Athletes are very familiar with muscle soreness, so when we hear someone say, “Man, my muscles are really sore today,” we can all relate to that feeling. But what is muscle soreness, what causes it, what can be done to prevent it, and how can we get over it more quickly?
What is muscle soreness? The muscle soreness that sometimes occurs in the days after hard or novel exercise is distinct from the muscle pain that results from injuries, the burning discomfort in muscles that occurs with high-intensity efforts, and the numbing muscle fatigue often experienced during endurance efforts. Exercise-associated muscle soreness most often occurs in the few days after…
- Starting a new training season
- Abruptly increasing training intensity or duration
- Initial exposure to downhill running
- Eccentric and plyometric exercise
- Unaccustomed exercise such as completing hard sets of burpees in the middle of a training season with athletes who have not done burpees before.
This type of muscle soreness is often referred to as DOMS—delayed-onset muscle soreness—because it occurs 24 to 48 hours after exercise and can last for many days. In addition to being hobbled by soreness, muscle strength is temporarily reduced, the ability to train normally is compromised for at least a few days, and the affected muscles are sore to touch.
What causes muscle soreness? Whenever muscles are damaged by exercise, soreness usually results. Exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is microscopic, occurring when individual muscle cells are damaged by the mechanical and chemical stresses of exercise. That damage causes a cascade of events inside and outside muscle cells that lead to impaired muscle contraction (temporary reduction in strength), inflammation, muscle protein breakdown, stiffness, and soreness. In some cases, the breakdown and release of muscle proteins into the bloodstream is so extensive that it results in severe rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening disorder than can lead to kidney failure.
Here’s a simple way to illustrate the key events associated with muscle soreness:
EIMD results in soreness, stiffness, strength loss, rhabdomyolysis, impaired training.
All of that bad news is eventually followed by good news in the form of muscle remodeling as changes occur to make damaged muscles stronger and more resistant to future damage.
What can be done to prevent muscle soreness? Although some muscle soreness is unavoidable—such as occurs at the beginning of a new training program or after a hard session of resistance exercise—debilitating soreness can be avoided by smart training. Whenever we introduce new and different types of training into our routines, there is an increased risk of EIMD, so we have to weigh the potential benefits of that new training against the potential risks of being too sore to train. That risk-benefit assessment is especially important as we get older and are more susceptible to DOMS and slower to recover from it. Making smart training decisions is equally important for those who are genetically susceptible to EIMD and DOMS, because training can be disrupted for a week or more due to lingering pain, stiffness, loss of strength, and impaired coordination. In the future, it may be possible through genetic testing to identify those athletes who are predisposed to EIMD and DOMS so that coaches and trainers can take those in-born sensitivities into consideration when designing training programs.
How can we get rid of muscle soreness quickly? It’s important to realize that muscle soreness is an indication that muscles have been damaged; the greater the soreness and loss of strength, the greater the damage. It’s not wise to ignore soreness, nor is it smart to try to mask it completely. That is particularly true for inflammation, an important impetus to muscle repair and remodeling. However, it is possible to reduce the extent and duration of DOMS and return muscle function to normal more quickly. Unfortunately, no one fix works for everyone. After soreness hits, some athletes find relief in light exercise, massage, stretching, whole-body vibration, compression garments, cold- or hot-water immersion, and NSAIDS such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Some research shows that certain nutrition interventions and muscle recovery supplements in the days before muscle-damaging exercise might reduce DOMS and restore muscle function more quickly. For example, consuming tart cherry juice, blueberry juice, and pomegranate juice has also been shown by various studies to be beneficial in reducing the impact of DOMS. Caffeine and omega-3 fatty acids have also shown promise in a few studies. Some athletes report DOMS-related pain relief associated with consuming HOTSHOT after hard training sessions.
No two athletes respond in the same way to EIMD and that also seems to be true for interventions designed to reduce its after effects. Because there are so many factors involved in EIMD, there are many potential points of possible intervention that might help with muscle soreness relief, speed the clean-up of damaged tissue, enhance the rate of repair and remodeling, reduce excessive inflammation and swelling, and alleviate soreness and pain. The best course of action for individual athletes is to avoid exercise that is known to cause severe EIMD and experiment to find interventions that are effective at reducing the periodic stiffness and soreness that are unavoidable responses to hard training.
Baumert, P., Lake, M. J., Stewart, C. E., Drust, B., & Erskine, R. M. (2016). Genetic variation and exercise-induced muscle damage: implications for athletic performance, injury and aging. Eur J Appl Physiol, 116(9), 1595-1625.
Kim, J., & Lee, J. (2014). A review of nutritional intervention on delayed onset muscle soreness. Part I. J Exerc Rehabil, 10(6), 349-356.
Peake, J. M., Neubauer, O., Della Gatta, P. A., & Nosaka, K. (2016). Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985), jap 00971 02016. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00971.2016
Rosenbloom, C. A. (2016). What’s new in sports nutrition recovery? Nutr Today, 51(2), 66-71.
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