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Lactic Acid in Swimming

Hi Gary,

I am a swimmer based in Europe…and I would like to know what can I do to increase my pain tolerance? Because I tend to slow down(.especially in the last 15 meters of the race) if I am feeling pain in my arms, trying to get back into my ” comfort zone” and I would like to break out of that zone and get used to pain.

Kind regards



Hi Sanja,

Its sounds to me that if you are feeling pain in the last 15 metres of a race, it is as a result of a build-up of lactic acid in the body.  Lactic acid is a metabolic by-product that makes no contribution to your performance. A build-up of lactate, often referred to as lactic acid, will create a burning sensation in the muscles that can slow you down.

Your muscles produce lactic acid during intense exercise. Lactic acid causes muscle fatigue during a race. This is most likely the pain you are feeling in your body.

When a person swims hard, their breathing becomes labored and they cannot provide sufficient amounts of oxygen to their cells. To keep working, the muscles then stop performing aerobically and begin the anaerobic breakdown of glycogen leading to the production of lactic acid.

As lactic acid builds up in the muscle, it increases the acidity of the cell and surrounding fluids. The chemical reactions necessary to break down glycogen and use it as energy do not like acidic environments, so the production of energy slows down, affecting the muscles’ ability to keep contracting. This causes your muscles to become fatigued. Continuing to swim and trying to use muscles that do not have enough energy to keep contracting can contribute to muscle fatigue while swimming.

To understand more about lactic acid it would be worth reading Reduce-Lactic-Acid-Build-up-in-Muscles

It is also worth reading through this article by SwimCoachStu.

The key to improving your swimming times and swim longer in your “comfort zone” is to improve your fitness. This will delay the onset of lactate production if you continue swimming at the same speeds you do now or allow you to swim faster for the same amount of time until you start feeling the pain. The outcome for both will be faster times. By increasing your training and fitness level, studies have also found that training can result in a much higher removal rate of lactic acid.  Training to improve lactate removal requires a combination of slow, moderate and high intensity distance swimming.

Speak to your coach about what you feel in a race and they will be able to assist you with some sets that will help reduce lactic acid build-up at those same speeds.  They will also be able to train your body to remove lactic acid whilst competing (even just a bit will help!).


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