Anyone who has ever begun a weight-lifting regimen, shoveled a long driveway, or lifted something heavy only to be sore the next day (or two, or three…) is familiar with the concept of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
This is the constant ache in your muscles that you feel 24-48 hours after doing something strenuous to which you are not accustomed. To be clear, it is not the same as the sharp, immediate pain of a pull or strain, nor is it the same as the muscle fatigue you feel while working out.
What causes DOMS?
There is some misinformation on the internet and in common knowledge that a build up of lactic acid or lactate, created through aerobic respiration, causes muscle soreness. While it is true that a build-up or inability to get rid of lactate can hinder workouts, this is not the cause of DOMS. This is caused by microscopic tears in the muscles during the “eccentric“, or lengthening, portion of an exercise. This causes the muscle to forcefully contract while it lengthens.
The opposite is the “concentric” portions of an exercise. Examples of eccentric moves include walking or running down hills, the lengthening portion of a bicep curl, the downward portion of a squat or lunge, or jumping. It is believed these microtraumas to the muscle fibers combined with inflammation and swelling cause the associated pain.
I once had a “leg day” where I did over 200 squats/lunges per leg, and was then limping around for three days after. Hopefully that was just a ‘beginning to build muscle’ stage and won’t be the norm.
Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to prevent this soreness, especially if it is a new activity. When you first begin letting weights or playing a sport, there is going to be some amount of discomfort. There are a few things you can try to prevent or ease soreness.
To ease muscle aches:
- Take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or Aleve. This will help calm the ‘pain’ signals to your brain and decrease any swelling so you heal faster.
- Take a hot/cold shower. Let me explain. If you take a very cold shower or bath right after the workout, anecdotal evidence says it may help decrease how sore you are later. The next day, if sore, try a soothing hot bath to ease achy muscles.
- Try foam rolling. These rolling-pin looking foam tubes are designed to relax the tissue layer surrounding muscles and easy achy soreness. Here’s a Yahoo article about it.
- Massage the sore areas. It may hurt a lot while happening, but some swear that it gets rid of pain faster after.
- Active recovery. Do light exercise like yoga, walking, or swimming. This makes the muscles continue to move, gets blood flowing through the sore areas, and hopefully help them heal quicker.
- Take Vitamin C before and/or after a workout. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, and may help prevent muscle damage caused by free radicals created when muscles work hard.
- Try a creme like IcyHot or Bengay to soothe deep muscle soreness.
- Drink lots of water and green tea. Staying well-hydrated is always a good idea, but your muscles can be up to 70% water, so keeping them hydrated means keeping them able to work.
While time is really the only thing guaranteed to help make muscle soreness go away, hopefully this article will inspire you to be safe and smart, and ease your way into weights.
Please, DO NOT use this soreness as an excuse to just stop working out! It just means you pushed a little too hard this time.
In fact, some think that DOMS is a necessary part of building new muscles. Here’s an article from fitness magazine Runner’s World on “Why Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness Is a Good Thing” by Mackenzie Lobby.
Your muscles will build themselves back up and get bigger and stronger, especially with repeats of those motions (so keep legs, arms & shoulders days on the schedule). The severity of the soreness will decrease over time as your muscles build and adapt to the exercises.
Eventually whatever left you sore and weak will be no problem at all. Rest and recover, then get back out there!
Regular movement is the number one best thing you can do for your heart, blood pressure, and overall health and wellbeing.
For more information you can see This PDF from the American College of Sports Medicine.