Less Pain, More Gain
Posted On Sep 01, 2016
Muscle soreness can happen to anybody who exercises, even if it’s only sporadically. Learn more about this common condition and what steps you can take to put soreness in its place.
By Karen Asp
Whether you’re a devout fitness fan or a weekend warrior, you’re no stranger to soreness. Almost one out of two individuals who exercise three or more times a week indicate that body soreness, as well as muscle fatigue, prevents them from exercising more frequently, according to a survey from EAS Sports Nutrition.
Fortunately, delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is something you can manage and prevent; good news, considering how important exercise is to your health. Not only does it bring mental relief from stress and anxiety, exercise can also give you the body you want, and help you live healthier and longer. Here’s how to give those muscles a little more TLC so you can sweat sans soreness.
THE DOWN LOW ON DOMS
Although DOMS might sound like something reserved for regular gym-goers, anybody who engages in physical activity is susceptible. That doesn’t mean that every time you exercise you’ll develop DOMS, which usually occurs 24 to 72 hours after an activity. Instead, certain parameters can increase or decrease your risk.
For instance, if you’re new to exercise or just getting back after a short hiatus, you’re at higher risk for DOMS, says Kimberly Sackheim, D.O., clinical assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation in New York City. Even avid fitness fans who are doing vigorous activity, increasing their exercise load, or starting a new-to-them activity can suffer DOMS. Conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure can also set you up for soreness.
So what’s happening in your body when you get DOMS? Although lactic acid, a by-product of exercising muscles, was once thought to be the cause of DOMS, it’s now believed that microscopic damage to muscle fibers during exercise is the culprit.
“You’ve essentially stressed muscles more than they were accustomed to, which creates small microtrauma or tears in the muscle,” says Moises D. Irizarry, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at Ageless Institute, in Aventura, Florida. This can occur during the lengthening, phase of a muscle contraction, like when you’re running downhill or lowering a weight during a bicep curl, and it usually only affects the body part that got worked during the activity.
The microtrauma produces inflammation, causing affected muscles to ache, which could last up to seven days. Symptoms can also include tenderness, swelling, and reduced strength in affected muscles, all of which can affect your exercise performance, and perhaps even make you want to skip the gym altogether. You might even feel a little sore when doing daily activities. If, however, that soreness severely limits your daily activities, especially if it’s causing numbness or unusual discomfort or doesn’t respond to interventions like anti-inflammatories or ice, see a doctor as you may be dealing with a more serious injury, Sackheim says.
SOOTHING SORE MUSCLES
DOMS may be a literal pain, but there are steps you can take to give those aching muscles some relief. As simple as it sounds, hydrate. “Adequate hydration is key to solving a lot of simple, painful ailments, as it helps flush the body out,” Sackheim says. You’ll know if you’re hydrating enough by checking the color of your urine; it should be clear or a light, pale yellow.
Make sure, too, you’re getting proper sleep, which will help your body replenish itself, and eating a healthy diet, Sackheim says. Following an anti-inflammatory diet by consuming foods like salmon, walnuts, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, and adding in some gluten-free options can help, too. Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants actually help reduce the inflammatory response to muscle trauma and can prevent or reduce the severity experienced from DOMS. “If your diet is not perfect,” says Irizarry, “it is important to take the right supplements.”
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID) are another common salve, but know they come with side effects. “They can take a toll on your kidneys,” Irizarry says, and should only be used if you’re well-hydrated and don’t have renal impairment or allergies to NSAIDs. They can also cause bleeding ulcers and gastritis.
Not into medications? Try massage—just keep the pressure light, as anything else could increase soreness, Sackheim says. Icing two to three times a day for 15 minutes at a time and avoiding direct ice-to-skin contact helps, too. Other options include stretching and taking supplements, most of which act as natural anti-inflammatories. Fish oil, curcumin, astaxanthin, and the oil extract of the green-lipped mussel have been used to ease DOMS at varying doses and with varying success.
“Of the four, the oil extract of the green-lipped mussel, commercially available as Omega XL, is the only supplement that has clinical studies demonstrating reduction in the severity and duration of DOMS,” Irizarry says. One study from the Journal of Sports Medicine found that Omega XL was especially effective in reducing DOMS in distance runners, particularly those who were lesser trained. Preventing and reducing DOMS is important to increase strength and prevent injury.
EASY DOES IT
If you experience DOMS after a workout, you should modify your exercise program for a few days. “That small microtrauma could turn into a potentially serious injury that will affect you for longer periods,” Irizarry says. Think, for example, tendon and ligament damage, range-of-motion problems, or injury to muscles you’re using to compensate for the muscle soreness.
That’s why you need to spend more time warming up before and stretching after your workouts. Also, lower your exercise intensity and shorten your workout, especially if you’re doing the same activity that caused DOMS, Sackheim says.
To prevent it, ease into new activities, especially if you’re just beginning an exercise program; warm up before exercise and stretch after working out; don’t increase your exercise load past what your body can handle; and use a foam roller before and after exercising.
However, DOMS shouldn’t prevent you from achieving your fitness goals. “Take it as a sign that your muscles are adapting to a new activity, and if you manage it properly, they will get stronger and better conditioned,” Irizarry says. The more your body becomes used to that activity, the less soreness that activity will produce. Bottom line? No more excuses for missing those sweat sessions.