“I didn’t get a good workout, I don’t feel anything. The weight was heavy but I am just not sore at all.”
“I had the best workout ever yesterday!! I am so sore I can barely walk!!”
To be sore, or not to be sore, that is the question!
It’s a common belief among exercisers that muscle soreness and quality of workout exist in a linear relationship. That is, the more sore you get from a workout, the better it is, right? WRONG! Soreness from a workout is NOT always a sign of a good workout.
WHAT IS MUSCLE SORENESS
Muscle soreness resulting from a workout is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Typically DOMs takes 24 – 48 hours to develop and peaks between 24 – 72 hours post exercise. Any significant muscle soreness lasting longer than 5 days could be a sign of significant muscle damage beyond what is beneficial.
So what causes DOMS? It’s a common misconception that lactic acid is the main cause of DOMS. Research performed on runners showed no muscle soreness following HIGH intensity running on flat ground (LOTS OF LACTIC ACID) while the same study showed significant DOMS during downhill running at low intensities to limit lactic acid buildup. So why did the runners get more sore in the downhill running portion of the study? It is believed that tiny microscopic tears in the muscle tissue result in inflammation, and inflammation is the main cause of soreness. The reason that downhill running causes muscle soreness is because it requires a significant amount of lengthening (or eccentric) contraction to resist the pull of gravity. A lengthening contraction is simply a muscle resisting a stretch. For example, when you perform a bicep curl and you are taking the dumbbells from your shoulder back down to your sides you are performing the lengthening portion of the exercise. In fact, when you perform the lengthening portion of an exercise you actually use FEWER muscle fibers than on the shortening phase (lifting the dumbbell to the shoulder, from above). So if you use 100 muscle fibers to lift the weight during the shortening phase, you’ll use 80 to lower it (during the lengthening phase). Same weight, fewer muscle fibers, equals damage, inflammation, and finally soreness.
HOW MUCH SORENESS IS ENOUGH?
This varies for everyone! Some research shows that 33% of individuals do not experience DOMs when heavy lengthening-based lifting protocols are followed but still experience significant training adaptations (muscle growth, strength, muscle endurance, etc).
Not only does excessive soreness not equal a better workout, it could actually delay you from reaching your goals. If you are so sore that you can’t workout for 3 days and have a hard time performing activities of daily life, your energy expenditure will be significantly less and any benefit gained during the workout from an energy balance standpoint would be negated. This phenomenon has actually been studied and is called a reduction in “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (“NEAT”… for more about NEAT go to: (http://www.appliedfitsolutions.com/articles/neat-new-research-on-fat-loss). Also in severe cases of soreness the muscle can be damaged so much, critical structures can actually “leak” out. With these critical structures gone, the muscle can be rendered incapable of change.
Severe DOMs are not essential to anyone’s fitness goals. However, some people (myself included) enjoy a moderate level of soreness from workouts. These “moderate DOMS” that last no more than 72 hours and do not inhibit daily activities are not necessarily beneficial physiologically, but are also not detrimental. Severe DOMS lasting more than 72 hours and effecting your typical exercise or activity routine are potentially detrimental.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs; like Motrin or Aleve) have long been used to treat DOMS; however, current research does not support the efficacy of NSAIDs for the treatment of DOMS. Mixed and conflicting results in addition to inconsistencies in type, dosage, and timing make recommendations difficult. Furthermore it is reasonable to assume that since a critical aspect of exercise-related adaptation IS inflammation inside of the muscle, NSAIDs could very well stop adaptation dead in its tracks due to completely knocking out the inflammatory effect.
One addition you can make to your exercise program to reduce the severity of DOMS is the intake of simple sugars and high quality proteins around your workout. This concept is referred to as nutrient timing and is supported by a significant amount of research. See our blog on nutrient timing for a detailed explanation of its role in the recovery process. (http://www.appliedfitsolutions.com/articles/nutrient-timing-supplements-critical-to-all-training-adaptations).
Another technique to combat DOMS is to simply MOVE! A light warm-up (5 minutes on an elliptical) and low intensity bodyweight exercises (squats, lunges, pushups, etc) followed by stretching can increase blood flow and aid in the recovery process. Next time you are really sore take an additional 10-12 minutes the next day and try it, I guarantee it will help!
If you are experiencing debilitating soreness levels talk to your fitness practitioner so they can appropriately modify your current exercise prescription. At the end of the day please remember, how sore you get and how good of a workout you had are definitely NOT the same thing!