By Kim Duke
NETA & AAFA Certified Trainer
We all know that daily exercise is invaluable to keeping our bodies strong and functional. You know the old saying, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”—well, turns out, it’s completely true. You may not feel this way in your youth, but as you age, the less you do physically will play a detrimental role in how you age.
This being said, starting an exercise program can be challenging. Making the time to exercise, creating a balanced routine, and setting goals are hard enough, but add to that the muscle soreness that comes with adapting to that regimen, and it may be difficult to stay on track.
After participating in some kind of strenuous physical activity, particularly something new to your body, it is common to experience muscle soreness, say experts. “Muscles go through quite a bit of physical stress when we exercise,” says Rick Sharp, professor of exercise physiology at Iowa State University in Ames. “Mild soreness is just a natural outcome of any kind of physical activity,” he says. “And they’re most prevalent in beginning stages of a program.”
Exercise physiologists refer to the gradually increasing discomfort that occurs between 24 and 48 hours after activity as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it is perfectly normal. “Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common result of physical activity that stresses the muscle tissue beyond what it is accustomed to,” says David O. Draper, professor and director of the graduate program in sports medicine/athletic training at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.
To be more specific, says Draper, who’s also a member of the heat-responsive pain council, delayed onset muscle soreness occurs when the muscle is performing an eccentric or a lengthening contraction. Examples of this would be running downhill or the lengthening portion of a bicep curl. “Small microscopic tears occur in the muscle,” he says.
“The aches and pains should be minor and are simply indications that muscles are adapting to your fitness regimen,” says Carol Torgan, an exercise physiologist and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
No one is immune to muscle soreness. Exercise fanatics and body builders alike experience delayed onset muscle soreness. But for the deconditioned person starting out, this can be intimidating. People starting an exercise program need guidance, Torgan says. “To them, they might feel very sore, and because they aren’t familiar with it, they might worry that they’ve hurt themselves. Then they won’t want to do it again.” Letting them know it’s OK to be sore may help them work through that first few days without being discouraged.
So what can you do to alleviate the pain? “Exercise physiologists and athletic trainers have not yet discovered a panacea for DOMS,” says Draper, “however, several remedies, such as ice, rest, anti-inflammatory meds, massages, and stretching after your workout have been reported as helpful in the process of recovery. People don’t stretch enough. Stretching helps break the cycle.”
Take it easy for a few days while your body adapts, says Torgan. Or try some light exercise such as walking or swimming, she suggests. Keeping the muscle in motion can also provide some relief. It’s also a process of muscle conditioning. Torgan says delayed onset muscle soreness also has a “repeated bouts” effect. “If someone does an activity, they will be inoculated for a few weeks to a few months — the next time they do the activity, there will be less muscle tissue damage, less soreness, and a faster strength recovery.” This is why athletes often cross-train and vary their routines to continue to challenge and develop their muscle strength.
It is important to distinguish the difference between moderate muscle soreness induced by exercise and muscle overuse or injury. “If soreness prevents you from performing daily activities associated with living and work, then that is too much soreness,” Draper says. “It can psychologically deter someone from continuing a workout program.”
However, moderate muscle pain might go a long way to keeping someone on the path to fitness. I personally feel I have pushed myself the hardest when I feel soreness after a workout. Not that feeling no soreness means I have done nothing worthwhile for my body. Your goal should always be to train hard enough to stimulate gains in your fitness level and then to back off and let your body adapt to the gains.
Remember— where there is no struggle, there is no strength. You will NEVER REGET WORKING HARD!
“Soreness can serve as encouragement in a workout program because people like immediate results. Muscle doesn’t visibly [grow] overnight; nor does your time in the mile drop from eight to six minutes,” says Draper. “So something like soreness can give people encouragement that they are in fact working the muscle.”