I’ve seen dozens of runners from the cross-country team at Boulder High grimace, shiver and squeal as they stand in an ice bath, hoping to stop muscle soreness after a particularly grueling workout. All that pain for nothing. Too bad they don’t know it won’t help. There are some things you can do for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but a 15-minute ice bath isn’t one of them. Keep reading.
First, if your muscles are sore after a workout, should you worry?
Timing is important. Muscle soreness is only worrisome if it happens during or shortly after the workout. Early soreness means you have an injured joint or a muscle strain that should be evaluated. But, if you experience muscle soreness 1 or 2 days afterwards, that’s part of getting stronger. You may start to feel sore at 12 hours and by the second day, those muscles may be even sorer. The muscle is weakest one day after the workout, but then after 4 days, you are stronger than before.
What is a muscle strain versus just a sore muscle from a workout?
A muscle strain means you’ve torn the muscle all the way across the fiber. Not good. When you do a lot of new exercise, especially eccentric exercise, instead of a big tear, you have what looks like Swiss cheese – lots of small tears as you break down the muscle. Those micro-tears cause local inflammation. When the soreness disappears, what broke down builds up and you end up with a stronger muscle.
In DOMS, soreness is a sign you’ve done something different. The exercise is either more intense, a different type, such as eccentric, or you’ve used a muscle you aren’t accustomed to working. So, if you run faster, for example, you are using more fast-twitch fibers, perhaps your stride is longer so the muscle is working in a different range of motion – something has changed. That creates soreness and eventually strength.
The Science Behind Muscle Soreness
Exercise. Really. If you’ve climbed down a mountain and your quads are screaming, hopping on a bike for an easy 30-minute spin can feel good. You increase blood flow to the muscles and the muscles then feel better.
Massage: Massage helps if you do it within 30 minutes of the “damaging” exercise. That might be tough to do, but a foam roller works to roll out the quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes and it doesn’t cost a fortune.
Hydration: Hydration only makes a difference if you were dehydrated in the first place, and most of the time, that is not the case. So, if you drank heavily the night before your workout, then making sure you replace the fluids will decrease muscle soreness. Otherwise, hydrate as usual.
Ice baths: Ice baths sound like torture to me, but cooling the muscles down is all the rage. The only problem is that it doesn’t really do much for muscle soreness unless you do it for a long time. Like hours! The most recent research shows that you need 8 hours with the temperature at 60 degrees to really affect delayed onset muscle soreness. Entrepreneurs are working on cooling pants to have ready before the next Olympics.
Research in this field is hot, but results are just coming out.
- For weight lifting exercise, do a few reps of the novel exercise with intense weight the first time, and then wait a week. Return to the gym and do a full workout a week later and you will avoid the intense muscle soreness.
- Tart Cherry Juice: This juice has been shown to decrease inflammation and lessen or eliminate DOMS. The dosing is important here. You need to drink an 8-ounce glass of juice each day for the 4 days before your workout. That or 50 cherries a day for each of those days. Your choice.
Don’t let muscle soreness stop you in your tracks. Now that you know what a good hurt is, you’ll know how to recover as quickly as possible or when you should give us a call.