Post Onset Muscle Soreness – is it good or bad for you?
The novice and trained athletes are familiar with the sore feeling that enters the body after vigorous exercising. In particular unfamiliar exercises and repeatedly performed movements can cause this post exercise soreness within the human's musculature, joint complexes and tendons. In sports medicine we differentiate two types of post exercise soreness that classify the occurrence and process more accurately. Type I refers to muscle soreness that is perceived immediately after exercising by the athlete and comes together with symptoms like muscle aching, musculature tenderness and muscle/joint stiffness (Lewis et al, 2012). In type I the perceived symptoms are only present for hours after finishing the causative activities and are relatively transient compared to Type II. Type II, also referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) describes the form of soreness that has its onset at 24 hours after completing exercising. The symptomatology of both types is very similar but only type II (the classic soreness that most of us are perfectly familiar with) lasts for days and can be mitigated by self-treatment which I'll explain in a bit.
What is causing the soreness?
A lot of theories have been claimed on this issue and different mechanisms have been researched. Is it lactic acid accumulation (Armstrong et al, 1984), inflammation (Maclntyre et al, 1995) or microtrauma (Bobbert et al, Friden et al, Hough et al)? In fact, all of it plus a few more. There are currently 6 mechanisms that are held responsible for the lasting and painful feeling. (1) Lactic acid that gets accumulated after a prolonged period of exercising is one of the mechanisms that gets triggered. (2) A microtrauma within a muscle fibre together with (3) damaged connective tissue in the surrounding areas are also part of the process. (4) Muscle spasm occurs already during the training and worsen the subsequent (5) inflammation. The (6) enzyme and electrolyte efflux is also held responsible (Armstrong et al, 1984). The theory that only one mechanism is causing the soreness is obsolete and insufficient. The latest researches have shown that a concert of all 6 are most likely to give you some unpleasant days after your training.
How can I mitigate the symptoms?
DOMS usually lasts for 5-7 days (Byrnes et al, 1986; Ebbeling et al, 1989) and reaches its peak within the first 24-72 hours before it slowly resolves. It is a very long time in which movement is compromised, soreness and pain are present and the ability to repeat the previous training is nearly gone. That's why we've figured out methods that alleviate the problems.
1. continued moderate movement and exercise (keeps the sore muscles active)
2. controlled flexibility and mobility training (check out our book "Mobility Guide Basic" if you need guidance)
3. lukewarm wraps around the affected areas and extremities
4. gentle massage, cryotherapy (only a very small effect has been measured)
Studies have shown that a cessation of exercising after the occurrence of soreness most likely results into more intense symptoms, therefore should be avoided. However, every period of DOMS comes with a reduction in strength, flexibility as well as stability due to a strained musculoskeletal system. The restoration of muscle strength can easily take up to 2 weeks (Lieber et al, 2002), therefore be careful with subsequent training sessions during DOMS. Don't lift as heavy, don't run as fast, don't jump as high. During DOMS and up to the following 2 weeks injury risk factors are increased and the central nervous system might not be responding as prompt as usual.
Is muscle soreness after exercising a good or a bad sign?
Either. Most people think quite positively about it, in fact, for many sportsmen and sportswomen it is worth accomplishing to get the feeling of sore muscles and a "weakened" body after vigorous training. Let's look at it in a physiological way: A workout that you're new to, or a training that is altered in volume, performance or difficulty, makes you leave your comfort zone (that's the major purpose of training), so that your body can adapt to higher stimuli, and ultimately gets stronger. A wonderful hormone, called endorphin, is responsible that you can go thus far without stopping. It suppresses first signs of exhaustion and makes you go further, so that you perhaps reach a delayed-onset muscle soreness in the first place. After training another wonderful hormone, called dopamine, sets in and gives you a feeling of accomplishment - perhaps, the higher the exhaustion the greater the feeling. That is the explanation why people think very highly of it.
Even though the "good sign"-side seems compelling, it isn't. DOMS alters movement, weakens temporarily (5-7 days) the immun system due to inflammatory processes, reduces strength and central nervous system response, and gives you the feeling of pain. Moreover, subsequent training sessions will be compromised as well. So to say, a lasting bitter taste after a good feeling.
Take-away: Progress your training always gently and make sure it varies greatly in volume, movement, load and difficulty. Performing a training right under the threshold of DOMS doesn't come easy but is healthier.
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