Massage does not get rid of lactic acid. Sorry!
Updated: Feb 20, 2022
In Motion with Morrison Blog
Written by Aubrey Morrison
MS Sports Medicine, CSCS, Licensed Massage Therapist #16763
Massage absolutely helps improve recovery in athletes, but it is a common misconception that the “flushing” of lactic acid is one of the ways massage reduces soreness. We often get the question from clients about whether massage and cupping are releasing lactic acid from the muscles, and in short, the answer is NO. Massage does not involve getting rid of lactic acid, although it does help relieve muscle soreness. On that same note, lactic acid is not the cause of muscle soreness in the days after exercise, as has been previously believed (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27409551/). Soreness occurs with or without the presence of lactic acid in the blood (https://www.si.com/edge/2016/07/21/debunking-myths-lactic-acid-truth-fatigue-recovery-muscle-soreness).
Lactic acid (LA) is a term most athletes and active individuals are familiar with, and we all know that feeling of muscle burn and performance slowing no matter how much your mind wants you to keep going! Because LA is responsible for that painful feeling and decreased performance, it has a bad rep. But it actually does serve us well in the end! So let’s make sure we understand what it is and where it comes from, and how it is cleared out, so we have more of an appreciation of it. I know we all hate it, but just hear me out.
Most of our energy that we use is produced through a process that requires oxygen – sleeping, sitting, walking, distance running…things we can just keep doing for hours. This energy is produced through what is called aerobic metabolism; meaning oxygen is present. When oxygen is not present by our cells to use for producing energy, we switch processes to what is called anaerobic metabolism; meaning there is a lack of oxygen. This would be during some kind of intense exercise – like an all-out sprint or something that makes you just want to fall over and die after a short time (like 30 seconds) of performing it at a particular intensity. During this type of intense effort, there is not enough oxygen present to keep producing the energy needed to continue the activity (because you are gasping for breath and your heart is beating as fast as it can and it still can’t deliver enough oxygen to the muscles!), so your body switches to a process called glycolysis to speed up energy production without oxygen. It is during this process that results in the dreaded lactic acid build-up!
Lactic acid production is actually a good thing; it allows the cell to keep producing as much energy as possible without oxygen. Glycolysis can result in a build-up of one of its byproducts called pyruvate. When pyruvate accumulates, it undergoes a process and is converted to lactate, while also giving off a hydrogen ion. If you can remember waaaaaay back in chemistry class, hydrogen ions result in an acidic environment! Hence the painfulness in the muscles while this is going on. The lactate then binds to the hydrogen ion, to shuttle it OUT of the muscles and into the blood. In this form, it is now lactic acid! In the blood, it breaks back down into lactate and hydrogen (acidic!). All this acidity in the muscles and bloodstream causes burning, nausea, disorientation, etc. BUT thank you lactate for becoming lactic acid to move out of the muscle, into the bloodstream, becoming lactate again to become a usable form of energy, and sent off to various places to be “cleared” by the body! And by “cleared”, I mean it can be converted into more energy for us to use (as well as replace lost energy in muscles!), and it becomes oxidized and converted into molecules used in aerobic metabolism. And those extra hydrogen ions are also utilized by the body, so the blood acidity also gets better. Basically, once your body stops the intensity (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), the build-up of pyruvate slows as oxygen becomes more available and there is no need for that lactic acid production anymore. The clearing of lactic acid after exercise takes several hours, depending on how much was produced - whether you have a massage or not!
The only way for this lactic acid build-up to dissipate is to get your oxygen levels up. With training, you can become more efficient in the processing of lactic acid so that you can tolerate high levels and continue intense activity; and improving this processing efficiency will lead to faster clearance and recovery.
Massage helps muscles recover and relieves soreness, but it does not have anything to do with lactic acid clearance. Levels are typically down in the couple of hours following activity, massage or not. It just takes time!