You can pretty much count on sore muscles when you get back to a sport or activity or start a new physical activity. Some athletes even look forward to this initial period of soreness, knowing as they do that it means their muscles will soon become stronger. Let’s examine what researchers say causes exercise-induced muscle soreness and shed light on some commonly held myths.
The accepted technical name for exercise-induced sore muscles is delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. It usually occurs 24 to 48 hours after a vigorous or unaccustomed activity such as weight lifting, running or skiing. Most of us have felt this stiff, dull ache in the muscle and chalked it up to being out of shape. This is true to an extent because over time as you repeat the particular exercise or activity that caused the soreness you experience less and less soreness in that muscle group.
Most researchers believe that microscopic tearing of muscle fibers causes delayed onset muscle soreness. At the cellular level, these damaged muscle cells release chemicals called enzymes. Some researchers believe that an overload of these chemicals contributes to the soreness. Swelling around the muscle fibers also puts pressure on sensitive structures, such as nerves, which supply sensation to the muscle. Other researchers believe that the soreness is biomechanical, meaning that the strain on surrounding muscle, fascia and tendons causes inflammation and pain.
The type of muscle contraction (concentric or eccentric) also plays a role in how much soreness develops. A concentric muscle contraction occurs when you shorten the muscle, as in bending your elbow with weight in your hand (biceps curl). If you are using Nautilus equipment, a concentric contraction is the “up” or “lift” phase of the exercise. An eccentric contraction, in comparison, is a controlled lengthening of the muscle. An example of this is the down phase of weight lifting in which you control the descent of a weight. Think of it as using your muscles as brakes, such as walking or running downhill, or the downward phase of a squat.
Most researchers agree that exercises involving a lot of eccentric contraction produces more muscle soreness than does concentric contraction. A combination of each type of contraction has shown to be the safest and most effective way to train and increase strength without undue damage to the muscles.
The only proven way to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness is by starting a new activity slowly, not jumping in full tilt. For example, if you haven’t skied all season, don’t expect to ski for 6 hours the first day. If you have been working on your quadricep muscles (front thigh muscles) by doing squats and jumping drills, you may be able to do 5 to 6 hours, but pre-training never fully duplicates actual activity.
When you start a walking or running program for the first time, begin with just 10 minutes (after checking with your physician), and build up a little every other day. Slow progression and consistency produce the fastest results. Although stretching or warming up before exercise is always a good idea, this valuable effort won’t alter the amount of muscle soreness that vigorous exercise causes. Anti-inflammatory medications, ice and massage provide temporary relief, but these techniques individually or in combination have been shown NOT to affect the intensity or the duration of delayed onset muscle soreness.
If you find yourself limping around from overdoing it, just remember that delayed onset muscle soreness usually goes away by itself in 3 to 7 days. But if you remain sore for more than 7 days, contact your physician.
The best way to treat DOMS is by gently stretching the area in a pain-free range and avoiding vigorous activity that increases pain. Since DOMS comes with muscle weakness, reduce or halt your exercise or activity for a few days so that the muscle fibers can heal. When you can resume the activity, you should find less soreness and greater strength.
Remember, to play hard, you need to play smart!