Good Foods That Help With Lactic Acid Buildup in the Legs

athletic sport runner man running up stairs in urban training
Burning pain in the calves during sprinting is a result of lactic acid buildup. (Image: OcusFocus/iStock/Getty Images)

While the idea of burning pain radiating though your muscles might seem alarming, for many athletes it’s all too familiar. Lactic acid, a byproduct of hardworking muscles, is responsible for the painful sensation. Improving athletic performance requires pushing through this pain, but research points to a few nutrients that may help give athletes an edge. Bicarbonate, found in baking soda; and potassium-rich foods, New Zealand black currant and high-magnesium foods are all powerful for conquering lactic acid and helping muscles recover.

Lactic Acid Basics

During intense exercise, you breathe faster as your body attempts to transport more oxygen to the muscles. Normally, energy is generated using oxygen, called aerobic energy. However, when your lungs can’t keep up with energy demands, such as during sprinting or heavy weightlifting, your body uses anaerobic energy. In one method, called anaerobic glycolysis, glucose is broken down into an acidic substance called lactate, a shortcut allowing energy production to continue even when oxygen is limited.

The problem is that high levels of lactate increase acidity, causing the burning sensation. This accumulation of lactate stops when you slow down and oxygen is available again, but your athletic performance typically declines at the onset of the painful lactic acid buildup.

Increase Dietary Bicarbonate

Bicarbonate is alkaline, and your body produces it to help maintain proper pH. A 2014 study published in Sports Medicine found that extra bicarbonate in the muscle cells facilitated faster lactic acid removal and improved athletes’ performances during high-intensity exercise.

Supplementing with bicarbonate is as easy as stirring baking soda into water. However, some people experience gastrointestinal upset with ingestion of bicarbonate. Before using baking soda, discuss with your medical professional the best dosage to prevent adverse reactions such as diarrhea, gas and bloating. Foods that provide bicarbonate include potassium-rich foods like bananas, leafy greens, tomatoes and potatoes.

Consider New Zealand Sujon Black Currant

The New Zealand Sujon black currant is a dark purple berry said to have the world’s highest concentration of antioxidants and flavonoids. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition tested Sujon black currant powder in elite triathletes and found that it helped the legs accumulate less lactic acid and quickened the removal of the burning byproduct.

Sujon black currant supplementation was also shown to improve cardiovascular function by increasing stroke volume, which is the amount of blood your heart can move with each pump. Blood washes out lactic acid, making the Sujon black currant a double whammy for muscle recovery. Sujon black currant supplement, usually in the form of powder, is available at specialty stores or online. Check with your physician before using it.

Select Magnesium-Rich Foods

Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body, and getting enough of this mineral is essential for optimal sports and exercise performance. The body uses magnesium to build proteins, for healthy nerve function, and for muscle contraction, such as the beating of your heart and voluntary movements of your large skeletal muscles. Incorporating magnesium-rich foods into the diet can help with muscle performance, including the speedy recovery from lactic acid buildup. Seeds such as pumpkin and sesame; nuts including almonds, cashews, peanuts and pine nuts; grains such as amaranth, teff and sorghum; and turkey, mollusks and salmon are at the top of the list for magnesium content.

Ensure Adequate Hydration

Being hydrated during exercise enhances performance and decreases the risks of overheating and injury. A study conducted by the University of Colorado in 2000 concluded that even low levels of dehydration affected how the athletes’ bodies tolerated and removed lactic acid, causing exhaustion to occur sooner in the poorly hydrated test subjects.

To make sure you're adequately hydrated, dietitians at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest monitoring the color of your urine; a lemonade color indicates healthy hydration, while an apple juice color suggests dehydration. Water, sports drinks and other electrolyte-replacing fluids such as coconut water are appropriate for rehydration.

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