source that can be transported to adjacent muscles for fuel. Lactic acid is not simply the end result of an oxygen-deprived muscle, accumulating and resulting in muscle soreness. Rather it is an important intermediary in numerous metabolic pathways within and between cells.
The relevance to athletes is that “endurance training teaches the body to efficiently use lactic acid as a source of fuel on par with the carbohydrates stored in muscle tissue and the sugar in blood. Efficient use of lactic acid, or lactate, not only prevents lactate build-up, but ekes out more energy from the body’s fuel.”
Although more research needs to be done to support all these findings, we can stop blaming lactic acid for the muscle pain we feel after strenuous exercise. Could just be that it is muscle inflammation and micro-tears that are causing that pain – and massage might just reduce that muscle pain.