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What causes that occasional muscle soreness after a workout?

As a Health and Fitness professional, I am often asked, “What causes that occasional muscle soreness after a workout?” All of us have experienced it, but few of us understand the reason why, so I thought I’d tackle this subject and shed some light on it. The technical term for this common condition is “DOMS” or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

If you experience muscle soreness, stiffness and even some minor pain about 12 to 48 hours after exercising hard, you are feeling the effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. This is a very common condition in people who have been sedentary and are just starting a new exercise program, when we use muscle groups we don’t regularly use (ever do some yard work and the next day you can hardly move), or when we make significant changes in our customary workout program (such as lifting more weight, running a few more miles than normal and making changes in duration of exercise or the intensity level of exercise).

The soreness you are experiencing is really the body’s natural response to pushing yourself to a higher level of physical activity than it’s normally used to and a part of our body’s normal process of adaptation, which is an amazing progression in which our body breaks down, then starts the recovery process, heals and rebuilds. As a result, we get stronger (the process of building muscle). You will notice that the soreness usually hits you the second day after your physical activity and after a day or so of uncomfortable soreness, you get progressively better and soon return to feeling your normal self. Have no fear, in most cases of DOMS, drinking lots of water, applying ice packs, heating pads, hydrotherapy or a simple warm bath with Epsom salt will all help the recovery process.

Please note there is a distinct difference between soreness and pain. Soreness is something our body feels over time. Soreness is quite common and really nothing too serious to worry about. Pain on the other hand, is an important  warning-sign, often felt suddenly, it’s our body’s way of telling us something is seriously wrong. For example, when you twist your ankle or knee the pain is instant, you can’t move it, put weight on it and often swelling will occur. Pain is something we need to address ASAP by seeking the proper care and advice of a medical professional.

Research suggests that the actually causes of the soreness you are feeling related to DOMS is due to microscopic tears of the muscle fibers, I know tears sound scary, but the key word here is “microscopic.” The duration of exercise or the intensity level of exercise will result in the amount of soreness and how long the soreness will be present. Inflammation may also be a cause of the soreness you are experiencing after a tough workout.

Although some people would say it’s best to avoid physical activity that will spark DOMS, I feel that’s almost impossible, especially since part of improving one’s fitness level involves pushing your limits (safely). As they say, it’s part of doing business! I almost look at it as my trophy for a job well done, but please don’t take that the wrong way, I never train to obtain DOMS, it’s just sometimes a normal bi-product of hard work.

Keep in mind that the better physical shape you are in, the less often the DOMS condition arises.

So what do you do when DOMS occurs?

Well, there are several different schools of thought here. Some people say do nothing. There’s no doubt the condition will disappear in a few shorts days, as I said before, it usually hits you the second day, you might be super sore for one or two more days after, but normally the soreness decreases noticeably in just a few short days.

I’m of the school of thought that says, “Stay Active” (A.R.T or Active Recovery Techniques). Sitting on the couch is just going to make you stiffer and sorer for sure and possibly for a longer period of time. Yes, lower the duration of exercise and definitely the intensity level of exercise, but keep moving and push through.

For example, if I go out for a hard run to combat DOMS, I might spin on a lifecycle for 35 minutes or go for a brisk walk the next few days. Stretching the muscles and keeping the joints in motion help greatly, pumping a fresh supply of blood flushes out lactic acid, which has built up. You will feel better and your recovery time will be noticeably shorter.

Other remedies and schools of thought for DOMS relief are;

Although I am not a big believer in taking pills, at times the use of an anti-inflammatory medication (like Advil) is helpful. As with all medications, make sure you take as directed and you should check with your doctor to make certain that it will not interfere with any other medication you may be taking. This will give you temporary relief, but will do little to actually speed up recovery.

Massage has also proven to be a beneficial remedy for DOMS. Again, it breaks up stored toxins by pushing fresh blood into the effected areas. It feels great and relieves muscle tension and soreness very effectively.

Take a warm soak in an Epsom salt bath. This has proven to be a safe and a natural healing remedy for years. One of the many benefits of Epsom salt is to relieve aching muscles and release tension from your body. In my research, I read that Epsom salt is also a natural stress reliever. Stress robs your body of magnesium; bathing in Epsom salt allows you to absorb and replace the lost magnesium through your skin, thus reducing stress in your body.

Hydrotherapy or Water-Therapy has been used for healing, relaxation and pain management for years. Current research has proven that the use of a Whirlpool tub or a Jacuzzi can be highly beneficial in relieving discomfort, soreness and pain from aching and over used muscle and joints. In essence the high power water jets provide an aquatic massage and stimulate blood flow. The recuperative and healing properties of hydrotherapy are now commonly known today and the practice is widely used. There is a reason why you will find a whirlpool tub in just about every professional sports training room.

So, experts recommend R.I.C.E. – No, I not talking about the food here. R.I.C.E. stands for; Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Rest and Ice are good and I can understand their application, but I am not too sure how compression and elevation really apply here. I really see the R.I.C.E. method more effectively used treatment for injury, than I do soreness, but thought I mention it.

Well that’s basically the 411 on DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). I hope now that you have a better understanding of the condition, you will have an easier time dealing with it.

A few important closing points for you to digest.

Remember if your pain continues longer than a 7-10 day period, regardless of the treatment you have been administering, this is not normal. Some muscle soreness and pain (key work is – pain) could be a serious sign of injury. Don’t take any chances with your health, seek the attention and advice of a medical professional.

Always remember to properly warm-up and cool-down. Every day I see people in the gym skipping these very important steps of proper exercise. Don’t just go off rushing into your workout. To greatly reduce the risk of injury and soreness give your body time to adapt. It’s safer for you and you will find you will get way more out of your workout. This is something we stress big time at The Fitness Underground-Los Angeles, it’s an important part of our training bible and unfortunately one most people always seem to forget.

You always have to use your head and train smart, which means training safely, properly and effectively. If you lack the experience and know-how don’t let your ego get in the way, never put yourself at risk and seek the guidance of a Certified Personal Trainer. A CPT will educate you how to train the right way; not only will you lower the risk of injury and set-backs by learning how to “train smart,” exercise will become a much more enjoyable experience for you. You will find yourself sticking to your fitness program, your results will be amazing and your fitness goals will come much quicker as well.

It takes time to really get to know your body, but once you do, you can prevent injury, set-backs and for the most part, a serious case of DOMS.



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