Sore muscles are one of the less pleasant side effects of exercise. Depending on the type and intensity of the workout, muscle soreness can range from barely noticeable to extremely painful.
Why Do Our Muscles Get Sore in the First Place?
Muscle soreness after exercise (also referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS) signals that you caused damage to your muscle tissue, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. When this damage, or micro-tearing, happens, your body initiates the repair process by triggering inflammation at the injured site, explains Shawn Arent, PhD, CSCS, a professor and the chair in the department of exercise science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and the director of its sports science lab.
Fluid accumulates in the muscles, putting extra pressure on the damaged areas, leading to that familiar sensation of tightness and pain that typically begins to develop 12 to 24 hours after your workout, Dr. Arent explains.
While you create a little bit of damage every time you exercise, certain types of workouts are notorious for higher levels of damage and — by extension — soreness. In particular, any workout that’s new to you, more intense than usual, or involves a lot of eccentric movements will likely cause more damage and soreness than other types of workouts.
It’s the eccentric, or lengthening muscle, contractions that are causing the soreness, says Jan Schroeder, PhD, a professor in the department of kinesiology at California State University in Long Beach. Think: walking or jogging down a hill, or the lowering motion during a biceps curl or chest press. Your muscles typically sustain greater damage during these types of movements than during concentric exercises (ones where your muscle is working as it is shortening). Muscles face a lot of stress during both types of movement, but fewer muscle fibers get recruited to carry out eccentric contractions versus concentric ones (such as curling a dumbbell or pressing weight overhead), according to a review published in the May 2019 issue of Frontiers in Physiology.
Some Muscle Soreness Is a Good Thing, but It Shouldn’t Last for Too Long
Torn, inflamed muscles sound bad — and we certainly want to minimize inflammation in our normal daily lives, because past research has shown chronic inflammation contributes to many chronic diseases — but some degree of inflammation can be an important signal for muscle growth and repair, according to Arent. If you help your muscles recover from the damage, they’ll likely grow back bigger and stronger, “so it’s not so much that we don’t want inflammation to occur, but we want to get it under control as soon as possible,” Arent says.
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And you probably want the soreness to go away so you can get back to moving and living pain-free.
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Keep in mind that you don’t have to be sore after a workout in order for it to be effective. Soreness means damage, and damage is fine in small doses, but you don’t have to create soreness-inducing damage every time you work out. “That shouldn’t be your goal,” Dr. Schroeder says. “You don’t have to be sore to know you had a good workout.”
Does Warming Up Lessen Post-Workout Muscle Soreness?
You may have heard that stretching can help prevent injury and soreness. But stretching your muscles before you exercise is probably not a good idea. “I’m not a fan of stretching before you start training,” Arent says.
A Cochrane review of 12 studies that looked at how stretching before or after a workout affected later muscle soreness consistently found that stretching did not have an effect on muscle soreness within a week after a workout.
Some evidence suggests that a dynamic warmup immediately before a workout could reduce muscle soreness up to two days later, but the reduction in soreness seen in the research has been very small.
6 Things You Can You Do During and After Your Workout to Ease Muscle Soreness
While there aren’t any instant solutions — your muscles just need time to heal — there are some strategies you can use to ease soreness and aid recovery. Here’s what you should know.
1. During and After Your Workout: Hydrate
It might sound obvious, but staying hydrated is an important aspect of muscle recovery. Water keeps the fluids moving through your system, which eases inflammation, flushes out waste products, and delivers nutrients to your muscles, Arent says.
The trouble is, it can be tricky to know if and when you’re dehydrated, as you’ll probably reach dehydration before thirst hits, according to Schroeder. The color of your urine provides a good indication: Medium or dark yellow signals dehydration, whereas pale yellow means you’re hydrated.
Just be aware that taking vitamin supplements may cause your urine to look darker than usual. Who will be affected, and by what types of vitamin supplements? That’s hard to say. “Everybody’s different,” Schroeder says.
2. Immediately After Your Workout, Use a Foam Roller (Self-Myofascial Release) or Massage Gun
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a technique used to release tension in muscles and connective tissues (foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and massage sticks are common SMR tools), helping to move the fluids that accumulate in the muscle after exercise.
A review published in November 2015 in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling may help increase range of motion and reduce DOMS. Foam rolling, as well as other types of massage, increases circulation to deliver more nutrients and oxygen to the affected area, which helps reduce swelling and tenderness, Arent explains.
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