Muscle soreness after exercise is practically a given. Some exercisers seek it out, whereas others prefer to avoid it at all costs. No matter where you are, you may be wondering why muscle soreness lingers for so many days in some cases and whether it’s good or bad and how to handle it.
You may have also heard the term “delayed onset muscle soreness” or DOM’s. This is the muscle soreness you experience 24–72 hours after you exercise with any sort intensity. When we talk about muscle soreness, we’re typically talking about DOMS.
Why Is There Muscle Soreness?
Exercise adds a stress on your body. This stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing (we’ll get into bad stress later), but when the stress is new or more intense than it usually is, your body has to address it. Often, that response leads to soreness of the muscle.
Strength training, for example, breaks down the small tissues within your muscles, prompting your body to generate inflammatory proteins known as cytokines. The muscle inflammatory process does create some swelling locally at the muscular level, and that leads to that feeling of tightness and soreness, along with the fact that the tissue itself is damaged.
Similarly, repetitive cardio exercises like running or cycling can create micro-tears, or breakage in muscle tissues as go reach new barriers, if you’re new to the sport, increase mileage or intensity or jump back into training after an extended break. What we’re actually doing every time our foot lands and lifts is we’re trying to decelerate to keep our body from collapsing or you’re controlling the rate at which your muscles lengthen, and that’s actually when you create those micro-tears within the muscle tissues.
Our muscles perform three different types of actions: eccentric, concentric and isometric. Eccentric refers to the lengthening phase of muscle contraction, or the lowering portion of an exercise. Think: Sitting back into a squat, uncurling your arm during a biceps curl or running downhill. Concentric refers to the shortening phase of muscle contraction, where you curl that dumbbell or stand up from a squat. Finally, isometric refers to holding a position, as when you hold a plank or wall-sit.
Eccentric training involves focusing on the lengthening phase of an exercise, either by performing that action at a slower pace, full range- action and/or adding an explosive element on the way back to its original position.
One reason eccentric training creates greater muscle soreness is you have to control your descent, as opposed to letting gravity do all the work for you. This creates greater damage to fibers within your muscles, which leads to greater muscle soreness. [During eccentric exercise] you’re trying to control the speed at which your muscle lengthens, and at that time, you’re tearing these cross-bridges. The good news is your body is pretty smart; it adapts to the stresses of eccentric exercise strain so you’ll experience much less damage if you repeat the same workout a week or two later.
Is Muscle Soreness Good Or Bad?
On the one hand, muscle soreness following exercise is a good thing: It means you have created enough stimulus for your body to adapt to and recover stronger.
On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to always be sore or to be so sore you can’t perform daily tasks without discomfort or pain. If you’re having trouble performing daily tasks for an on-going period or soreness lasts for more than three days, this will usually mean you have pushed your body more than the ideal intensity to get the adaption response.
So, what does an appropriate amount of soreness feel like? Well, first, it should only last about 24–72 hours, and it should feel like the soreness is coming from an area which you targeted in your exercise session the day or two before.
Whether you’re sore or not, make sure you’re doing things to help your body recover between workouts. Your best recovery tools include sleep, hydration and balanced nutrition. The main recovery strategy we have is sleep, because that’s when we get the peak hormonal response from that exercise and the body repairs itself.
Written by: Paul Karoullas