Dear Katrina: Why do I feel so sore from racing?

by Katrina Radke 0

October 25th, 2012 News

Dear Katrina,

Why do I feel so sore from racing?

Any time you do intense exercise, you will have oxygen debt, which produces lactic acid. Lactic acid is a by-product that is produced from the breakdown of glycogen, which is the predominant energy source in intense exercise (greater than 10 second duration and up to one minute and a half typically). Thus, after a race, this is what you feel.

Typically, it takes up to 48 hours to fully recover from true anaerobic work (races primarily up to 200 which is 65% anaerobic. After 200s, this % goes down), and 72 hours if you had intense central nervous system work, such as a two or three day swim meet or intense dryland session. Aerobic recovery happens much more quickly, thus allowing us to do aerobic swimming more often.

The soreness usually really shows up 24 hours later, and it typically is worse 48 hours later. This is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This is why it is crucial to have warm down after each race/practice; ideally, the last twenty minutes focuses on recovery so you can train well the next day. If that is not available to you, even a twenty minute brisk walk can help. (We can discuss recovery and regeneration further in another article.)

When we reach puberty, our body is able to produce more lactic acid, since we have more muscle mass, thus ability to store more glycogen, which allows us to carry speed and have more power. It is primarily produced in our red blood cells and muscle cells. Lactic acid forms when our body uses carbohydrates for energy during times of low oxygen levels. When we are sick or have exercised intensely, especially chronically, these levels drop. The measurement accurately helps us monitor our exercise intensity and our ability to recover. Thus, it helps us know where we are in our training, and what is best to do within our training.

To test our ability to produce lactic acid, which is a good indicator on where we are in your training cycle, we can get blood drawn from our ear right after our race, then again ten minutes and twenty minutes after our race. This is called a lactate clearance test. We warm down for ten minutes, get ear pricked again, and then swim for another ten minutes and get ear pricked again. When we are over trained, we are unable to even get much production of lactic acid; maybe up to four mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter) after a 100 or 200 race. After ten minutes it most likely is still at four mg/dl, and after twenty minutes, it might have come down to three, versus one or two. When we start resting but are not totally rested, we might get it up to six or seven mg/dl after the race, then get to four mg/dl after ten minutes, and two or three mg/dl after twenty minutes. When we are properly peaked and rested, it can get up to ten to twelve mg/dl, then six mg/dl, then two to three mg/dl, showing that the body has produced a good amount which helps us perform well, and that we are able to clear it from our system quickly enough so that it does not linger too much like it does when we are over trained.

If we have too much lactic acid still in our system, our body feels heavy, and the muscles are not able to “fire” and function as easily. We often call this “hitting the wall”, or the “piano hit” in that race. When we are so dulled, our body can’t even produce much lactic acid, which feels like a dull ache with no ability to energize the body. This typically happens when we are overtrained, and need some recovery time.

Thus, based on how you are training, your body will respond to each meet in a certain way. If you have been doing a lot of aerobic training initially and then go race for the first time especially in the off-season, your body will feel like it is in shock; thus, more sore.

If you do anaerobic work in the middle of the season, the meets will start to feel a little bit better. Then, in the final part of the race season, when you are racing or doing quality repeats once or twice per week, with the other practices being more recovery, you will feel more sharp, and able to race effectively, more often. Additionally, you will be able to do more quality repeats/race pace work, or meets, and feel good.

In terms of lactic acid, if you did a good amount of aerobic work in the beginning of the season, and then enough threshold work in the middle of the season, your body has adapted to use lactic acid for fuel (since aerobic training breaks down lactic acid into pyruvate). Your body becomes more efficient at buffering the lactic acid while doing aerobic and threshold work. That is why an active recovery is important and that is why a good aerobic base is very important

I will cover meet warm ups and warm downs in another article. The general rule is to have active rest for twenty minutes after each race (keep moving; you don’t have to go fast, but keep moving). Thus, you can see that if you have three races, your training needs to be ready to handle warm up and warm down and each race. Thus, Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps, and Ryan Lochte have shown that a good, solid training background with proper rest, allows an athlete to do many events well.



Katrina Radke is an Olympic Swimmer, Sport Psychology Professor, and Bestselling Author of Be Your Best Without the Stress, where she shares her own Olympic story, and tools for you to realize your true potential.

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About Katrina Radke

Katrina Radke, MFT, is an internationally recognized Olympian, therapist, college psychology instructor, and a peak performance and health coach for many fields, including business, sport psychology, fitness, wellness and nutrition. She is a motivational speaker for corporate, educational and public events, and works with top physicians and health professionals. She …

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