Post-Workout Muscle Soreness: What it is and what to do about it
Welcome to February! A great month in my opinion, as it contains my birthday!! As we move past January, I hope you all have been able to stick with your New Year’s Resolutions (if you like making those). Congrats if you have, you’re beating the norms.
This week’s post is on something that can very easily knock someone off of their fitness related resolution: extreme muscle soreness after a workout. Right after those first few workouts you’re probably feeling really good about yourself and accomplished…until the next day that is! I hope this post will help you understand and prevent this soreness as you move forward with your fitness goals. Read on to prevent the soreness (actually, just reading won’t prevent soreness, you’ll actually have to implement what you read!).
You know that feeling of not being able to stand up out of a chair or walk down stairs the day after a tough workout? If so, then you are most likely familiar with the topic of this week’s post. Ask anyone who exercises regularly and they will be very aware of the type of muscle soreness that can occur during the days after a challenging workout. In the Exercise Science world, we refer to this as DOMS.
DOMS is not just another four letter word. Rather, it refers to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. DOMS is most commonly experienced after beginning a new exercise program, increasing the volume or intensity of your workout, or performing exercises your body is not accustomed to.
I’m sure that you’re all wondering why this occurs and how to prevent it, right? Well, you’ve come to the right place, because that’s what I’ll be talking about today. First, we must clarify the difference between good and bad soreness.
“Good” Soreness vs. “Bad” Soreness
Soreness after a workout is sometimes misinterpreted as a bad thing, but this is not necessarily the case. While it may be an annoyance, some soreness post-workout is optimal for stimulating increases in strength and size of the muscles. However, you should still be able to stand up out of a chair without intense soreness!
DOMS occurs when someone exercises or works just hard enough to cause micro-tears in the muscle cells. These micro-tears are not an injury to the muscle. Rather they create a stimulus for the body to repair and super-compensate for the damaged cells. This is precisely how muscles gain endurance and strength that they did not have before.
The down side is that this micro-tearing of the muscle triggers an immune response as part of the repair process. Because of this, the muscles become stiff, sore, and slightly swollen as the body reacts to repair the damaged cells. This should be considered completely normal, as the body must be adequately stressed in order to adapt.
Now, all this talk of damaged and torn cells may not sound good, but a distinction must be made between good and bad muscle soreness. “Good” muscle soreness allows the body to repair and become stronger, while “bad” soreness is a result of the body being pushed beyond its ability to immediately repair and get stronger and an injury occurs.
An injury from exercise usually comes either because the muscle is simply worked too hard, or more commonly, when a part of the body that is not supposed to be doing the work (joints, ligaments, etc.) is stressed more than the muscle. When this happens, we experience pain that does not easily subside instead of normal muscle soreness.
So, there is a good side of muscle soreness after exercising. Muscles get sore and stiff after exercise so that we don’t injure them by overworking them while they’re being repaired.
DOMS is not a bad thing then. It is a sign that you worked your muscles enough to get stronger, and it ensures that we give them time to rest and repair. Because of this, it is not a good idea to go back to exercising at the same level until the soreness has begun to subside, or has already subsided.
With all that being said, nobody likes to be sore all the time, and excessive DOMS is a big reason why many people do not want to go back to exercising after they’ve experienced extreme soreness.
Fortunately, there are some ways to limit the amount of soreness you get after a workout, and to help the muscles recover more quickly. Below are some tips you can incorporate to help limit DOMS.
How to Limit Exercise Induced Soreness
If you want to keep DOMS at a minimum, while still maximizing the benefits of a workout, make sure to follow these tips. They will help you avoid injury and excessive soreness:
Start Smart: Begin an exercise routine at a level that is easier than you think you can handle. Then progress slowly and steadily from there. Don’t come out of the gates trying to accomplish your long-term goal in one workout. Have patience and ease into it.
Start each workout right with adequate warm-up: The goal of warming up is to increase muscle temperature and elasticity, and to get the fluid in the muscles and joints flowing easier. This will allow easier movement of the joints, muscles, and tendons, and prevent muscle damage. Research has proven that simply doing light static stretching as a warm-up is inadequate when it comes to reducing muscle soreness. Instead, a warm-up should include sustained aerobic work to raise heart rate (e.g. walking, jogging, biking), as well as dynamic stretching where muscles are being moved through a full range of motion at a controlled pace.
Soft Tissue Massage: Massage is a great way to reduce muscle soreness by relieving tension and promoting blood flow to the muscle in order to loosen it up. This can be done by a qualified massage therapist, or by a self-massage technique such as foam rolling. I prefer to do some foam rolling as part of my warm-up, and I usually recommend this because paying for massage regularly can get expensive.
In cases of extreme soreness, ice and NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.) may be used to relieve sore muscles. However, care should be taken that these are not used to push through pain or intense soreness in order to exercise or work harder, as this may lead to injury. Instead, only use these methods to reduce pain or soreness that is preventing comfort or daily activities.
Finally, a great way to reduce muscle soreness is to perform active rest/recovery. This consists of going through a workout comprised of dynamic stretches or exercises with little to no weight. You can also perform some light cardio in order to increase blood flow to the sore muscles and promote healing.
Give these anti-DOMS strategies a try. See which method works best for you and fits into your routine. Remember, soreness after a workout is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is not extreme soreness or pain and it subsides or gets noticeably better within 48-72 hours.
If you experience pain or soreness that has not subsided after a week or gets worse with certain movements, be sure to see your doctor or another health professional.