If you have played rugby you have felt the feeling when the lactic acid levels rise in your muscles, your lungs start burning and no matter how much you want to run the jelly sets in and your legs simply won’t work properly. Building tolerance to lactic acid is one of the most important things every rugby player needs to do if they want to be able to perform at optimal levels for the entire game.

Lactic acid accumulates when you exercise at a high intensity, but there is much more to lactate than that. It plays an integral role in many of the body’s metabolic processes. Lactic acid is always present and is always being produced. At rest your lactic acid levels will be about 1 millimoles/liter (mmol/L). As exercise intensity increases so does the production of lactic acid. It’s not until you pass your anaerobic threshold that it reduces your efficiency. For most people this is approximately 4 mmol/L, or 70-80% of their VO2max.
It is commonly thought that it is the lack of oxygen that causes the increased production of lactic acid. Whilst it is a contributing factor, it is the absence of the “carrier molecules” NAD (nicotinomide adenine dinucleotide) and FAD (flavin adenine dinucleotide) that have a much greater effect. They play the important role of transporting hydrogen into the cells for use in the production of energy. If they are not around, the hydrogen joins with pyruvate to produce lactic acid.
Lactic Acid is actually used as a fuel and is usually removed from the muscle tissue within 30 minutes after exercise. It is used by liver, heart, and kidney as a source of energy. The liver can also convert it back into glucose, where it is released into the bloodstream for muscle use. It can also be converted into glycogen for storage.
Most players know that increases in lactic acid causes a decrease in their ability to perform but few actually know how this occurs.
Firstly, you’ll have a decrease in energy. The increase in hydrogen reduces the production of ATP (energy) by inhibiting key ezymes involved in its production.
Secondly, your muscles won’t be able to contract as often or with as much force. For a muscle to contract we need calcium to attach itself to binding sites within the muscle. The more calcium attached, the more forceful the contraction. The problem occurs because hydrogen competes with calcium for bindings sites.
(DOMS)Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is the pain you feel in the muscle 24-48 hours after exercise. It was once thought that lactic acid caused this but it has now been proven wrong. It’s the excessive mechanical force which results in damage to the muscle or connective tissue. The body responds by repairing it and this stimulates sensory nerve endings which results in pain. This is why it usually occurs when you first start an exercise program, or when you train at an unusually high intensity.
Lactate Tolerance Training
Lactate tolerance training will help you to recover more quickly from successive bursts of speed and power. It will increase your tolerance to lactic acid and allow you maintain a high work rate for longer. This type of training could also be called speed endurance, anaerobic endurance or power endurance.
It becomes very difficult to perform the most basic of skills when your muscles are flooded with lactic acid. During a multi-sprint game like rugby players are frequently required to make explosive runs or sprints consecutively, without rest, resulting in large amounts of lactic acid production.
While lactate tolerance training is very demanding it can also have the greatest impact on your performance. It is a great confidence booster to feel fresh and alert when players around you are struggling to keep up!.
In an annual conditioning plan, lactate tolerance training often starts midway through the pre-season. It’s best not to start from the beginning of the off season or even too early in the preseason with this type of training because it is so intense. A more effective approach is to first build an aerobic base with continuous training or interval training.
During the in-season the objective is to maintain the level of conditioning you build up in the pre-season. This can usually be achieved purely through competitive games but you may want to add in a session or two during the week.
Lactate Tolerance Training Drills
These drills are very demanding in their nature. They are designed to produce high levels of lactic acid so the body becomes more tolerant to it and able to remove it more efficiently. Perform any skill/tactical or speed and agility work before these drills and don’t perform other demanding conditioning drills in the same session.
A typical session might include 30 minutes work in total (including the rest periods in between sets). This may only consist of one or two drills at most. You should be thoroughly warmed up before moving on to these drills.
Note: Lactate tolerance training is less effective when a ball for example, is involved because it hinders maximal effort.
Drill 1 – Sprint & Back
Face a partner standing 20 meters away. This player acts as a feeder. Sprint towards the feeder from the starting position; play a controlled pass, then turn and sprint back to the start. Repeat for 60 seconds and change positions. Complete 5 times each. This is one set. Rest for 2 minutes and repeat for a total of 2-3 sets.
The feeder should move on the spot rather than standing still. They should also serve the pass to the working player when they are about 5 meters away.
X                                     20m                                        X
Drill 2 – Shuttle Runs
Place 5 cones out 10 meters apart. Starting on cone 1, run to cone 2 and back, then cone 3 and back, 4 and back, then 5 and back. The sprint should be flat
out and with emphasis on sharp turns. Rest for 30 seconds and repeat. Rest another 30 seconds and repeat for a third time. This is one set. Rest for 2 minutes with active recovery such as walking. Complete a total of 3-5 sets.
X                     X (10m)                     X (20m)                    X( 30m)                 X(40m)
Note: This is a very simple but very effective drill. After the very last shuttle of the very last set take your pulse for 3 minutes while you walk around to recover. Make a note after minute 1, minute 2 and minute 3 to see how quickly it comes down. If you perform this drill just once per week, you’ll notice after several weeks how much quicker your pulse rate starts to fall. Proof that you are becoming fitter and fitter!
Drill 3 – Progressive Shuttles
A variation on classic shuttles. Set out 5 cones 10 meters apart. Starting on cone 1, jog to cone 4 then immediately sprint to cone 5. Turn and jog to cone 3 and then sprint to cone 1. Turn and jog to cone 2 and sprint to cone 5. Finally, turn immediately and sprint to cone 1. Rest for 60 seconds and repeat 3-5 times. This is one set. Complete 2-3 sets.


Steve Mac | rugbyIQ.com conditioning specialist 

Steve has a history of top level involvement in rugby as a player and skills, strength and conditioning trainer. He was the Springbok Strength Coach for 2006 and 2007, being a member of the victorious South African squad to the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.

Beating the lactic acid enemy

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