What Is Muscle Soreness And How To Deal With It?
Everybody has experienced it at some point. That muscle pain and discomfort, occurring the day after we have been involved in physical activity. Some refer to it as the pain of success. But, is it really something we should strive for? Or it is something that we should try to avoid? Let’s find out!
As usual, in order to understand something, we have to apply a little bit of textbook knowledge and break it down, so it is easily digestible.
What is muscle soreness?
Also known as DOMS, (delayed onset, muscle, soreness), it is a condition that occurs after unaccustomed or vigorous activity. It is felt when the muscle is lengthened (stretched) or contracted (flexed), and not while rested. It is caused by small micro-tears in the muscle fibers, that are technically trauma for the body and are accompanied by pain.
It is important to know that lengthening the muscle under tension or load, causes the most amount of damage, therefore the most amount of soreness.
To understand how that happens, let’s look, quickly at how muscles contract.
Each muscle consists of muscle fibers. Each fiber is made of other small fibers, called myofibril. Inside those myofibrils, there are millions of sarcomeres. Portions of a muscle, that contains the filaments - actin and myosin.
Now, when we contract or flex a muscle, each of those filaments drags each other, pulling closer together. That does not create as much damage, even if performed under tension. However, when we lengthen the muscle under load, those filaments are still attached together, in order to slow down the lengthening process. That results in more tear and damage and therefore more pain.
Does that mean that we should avoid this type of activity?
Hell, no! This is the way to start an adaptation process. If a certain exercise, creates damage to the muscles, the brain has to not only repair the damage but also make it stronger, to ensure that the body is prepared, should that exercise threaten to cause the same damage again.
It is important to note that after a while, your body may adapt to the pain and stop responding the same way to a stimulus. In other words, after a couple of weeks of training, you may not experience the same amount of pain, you once did. That does not mean you should chase the soreness or increase the days of activity. The adaptation is still there. The damage is still there. And the recovery process is as important as it was in the beginning.
I highly recommend focusing on the negative part of the exercise, or lengthening the muscles under load. BUT, make sure that you have at least one or two days rest in between. Does that mean you should not move at all? Of course not! But you should be mindful of the way you move, in order to facilitate faster recovery.
Speaking of recovery, I think it is not only important to be aware of how muscle soreness occurs, but how to optimize the recovery process so that pain goes away faster.
There are two proven methods that deal with soreness better than anything. These are:
Focusing on the concentric(flexing, contracting) part of the movement. With a very little to none load.
Example: Let’s say you did heavy squats, with a focus on the negative part. So slow and control on the way down and explosive on the way up. Your quads are hammered, it hurts to even sin on the toilet the next day. The best way to actively recover is to keep moving. Go for a walk, do air squats, or climb the stairs a few times per day. What that will do, is to rush more blood and nutrients to the muscles, without creating more damage, resulting in a faster healing process.
It is not the same as, active recovery, but a mild massage will do the same job, of rushing blood, and nutrients to the muscles, causing the recovery process to happen faster. Now, for me personally, I prefer to do self-massage, with a lacrosse ball, foam roller, tennis ball, or even rolling stick. But if you are happy to let someone push against your painful muscles, then why not? That combined with an active recovery does miracles when fighting with the DOMS.
Muscle soreness is a very natural process. It is important to know why it happens, and what adaptation comes with it. It is important to know also that it is not the desired outcome of any training and if occurs, we should know the ways to deal with it, so we don’t have to experience this pain for too long.