I have become obsessed with my lactic threshold. No, it isn’t an allergy nor does it have anything to do with breast-feeding as I mistakenly thought. This term — familiar to most marathon runners, athletes, endurance coaches and other superbly fit anomalies of humanity — has to do with the “burn” we experience when we exercise. It is a point on the treadmill when you are cursing fluently — in three languages — and then are forced to stop because you can’t even muster Bhajji’s monkey, not for want of trying but because some unseen hand is strangling you and you cannot breathe. When you are genuinely suffering during your exercise regimen, you’ve reached your lactic threshold.
Superman: The secret behind Armstrong’s stamina is his high lactic threshold.
Now, here’s the rub. Exercise coaches and any number of anti-ageing studies say that once you’ve reached that point — when you feel that you can’t take it any more — you have to keep pushing yourself at that same level of intensity for about 20-25 minutes. The goal is to increase your lactic threshold so that you can maintain this high-intensity workout for as long as needed (up to 3 hours for a marathon runner, just under 30 minutes for a sprinter). The logic is simple. When you are exercising at peak level, your body consumes maximum oxygen. If you can increase your lactic threshold, you can increase the level of oxygen intake, which will then improve your future performance. The Holy Grail of course, is Lance Armstrong whose superhuman lungs consumed unholy amounts of oxygen. I have my own pet theory about Armstrong. I think his genes mutated.
We all produce lactic acid even when we are sitting. Typically, the lactic acid we make is immediately scooped up by our cells and swept into our mitochondria to be taken and absorbed into the body via the bloodstream. During high-intensity workouts, i.e., when you are running so fast that it hurts, you are producing more lactic acid than the body can metabolize, and so it stays in the bloodstream. That, boys and girls, is your lactic threshold and that is the point to which you should push yourself and try to keep going.
All these findings are bad news for me. My idea of a good workout is some yoga and pranayama. I never get breathless, let alone suffer during my yoga sessions, possibly because I take it slow and easy. I’ve always disdained aerobic exercises mostly because I could never keep up. If you can’t join them, disdain them is my philosophy.
Recently, however, I’ve come across some superbly fit people in Bangalore. People who clamber up a mountain and run down without a wrinkle on their cheeks. They are called children. Simply put, I want to be like them, hence the research into lactic threshold and search for my “suffering” level. This also nicely dovetails into my anti-ageing research. And, I am not talking about botox here. I am talking about studies such as the Effects of contraction and lactic acid on the discharge of group III muscle afferents in cats by L.I. Sinoway, J.M. Hill, J.G. Pickar and M.P. Kaufman, cited in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
So, I got on the treadmill the other day. I ran for 10 minutes and that was it. I felt like my lungs would burst if I continued. Since I am a considerate person and feel that spilling my innards on an exercise machine that doesn’t belong to me would be in bad taste, I pulled the plug and stopped. As I wheezed out of the clubhouse, little children stared at me and then ran away. The security guard chased me: I thought he was going to administer CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). He merely said that I had forgotten to sign the logbook in our exercise room. You have to fill in the Time In and Time Out, madam, said he. I stared at him, still wheezing considerably. Do you know what your lactic threshold is? I asked. The Nepali guard backed away.
The funny thing was that even my untrained this-little-pig-never- huffed-and-puffed lactic threshold got better. I discovered little strategies to keep running even when my body was begging me to stop. Pretending I was running on my boss’ head...I mean, a rubber ball, helped. Counting to 10 very slowly helped. I also began engaging in little tricks like promising myself a sugar-free supremely bitter chocolate at the end of the workout; that or a samosa. Fantasizing about the end result always worked. I imagined people in airports stopping on their tracks and following my newly gleaming Buddha-like visage across multiple terminals in Amsterdam. I imagined that after 20 such workouts, I would be able to hit my lactic threshold so hard that I would look like Angelina Jolie; or at least Tuntun. I began fantasizing about meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and having him announce to his monks that they would free Tibet and take on China, not by meditating for world peace, but by increasing their lactic threshold. Enough with the chanting already, His Holiness would say; let’s look into glycolysis and how to convert pyruvic acid with three carbon molecules into lactase hydrogenase. That will give the Han Chinese something to think about.
Like all good things in life, I reached my saturation point pretty fast. After a few weeks, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get past 15 minutes at my maximum exhaustion point. None of my fantasy pyrotechnics worked. As for positive reinforcement, I felt like suing Dale Carnegie and his slogans. Day by day in every way, I was not advancing my lactic threshold.
Something happened on the day I was about to give up. As I ran, cursed, ran some more, and then decided that I could take it no more. I was going to pull the plug. And then suddenly, I felt like singing. I am not kidding you. Suddenly, it felt like the moment before you peak — in a completely different arena if you know what I mean. It’s called Runner’s High and it has been described as “orgasmic”.
Shoba Narayan’s lactic threshold is well below Lance Armstrong’s. Not for want of trying though. Write to her at email@example.com