What is Muscle Soreness and How to Fix it
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S.
Football was my favorite sport to play as a kid. Growing up, I loved playing pickup games at the park. So when freshman year of high school came along I signed my name up for tryouts. I remember the first day of tryouts where despite my lanky build, I was destined for greatness. This awkward boy would be no more- I'd soon be a cool jock like on TV and the desire of all the ladies. At least that’s what I thought until I woke up the next morning.
The next morning I couldn’t move. Simple task such as walking or putting on my shirt became painful obstacles. It was like I was hit by a 16 wheeler. More than humbled, I was overwhelmed- overwhelmed with doubts I wasn't good enough and that maybe this sports and exercise thing wasn’t for me. I never returned for that second day of tryouts. I was a failure. My frail adolescent self-esteem took a hit as my dream of playing football came to an abrupt end, all because I didn’t understand DOMS.
DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Syndrome - not to be confused with Dom the Jersey shore Guido who keeps calling you bro when you are clearly not his bro. While just as obnoxious, DOMS is the soreness you feel the day after you workout or do an activity you're unaccustomed too.
It is a feeling that everyone has likely experienced during their life but is also one that most people don't know too much about. This lack of knowledge leads to many misconceptions regarding DOMS- just as I had when I let it discourage me from pursuing my childhood dream. In this article I will address - What is DOMS and what causes it, Misconceptions regarding soreness, and ways to reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle syndrome.
The What and Why
Delayed onset muscle syndrome refers to the feelings of soreness often experienced after a bout of exercise or activity. It sets in as soon as 8 hours after a workout, and can last in some capacity up to 72 hours. While soreness typically peaks the day after, individual differences can alter this timeline.
While the exact mechanisms are unknown, research suggest that DOMS appears to be a product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue. Chemical reactions during the inflammation process sensitize sensory nerve cells and heighten the sensations of pain.
I liken this to a neurotic mother after her son has fallen on the playground. The mother over reacts and does everything short of putting her "baby" into a plastic bubble. Likewise the first time you workout your body does the same thing. It over reacts and says “we're injured! shut it down, shut everything down, I must recover” and then sends signals of pain to dissuade you from doing anything strenuous - like apparently putting on a shirt. After a few workouts your body realizes that you weren't injured, you were just...working out.
While most exercises can cause DOMS, exercises that are new or have a significant eccentric phase will contribute the most to soreness. The eccentric phase of an exercise refers to the part of an exercise where the muscle is lengthening while contracting. These are typically exercises where you are resisting the pull of gravity and where the muscle is being stretched. Examples include lowering a bicep curl, sinking into a squat, or performing a stiff leg dead lift. To visualize this think about your muscle as a rubber band being pulled apart. The rubber band is resisting being stretched but at a certain length the rubber band will show small little tears. In the body these tiny tears are repaired making your muscle stronger. The side effect is a little soreness.
Soreness = Great Workout
As described, DOMS is caused by micro tears to the muscles, and by exercises that are new or eccentric. Muscle soreness is a poor predictor of a good workout, muscle activation, and is not necessary for building muscle.Muscle damage is necessary for building new muscle and may cause soreness, but the soreness is not required. After the initial sessions muscle soreness should dissipate as the body's tissues are now stronger and better adapted to the stresses of working out and as the nervous system stops over reacting to the muscle damage.
In a properly progressed program, muscle soreness should be minimal and manageable. Excessive muscle soreness that is very painful and last for multiple days is a sign that a workout was to intense and beyond your ability to recover. Consequently you will have to take extra days off to recover - which is time you could have spent training. The key to success and minimizing soreness comes with building a proper foundation and progressing gradually.
If you are someone with the notion that soreness equals a great workout then it may feel like you aren't pushing hard enough. I assure you that if you're steadily increasing the weights and the volume that it is OK not to feel sore all the time. Chasing soreness risk pushing past your ability to recover - which can lead to diminished results, overtraining, and injury.
Reducing and Managing Soreness
Muscle soreness is a painful experience especially when you've overdone it in a workout. The key to reducing soreness is proper recovery. Below are a few ways to manage and reduce soreness while working out.
Blood Flow - Blood delivers nutrients to the tissues of the body. Activities that encourage blood flow have been shown to improve recovery. Examples can include walking, light jogging, and other cardiovascular modalities(bike, elliptical etc.). Depending on your level of fitness a light low volume lifting day can also encourage blood flow to damaged areas. Pretty much anything low intensity that gets you moving will be beneficial. I like to use my recovery days as a time to do mobility and core work. Massage is choice among athletes for good reason but if you don’t have the money to pay a masseuse, then I recommend the foam roller - aptly nicknamed the poor man's masseuse. A stay in the sauna or steam room are also wonderfully relaxing alternatives that increase blood flow and promote recovery - enjoy.
Nutrition - Nutrient dense foods provide the resources your body needs to repair tissue and reduce inflammation. Lean meats, fish, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes are the way to go. In addition you should prioritize protein. Protein contains the building blocks needed to build and rebuild muscle. Getting enough protein will go a long way to ensuring your muscles recover and you see the results you want. The best sources of protein come from lean meats, fish, eggs, and dairy. But if you have dietary restrictions combining whole wheat grains such as rice or barley with legumes, such as beans will create a complete protein source. Pseudo-grain quinoa is also a great choice because it is a complete protein.
Sleep - Sleep is when recovery happens. In fact the majority of muscle synthesis takes place during sleep. Go to bed early, in a dark cool room without interruptions. Avoid drinking right before bed so you don’t have to wake up and pee. Also avoid caffeine and other stimulants in the evening. I suggest laying down and reading a book to help clear and settle the mind.
Proper progression - Correct exercise choice and gradual increases in intensity and volume will spare you the most soreness. If you build up appropriately, then you can avoid that extreme soreness to begin with.
Can I workout if I'm Sore?
It depends on how sore you are. From my experience it’s fine to workout when sore if you tailor your workouts accordingly.
Here’s how I typically break it down:
I have my clients visualize a 1 to 10 scale.
1 being barley noticeable and 10 being crippling soreness.
Under a 5 - I say feel free to workout. The muscles are slightly sore and may feel stiff. After a few minutes of warming up you should feel fine to go. Don’t do a vigorous workout. Instead keep the intensity light to moderate. If possible workout the muscles that arn’t sore.
6–7 Soreness is noticeable and your muscles feel tender. I would suggest skipping any vigorous work and just focusing on light restorative exercises such as yoga, Pilates or light aerobics. Preferably non impact such as swimming or biking.
8 or above - You are painfully sore and it’s a sign you over did it. Your body needs time to recover. I recommend taking a rest day or if you must move to keep it restorative with activities such as walking, light cycling, or a stay in the steam room or sauna. Get good sleep and quality foods to promote recovery.
Soreness is a normal part of working out. If you are new to working out don’t let it discourage you. After a few workouts your body will have adapted and you will be fine.
Muscle soreness is not necessary for a good workout and excessive soreness is a sign you over did things. If you are suffering from muscle soreness focus on getting the blood flowing, sleeping well at night, and eating whole natural foods. These tips for recovery are also necessary if you want to see any meaningful results. Gains come not from the workout but rather how well you recover from the workout. The most important thing you can do is to train smart - build up gradually and you'll be able to avoid time off from excessive soreness.
It's fine to workout with DOMS, just keep the intensity proportional to the soreness. The more sore you are the easier the activity should be.