Some of us endure more aches and pains than others, but muscle soreness is a fairly universal experience. Since muscle tissue covers the entire body, muscle soreness can be felt almost anywhere. From stiff shoulders to nagging IT bands, your soreness can paint a picture of what’s happening beneath the surface. Whether we’re setting a personal best at the squat rack or busting out a 60-hour work week, we can feel the somatic manifestations that indicate the residual impact of our efforts and lifestyles, and in many cases that means muscle soreness. The question then becomes, “What does this soreness mean for me, my body, and my routine?”
Understanding the Pain
Suffice it to say, muscle pain can be the result of a variety of causes including but not limited to tension carried in one area of the body, stress-related exacerbation, overuse during exercise, or even injury. Understanding why you’re feeling post-workout muscle soreness and how to approach it can be confusing, but we’re here to help! As irritating as it may be, soreness after an intense workout is completely natural. It’s a sign that your muscles are benefiting from the applause-worthy effort you’re allocating to your training. Most active individuals have experienced a broad spectrum of muscle soreness throughout their journey, ranging from intra-workout exhaustion to struggling to climb the stairs the next day. The latter can often be the most severe form of muscle soreness, plaguing individuals with swelling, muscle aches, stiff joints, and even weakness in the hours following the sweat sesh. If you’re keen on understanding these processes on a scientific level, here’s a crash course: The brief burning associated with effortful training and longer-lasting pain are both influenced by the same molecules in the body. The pain receptors associated with muscle soreness only respond with feelings of fatigue and pain when the specific molecules are present and grouping with one another. What often contributes to the transition from short-term burning to true delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, may be a markedly stronger concentration of these molecules in the muscle and surrounding connective tissues. Combining this biochemical reality with exercises that increase the likelihood of tears is one sure-fire way to wake up feeling nasty.
The Dreaded Delay
Delayed onset muscle soreness, aka DOMS, varies from the typical muscle soreness that develops during exercise. Instead, DOMS emerges “12-24 hours after the exercise has been performed and may produce the greatest pain between 24-72 hours” afterward according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Whether someone notices their pain peaking on, say, the second or third day after an intense workout is highly variable. This is essentially due to the nature of human beings as bio-individuals. Also noteworthy? Preexisting inflammation, accumulating stress, and even dehydration can also influence how muscle aches manifest, potentially accelerating or complicating the process of post-workout soreness. There are a wide range of activities that have the potential to cause DOMS due to the biomechanical processes involved. During heavy training, microscopic tears are made in the tissues and fibers of the muscles actively being used. Individuals are most likely to experience this and the resultant muscle soreness when they’re introducing new training stimuli. This can include trying out a new mode of exercise, increasing weight in the gym, or amplifying the volume of the training load. According to the ACSM, individuals who routinely take part in strength training (i.e. bodybuilding and weightlifting), decline walking, jogging, step aerobics, and jumping are especially prone to experiencing DOMS. These activities are commonly associated with microtears in the muscle due to the dynamic eccentric motions they involve. During an eccentric exercise, the muscle is lengthened. Conversely, a concentric exercise involves a shortened muscle. For example, you perform a concentric movement as you curl a dumbbell, contracting and shortening the bicep. You perform the eccentric portion of the movement as you lower the dumbbell back to the starting position, with the bicep fully stretched and elongated. With that said, if you see that your personal trainer is planning out a gnarly day of “negatives,” get ready for some pain. This type of workout has the athlete focusing on eccentric movements more than usual, with greater tension and time spent in the elongated portion of each lift. The same goes for the runners who opt for sprinting down the hills of their weekly courses as opposed to taking a more graceful (and less high-impact) walk. That quick escalation in force is sure to cause a reaction, and—depending on a person’s fitness level—some muscle soreness during and potentially after the activity.
Busting the Muscle Soreness Myths
Muscle soreness is just lactic acid buildup, right?
Wrong. This is one of the most common myths floating around conversations on post-workout pains. In fact, lactic acid is not a component of DOMS at all. During exercise, our bodies break down molecules for energy. During this process, it’s normal for cells to become more acidic, which is typically at the root of the muscle-burning sensation you feel toward the end of your WOD. Lactate is one of the byproducts of this process, but what many people don’t realize is that lactate is actually cleared from the body within 30 to 60 minutes of finishing a workout, which means it isn’t causing the soreness you’re experiencing hours or days after your sweat sesh.
No pain, no gain!
Truth be told, soreness alone is a poor indicator of training intensity or future muscle growth. While you should feel a bit of soreness following a workout, no one should be avoiding squatting down to the toilet the next day. Given the long list of confounding variables associated with the presentation of DOMS, it’s impossible to use its symptoms as a one-stop shop for determining who’s a better athlete. Mild discomfort may be healthy, but severe pain is in no way desirable. Pushing yourself beyond the onset of sharp pain in hopes of achieving your daily goal only increases the likelihood of injury.
Should you push through the pain?
From professional athletes to everyday asphalt kickers, everyone is susceptible to the discomfort of delayed onset muscle soreness. In fact, it’s inevitable. That being said, the severity of the pain tends to decrease as individuals increase the consistency of their training. This means that you’re likely to feel less sore when your workouts become a daily habit. Because new stressors are one of the predominant causes of DOMS, it’s normal for an individual to feel less soreness during their third or fourth week of exercise than they were during week one. With time, your body learns to adapt to your high demands. Remember, a little pain is a sign that your muscles are recovering and rebuilding. In fact, the ACSM explains that “just one bout of soreness-producing exercise actually develops a partial protective effect that reduces the chance of developing soreness in that same activity for weeks or months into the future.” Our bodies eventually learn to distribute the workload evenly, which thwarts microscopic damage in the muscle tissue, presenting both a blessing and a curse. This is the same reason it’s so important to frequently introduce novel stressors into your training regimen. As annoying as DOMS may be, those microtears and subsequent rebuilding are crucial for growth. Without new stimuli, the body’s natural modifications toward greater efficiency can impede long-term goals. If you’ve ever experienced a plateau in your journey, this may be the underlying cause. If you can push through the grueling muscle soreness and continue to shock your muscles during your training, they’ll develop into larger and stronger tissues. According to Monica Vazquez, a NASM-certified personal trainer, a fair amount of trauma in the form of microtears (nothing bigger, friends) is an essential step in stimulating the protein production that contributes to growth. Whether you’re heading to the gym to tighten up your tummy or feather your quads, don’t shy away from a few DOM-induced twinges. If the pain is a bit too much to push through, simply take a step back from your original plan and opt for a less-demanding load. This can range from dropping your deadlifts to a slightly lighter weight to skipping the gym altogether and jumping into a cycling class to get your blood flowing rather than spending the day on the couch! Still too much? Head into your local yoga studio for a vinyasa flow and a few blissful moments in savasana. The bottom line is there’s no reason to stop exercising altogether.
How can you relieve the ache?
First things first, let’s discuss preventative methods. While there are indeed a few tricks to help with easing the symptoms, averting the onset of DOMS altogether is—of course—the ideal. The ACSM explains that one of the best ways to prevent muscle soreness is by gradually progressing through a new program. This gives the muscle tissue sufficient time to acclimate to the new stress while still ensuring a decent workload for muscle development. While there can still be a novel stimulus, the body will be capable of adjusting in a way that minimizes the severity of symptoms. This won’t sidestep all soreness, but will certainly ease things up enough for you to walk without a limp. Between sessions of exercise, give your body appropriate time to recover. It’s important to understand that this can be done without taking rest days. Instead, try to engage different muscle groups by alternating types of exercise. If you went on a 5k trail run on Monday, perhaps your Tuesday workout will involve a swimming cap and pair of goggles. If you’ve just trained legs, wait two to three days before returning to the gym for another taxing leg workout. Instead, think about incorporating a few upper body splits within that time frame. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that treatment strategies significantly decrease the recovery time associated with DOMS. That said, there are a variety of anecdotal recommendations for easing the symptoms of muscle soreness. Keep in mind that the reduction of pain does not necessarily represent recovery. Sometimes it’s just a Band-Aid effect, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with seeking relief from DOMS. Just keep in mind that these strategies may help diminish the pain, but the underlying muscle damage is still present.
Take a dip (or turn to the freezer).
The ACSM notes that ice pack application may be helpful, and this is backed by a study on cold water immersion (CWI) for athletes. One key finding in this randomized control trial was the impact of being immersed in 6° C water for 10 minutes. This was the most successful treatment for reducing muscle soreness and painful stretching. For ladies at home, this would be the equivalent of an ice bath. While beneficial and applicable for athletes, a frozen ice pack will have similar, spot-treatment effects for those who prefer a less extreme method.
Reach for a latte.
A turmeric latte, that is. Loading up on turmeric—or more specifically, curcumin—can help you address your muscle soreness. It’s one of the most potent compounds in turmeric and what gives the spice its natural orange–yellow tint. This small molecule “exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects.” Curcumin has also been shown to significantly reduce pain and may even help with strength loss. However, it has poor oral bioavailability, meaning that our bodies are incapable of absorbing the amount it would take for us to experience its maximum benefits. This issue can be resolved and the effects enhanced by pairing turmeric with black pepper. If you’ve been waiting to try a few homemade curry recipes, now is the perfect time! Another option is the increasingly popular golden milk latte. Whether you elect to pick up a mix from the local grocer or blend your own, pairing it with a steaming a cup of almond milk may hit the spot. For maximum benefit, you can dose up to 8g of curcumin or turmeric, which is the equivalent of about two teaspoons.
Stretch and release.
In addition to applying ice packs and ingesting a decent dose of turmeric, you can also gently stretch your sore muscles and take part in stress-relieving activities. Stretching—whether this is done with a yoga flow, a foam roller, or an easy cycling session—can target the affected muscle tissue and ease out the tightness associated with sore muscles. To build on this relief, meditation can have a more extensive reach and help with reducing tension throughout your entire body.
Should you see a doctor?
While muscle soreness is often benign, this isn’t always the case. In some cases, the aches and pains could be symptoms of a more serious health concern—especially when the pain is consistent and you are without relief. If you feel any of the following possibilities may apply to you, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor:
- Significant pain that arises without a distinct cause
- Pain that occurs with a rash
- Pain that begins after a tick bite
- Pain accompanied by redness or swelling of the limbs
- Pain that develops after a change in medication
- Pain that occurs with a fever
If your muscle pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you could be experiencing a medical emergency. In these cases, secure a ride to your local hospital or walk-in clinic as soon as possible:
- Sudden water retention
- Reduction in urine output
- Darkened urine
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Stiffness in your neck
- Inability to move the affected area of your body