Muscle soreness after a workout is something every athlete has experienced. To combat that soreness, athletes need to know why muscle soreness happens and what they can do to alleviate the pain.
Why Am I Sore?
Athletes feel sore after a workout thanks to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Athletes typically feel DOMS 24 to 48 hours after a workout. It is a common result of training, and the pain is often minimal. The soreness comes when muscles are worked in eccentric (or lengthening) movements. Many exercises require eccentric movements. DOMS is most often associated with strength training, but other activities, like running downhill, plyometrics and even jogging can leave an athlete feeling sore the next day.
It was long thought that DOMS was a response to the accumulation of lactic acid in the body, but the American College of Sports Medicine was quick to point out that lactic acid has nothing to do with DOMS. Instead, DOMS appears to be an effect of the recovery process. Picture yourself doing a heavy Bicep Curl. As you curl the weight toward your chest, your muscle fibers contract and shorten in size. When you start to lower the weight, the muscles lengthen, causing microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. These microscopic tears and the recovery that follows is what trigger DOMS.
It stands to reason that the severity of DOMS depends on the amount of stimulus placed on the body. The more stress applied, the more severe the DOMS. But the body is highly adaptable and works constantly to alleviate soreness, which is why trainers and coaches advocate changing your routine every couple of months to constantly challenge your body.
How to Handle It
DOMS can be enough to hinder athletic performance. Although athletes may be able to play and perform through the minor pain of DOMS, doing so may also put them at an increased chance for injury. To better combat the symptoms of DOMS, there are more than a few strategies that athletes can employ.
The most obvious way to avoid DOMS is to reduce the eccentric load. We have established that greater stress on the muscles worsens DOMS. Athletes may be tempted to lift as much weight as possible to stimulate growth, but doing so may do more harm than good. Performing heavy lifts, or attempting complex movements, without first building a base of fitness puts athletes at risk for injury. Eccentric loading to achieve muscle gains is effective, but gains can occur without overemphasizing the eccentric phase of the exercise—especially during your season. For example, you can train your lower body with Sled Pushes, which minimizes eccentric loading.
Athletes looking for relief can also turn to other methods. Note, however, that although these methods may ease the symptoms of DOMS, reduced pain does not necessarily mean the muscle is fully recovered. It’s best to give the body sufficient time to recover, generally in the 24 to 72 hour range. Meantime, you can alleviate the symptoms with the following methods.
There are many ways to self-massage, but foam rolling is the most popular. USA Triathalon recommends foam rolling because of its efficiency in breaking down soft tissue adhesions in the muscle. Breaking down these adhesions and trigger points allows more blood to flow through the body, bringing nutrients needed for muscle repair. Foam rolling also gives you a measure of control over what you massage. It can be done every day, but it’s important to do it properly and avoid rolling over joints or injured tissues. Foam rollers are inexpensive and portable. Other self-massage options include massage sticks, lacrosse balls and golf balls.
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Stretching works well to maintain and promote flexibility, and it may improve range of motion and boost circulation. Static stretching is best saved for after a workout. Dynamic stretching is best employed before a workout as part of a warm-up. As science continues to provide research, we have learned that static stretching is not as important as it used to be, and may even hinder performance in certain cases. That said, it is still an important part of any flexibility program and should be included in cooldown periods.
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Active Recovery Techniques
If you are too sore to complete a full workout, a great way to aid your recovery is to stay active. Low-intensity, steady state aerobic exercises are the most common methods of active recovery. These include jogging and swimming at an easy pace for a set amount of time, like 20-45 minutes. These “flush” workouts flush the body with blood, providing nutrients and glycogen to depleted muscle stores, while avoiding strenuous work on the muscles.
Steady state aerobic exercises are only one way to practice active recovery. Another way is to work on your game. Instead of performing a workout in the weight room, spend time honing a sport-specific skill. Basketball players can practice their free throws, while tennis players can work on their backhand. Or, you can just play games, with a focus on having fun instead of aggressively competing. Play a game of HORSE instead of going 5-on-5 in a full-court scrimmage.
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The best recovery technique is always simply to rest and let your body recover naturally. A hard workout requires extra time for the body to recover. Athletes should emphasize getting enough sleep and drinking enough water to ensure that their bodies recover properly.
Soreness after a workout is nothing new, and it’s common for all athletes, regardless of experience. To relieve it, try these methods and listen to your body.