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This article will explain what sore muscles are and what you can do about it in terms of recovery.
What is a sore muscle?
We’ve all had them, sore muscles, during or shortly after your workout and sometimes even days later.
You’ll notice that you’ll especially get sore muscles from exercises that you’ve never done or haven’t done for a while or whenever you’ve been doing really hard work in the gym.
During your workout your muscles get damaged if the muscle is performing an eccentric, or simply said, a lengthening contraction. Your muscle fibers will develop micro-tears causing swelling and soreness.
The muscle fiber is made of myofibrils with sarcomere which are the basic units of the muscle, separated from each other by z-lines, connected by connective tissue proteins.
These give muscles their elasticity and hold muscle fibers together. When the pressure gets too large it will damage the cell membranes of the fibers, calcium stores get damaged, calcium escapes and causes the release of degradative enzymes. Which digests the z-lines and connective tissues of the muscle fiber.
Sore muscles can occur during or right after you’ve done the exercise. We call this acute muscle soreness and it can take up to several hours before it disappears.
The other type of muscle soreness which occurs 24-72 hours after your training is called delayed onset muscular soreness, in short DOMS.
If you’re not sure if the soreness you are having is DOMS, check the following:
- It occurred 24-72 hours after your workout
- The sore muscle feels hard when touching it, healthy muscles are softer
- The pain of the sore muscle is spread out over the muscle, it’s not localized as this often means something different
- Reduced strength of the affected muscle
- Temporary less pain with light exercise
In the time following your workout these micro-tears in the muscle fibers will start to heal and new muscle fibers will grow with the help of fluids, bradykinin, cytokines, chemokines, histamine prostaglandins, white bloods cells and more.
A common belief is that sore muscles are caused by lactic acid*, this is not true.
Lactic acid is not the cause of sore muscles but it was thought to be so after Otto Meyerhof did a study on a frog, back in the 20th century.
He put the bottom half of a frog in a jar after cutting it in half. The frog’s muscles had no circulation and no source of oxygen or energy.
He used electric shocks on the frog’s leg to make the muscles contract, after a few twitches the contractions stopped. Dr. Myerhoff examined the muscles and discovered that they were bathed in lactic acid.
That’s when he concluded that the lack of oxygen to muscles leads to lactic acid and in turn to fatigue.
Training sore muscles
If you’re sure that it’s the actual muscle which is sore then sure, you can work out, lightly. Doing some light exercise when having sore muscles can temporarely help in relieving the pain, just don’t workout with your maximum intensity or you could make things worse.
If the pain you’re feeling seems to be coming from the tendons or if you’re just not sure, then it would be wise to take a few days off.
Recovering from sore muscles, what works and what doesn’t?
What does work
Something that temporary relieves the pain from a sore muscle is light exercise in the days following your training.
Massage reduces pain for many different injuries and has shown a reduction of muscle soreness. The positive effects depend on the timing of the given massage and the extent of the injury/soreness.
Carbs and protein
Since protein is necessary to build muscle it doesn’t really come as a surprise that it helps with recovery as well. Protein has shown to reduce muscle weakness after delayed onset muscle soreness. Taking just carbohydrates after the exercises causing DOMS does not seem to help.
Repeated Bout Effect
Muscles adapt to reduce further damage in the same repeated exercises. This reduces the soreness, lowers reduced strength and reduces swelling. So gradually increasing the intensity of a new exercise program will help in reducing DOMS.
The evidence on reduced muscle soreness from compression clothing is mixed. Researchers did found a trend in blood lactate clearance which could speed up recovery. One study showed that compression clothing is an effective method to reduce the histological injury in DOMS.
One study showed that approximately 2 cups of coffee reduced the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness and weakness of the affected muscles. Another study showed that ingesting caffeine right before an upper-body workout enhanced performance and sustained ingestion of caffeine attenuated DOMS.
Foam rolling has shown to reduce DOMS. Besides this it can increase flexibility.
What doesn’t work or is unclear if it works
Stretching does not help to prevent DOMS. Stretching can make it even worse.
There is no evidence on this reducing muscle soreness.
Icing has not shown to help. In fact, one study showed it can delay the recovery of muscle soreness.
So, it’s clear that’s sore muscles are caused by eccentric contractions which creates micro-tears in the muscle fibers.
There are a couple of points by which you can recognize if what you are feeling is delayed onset muscle soreness.
Lactic acid is not the cause of sore muscles but it was long thought to be so after Otto Meyerhof did a study on a frog in the early years of the 20th century.
You can train sore muscles but it’s not always advised, especially not with maximum intensity. There are however a few things you can do to recover from sore muscles.
Below are a lot of studies for you to check out on the things discussed in this article.
Do you have anything to add, correct or do you know of another study that is worth reading? Feel free to leave a comment below.
- Emma Cockburn, Philip R. Hayes, Duncan N. French, Emma Stevenson, Alan St Clair Gibson, Acute milk-based protein–CHO supplementation attenuates exercise-induced muscle damage, Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, volume 33, issue 4, 2008, pages 775–783, ISSN 1715-5312, doi 10.1139/H08-057
- Valentine, MJ. Saunders, MK. Todd, TG. St Laurent, Influence of carbohydrate-protein beverage on cycling endurance and indices of muscle disruption., Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, volume 18, issue 4, pages 363-78, Aug 2008, PMID 18708686
- Matthew B Cooke, Emma Rybalka, Christos G Stathis, Paul J Cribb, Alan Hayes, Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, volume 7, issue 1, 2010, pages 30, ISSN 1550-2783, doi 10.1186/1550-2783-7-30
- G L Close, Effects of dietary carbohydrate on delayed onset muscle soreness and reactive oxygen species after contraction induced muscle damage, British Journal of Sports Medicine, volume 39, issue 12, 2005, pages 948–953, ISSN 0306-3674, doi 10.1136/bjsm.2005.019844
- Nelson, RK. Conlee, AC. Parcell, Inadequate carbohydrate intake following prolonged exercise does not increase muscle soreness after 15 minutes of downhill running., Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, volume 14, issue 2, pages 171-84, Apr 2004, PMID 15118191
- Cockburn, E. Stevenson, PR. Hayes, P. Robson-Ansley, G. Howatson, Effect of milk-based carbohydrate-protein supplement timing on the attenuation of exercise-induced muscle damage., Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, volume 35, issue 3, pages 270-7, Jun 2010, doi 10.1139/H10-017, PMID 20555370
- James Faulkner, et. al., “Effect of Lower-Limb Compression Clothing on 400-m Sprint Performance,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:3 (2013), PMID 22592172
- Valle X, Til L, Drobnic F, Turmo A, Montoro JB, Valero O, Artells R, Compression garments to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness in soccer players, 2014, PMID 24596693
- Howatson, KA. van Someren, The prevention and treatment of exercise-induced muscle damage., Sports Med, volume 38, issue 6, pages 483-503, 2008, PMID 18489195
- Cheung, P. Hume, L. Maxwell, Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors., Sports Med, volume 33, issue 2, pages 145-64, 2003, PMID 12617692
- Maridakis V, O’Connor PJ, Dudley GA, McCully KK, Caffeine attenuates delayed-onset muscle pain and force loss following eccentric exercise, 2007, 17161977
- Hurley, Caitlin F.; Hatfield, Disa L.; Riebe, Deborah, The Effect of Caffeine Ingestion on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, September 3, 2013, doi: 10.1097/JSC.0000000000000220
- Yackzan, C. Adams, KT. Francis, The effects of ice massage on delayed muscle soreness., Am J Sports Med, volume 12, issue 2, pages 159-65, PMID 6742292
- Morita Shunsuke , Sakurai Yuko , Matoba Hideki. Effects of ice pack on muscle injury induced by eccentric contractions http://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110004787806
- Paddon-Jones, BM. Quigley, Effect of cryotherapy on muscle soreness and strength following eccentric exercise., Int J Sports Med, volume 18, issue 8, pages 588-93, Nov 1997, doi 10.1055/s-2007-972686, PMID 9443590
- Ching-Yu Tseng, Jo-Ping Lee, Yung-Shen Tsai, Shin-Da Lee, Chung-Lan Kao, Te-Chih Liu, Cheng-Shou Lai, M. Brennan Harris, Chia-Hua Kuo, Topical Cooling (Icing) Delays Recovery from Eccentric Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012, pages 1, ISSN 1064-8011, doi 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318267a22c
- Isabell, E. Durrant, W. Myrer, S. Anderson, The effects of ice massage, ice massage with exercise, and exercise on the prevention and treatment of delayed onset muscle soreness., J Athl Train, volume 27, issue 3, pages 208-17, 1992, PMID 16558163
- Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ, Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise, 2011, PMID 21735398
- High DM, Howley ET, Franks BD. The effects of static stretching and warm-up on prevention of delayed-onset muscle soreness, 1989, PMID 2489863
- Wessel, Jean, and Aaron Wan. “Effect of stretching on the intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 4.2 (1994): 83-87.
- Johansson, L. Lindström, G. Sundelin, B. Lindström, The effects of preexercise stretching on muscular soreness, tenderness and force loss following heavy eccentric exercise., Scand J Med Sci Sports, volume 9, issue 4, pages 219-25, Aug 1999, PMID 10407930
- Does Postexercise Static Stretching Alleviate Delayed Muscle Soreness? http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ414210&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ414210
- Lund, P. Vestergaard-Poulsen, IL. Kanstrup, P. Sejrsen, The effect of passive stretching on delayed onset muscle soreness, and other detrimental effects following eccentric exercise., Scand J Med Sci Sports, volume 8, issue 4, pages 216-21, Aug 1998, PMID 9764443
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