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Marisa HeinzeJanuary 16, 2023

Acidified muscles - facts, causes & tips

Preventing muscle over-acidification

As an athlete, you've probably experienced it: muscle acidity symptoms - the sudden burning of the muscles during or after exercise. Extremely unpleasant and annoying if it occurs repeatedly. The reason for this is an “over-acidification” of the muscles, also called acidosis.

Symptoms of muscle acidosis

Acidosis usually manifests itself in a sudden burning, pain or cramping of individual muscle groups. Reduced performance and muscle weakness, even muscle failure, occur.
Runners' legs are often affected, and endurance athletes in general are frequently affected by it. However, muscle “over-acidification” can occur in anyone who exerts themselves physically.
The burning sensation usually lasts for a few minutes after the current exertion is stopped or reduced.

What does acidosis mean?

On a physiological level, one speaks of acidosis when the pH value of the blood drops into the acidic range. On the scale, 1-6 means acidic, 7 neutral and 8-14 alkaline. In humans, the normal range of the blood is 7.35-7.45. If the value falls below this, the first symptoms quickly appear.
There are different types of acidosis, but for athletes one form of acidosis is particularly important:
Anaerobic glycolysis, which occurs due to a lack of oxygen. Simply put:
You breathe too little or too shallowly. As a result, more ketone bodies are formed and cause an increased (acidic) lactate concentration (lactic acid) in the tissue - tissue acidosis. This is eventually what you notice in the form of “over-acidic” muscle symptoms.
In simple terms, lactate slows down your muscles and reduces, or prevents, further performance. It is a natural protective mechanism of the body to protect you from overexertion.

What are the causes?

Your body needs energy for every movement: for heavy, short exertion as well as for light, longer exertion. First, the muscle gets its energy from ATP (adenosine triphosphate); it is most quickly available, but only for a few seconds. ATP is a crucial energy supplier in sports like weightlifting, for example. When ATP is used up, your body turns to glucose (i.e.: sugar).
The breakdown of glucose produces lactic acid (lactate), which eventually accumulates in the muscles during prolonged exercise. Due to little or incorrect breathing, the muscles lack the oxygen to break down the lactate and ketone bodies: symptoms of muscle over-acidification occur.
Hence, when you overexert yourself, your uses the over-acidification of the muscles as a signal to tell you to take it down a notch.

Preventing muscle over-acidification is possible - but how?

  • Breathe properly:
Especially when we are working hard and pushing your limits, we tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly. Not without surprise does breathing play a crucial role in almost all forms of sports, from yoga to rowing to weightlifting.
  • Warm up properly:
A proper warm-up through dynamic mobilisation before strength training warms up your muscles, prepares them for the session ahead and reduces the risk of injury. Muscle over-acidity symptoms that do occur will last a shorter time and be less painful.
  • Recovery:
Your body needs enough time to recover between workouts. Regeneration allows muscles to recover and adapt to the performance level. It is important to give yourself enough time for recovery between training sessions. There should be at least 2-3 rest days between sessions of the same muscle group.
  • Adapt training:
Always adapt to your current level and increase the load slowly, not abruptly. Do not attempt to go from a 3 kg dumbbell to a 20 kg one the next day or try to do a 10 km run immediately after accomplishing a 4 km run. This overloads the muscles too quickly, which can lead not only to over-acidity but also to injuries.

Over-acidification: what to do?

If you have exerted yourself too much and your muscles have become over-acidic, there is no reason to worry at first. The feeling is extremely unpleasant, but your body has its own mechanisms to get rid of the excess lactate.
Nevertheless, there are some tips you can implement in acute cases:
  • Drink plenty of fluids:
Fluids help the body restore its fluid balance and, in a sense, they "flush out" the harmful substances from the muscles.
  • Warm-up and cool-down:
Make sure you prepare yourself with sufficient mobilisation and warm-up weights before strength training. You can also incorporate some dynamic stretching before an endurance session. After strength training, a cool-down of 5-10 minutes of walking or light cycling can be helpful. Avoid doing long, static stretches before or after strength training.
  • Heat:
A hot bath after a strenuous exercise session helps to relax the muscles and relieve pain.
  • Massage:
Especially for cramps and burning, it is often good to lightly knead the affected muscles or rub them in circular motions. Massaging the muscles stimulates blood circulation and helps to remove harmful substances.

The role of nutrition

Many scientists and athletes are of the opinion that a basic over-acidification of the body increases symptoms for over-acidic muscles, and that muscle over-acidity can be prevented by a predominantly alkaline diet.
Many athletes eat a diet that is too acidic. Although the term has nothing to do with the taste of the food, but with the reactions that take place in the body during digestion.
Particularly acidic foods:
  • Meat
  • Sausage
  • Cheese
  • Fish & seafood
  • Cereals
  • Milk & dairy products
Alkaline foods:
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Herbs
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
At a glance, you can see that a vegetarian or vegan diet is beneficial if for preventing muscle acidity.
More detailed tables on the acid-base content of foods can be found on the internet.
However, there is no 100% proof that an alkaline diet can really prevent muscle acidity and thus improve performance. Find out for yourself what suits you best. However, a balanced, mostly plant-based diet with a large proportion of fruit and vegetables is beneficial in many ways.

Conclusion: Acidified muscles

Preventing muscle over-acidification: in itself, this is a simple matter if you know the causes and listen to your body. Warm up thoroughly before each workout, don't take on too much at once, allow yourself enough recovery time and if your muscles do go on strike, just slow down a bit. You don't have to do everything right away. Even small progress is still progress.