Exercise and Sore Muscles
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Dealing with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Muscle soreness is just a natural part of working out and something that your body must learn to adapt to.

So, you just started exercising again and you completed your first lower body workout with some squats, lunges, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf raises, and leg extensions.  You experienced some “burn” during those exercises but the pain went away an hour or so after your workout.  You go about your day, get a good night’s sleep, wake up the next morning and start to go downstairs to make a pot of coffee when… WHAM!  “OUCH!!!” 

You no longer have control of your legs.  You take that first step down the stairs and every inch of your quads, hamstrings and calves feel like someone beat you with a baseball bat while you were sleeping.   And if walking down the stairs isn’t bad enough, you go to sit down on the toilet and… ZAP! “HOLY BAT CRAP, BAT MAN!”  You’re wishing you had a handicap bar next to your toilet to help you get down… and up.  Over the next two days, you struggle to lift one foot in front of the other.  Stepping up and down curbs and getting in and out of your car are major feats. 

This, folks, is DOMS.  Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a the pain that comes the day or two after you’ve trained really hard or tried a new exercise.  What’s happening is that you are causing tiny tears, called micro-trauma, to the muscle fibers when you are asking them to do something they haven’t done before or, at least, in a long time.  If you’ve ever gone on a long bicycle ride or a horseback ride after not having done so for a long time, you will notice that your butt is very, very sore for a couple of days.  That, too, is DOMS.  Your glutes aren’t use to the forces of the seat or saddle and your muscles need to adapt. 

According to the American Council on Exercise, those who experience DOMS include conditioned individuals who increase the intensity, frequency or duration of their workouts, or participate in an activity with which they are unfamiliar. In addition, beginning exercisers, or those who have undergone a significant lapse in training, frequently experience soreness when starting a new exercise program. 

The good news is that DOMS will usually only happen once — as long as you maintain the same intensity within the muscle group you are working. So, the next time you do that same lower body workout, you either won’t be sore or just experience minor soreness.  But, just know that when you decide to take your workout up a notch or two, you’ll probablyh experience another bout of DOMS.  Personally, I experience some level of DOMS every day as I push myself to increase my number of reps or the amount of weight I am lifting.  But, once every couple of months, I plan for a workout that I know will kick my butt for a couple of days.  I organize my schedule around that workout, knowing that I am not going to be doing any running or much walking after a killer legs workout.  The same goes for my upper body and abs workouts.  And, I always try to schedule those intense workouts the day or two before my rest day. 

Since you can’t really avoid DOMS, what can you do to minimize its effect?   

Prepare:  First, you can work your way up to high-intensity workouts by using lighter resistance for a couple of weeks prior to the “big” workout.  You are training your muscles. 

Warm-Up:  Always try to warm up before starting any workout.  Don’t lift cold.  I recommend a 7- to 10-minute on the treadmill, incumbent bike, or elliptical to get the heart rate up to about 60- to 70% of maximum to get the blood flowing through the muscles to warm them up. 

Drink water before, during and after exercise to keep your body well-hydrated.

Hydrate: Before, during and after your workout, drink lots of water or a sports drink.  You want to replace lost nutrients and keep your body well-hydrated to flush lactic acid and other cellular waste that occurs with exercise.  Hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate! 

Stretch:  After a workout, it’s always good to stretch your muscles while they are warm.  It doesn’t take much, but do some simple stretching to keep those muscles limber. 

Cool Down:  Most people just leave the gym right after a hard workout.  That’s not good.  You need to get your breathing and heart rate back in sync and get the blood flowing back through the muscles to eliminate waste generated during a resistance workout.  I always cool down with 10 minutes of low-intensity cardio on an incumbent bike or treadmill.  I not only feel better, but it keeps me from cramping up and I believe it does help reduce DOMS. 

Apply Cryotherapy:  Ice, although predominantly used in injury management, in theory can also reduce the pain associated with the micro-trauma of regular exercise and DOMS. Although limited research has been done, the therapeutic effects of cold therapy may help reduce the inflammation and pain that is associated with DOMS.  Taking an ice bath (although not pleasant for most people) or applying a bag of crushed ice to the affected area will constrict the blood vessels and help remove the lactic acid.  The vessels will dilate when they warm back up at room temperature. Alternating this regimen for several minutes may help. 

The article by the American Council on Exercise re-enforces how cryotherapy (the topical application of ice), massage, stretching and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), among other less conventional approaches, have been tested to determine if they can prevent DOMS or are effective treatments. To date, no therapy that hastens the decrease of DOMS has been found. However, some of the therapies previously mentioned may have a minor impact if initiated immediately after intense or unusual exercise. 

Remember that getting your body back in shape is a marathon, not a sprint.  You don’t have to go all-out your first exercise session back.  You are not in the same shape that you were in high school or college.  If you try to lift the same loads that you did back then, you will not only experience a major case of DOMS, but you could injure yourself.  Ease back into it and your strength should increase dramatically over the next several weeks and months, depending on your fitness level. 

So, in short, learn to suck it up! 🙂 

To Your Health!

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