What Really Causes Post - Workout Muscle Soreness

By Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN

After a hard training session, especially one that recruits new muscles, you often experience post-workout muscle soreness from 24 hours to an entire week. This burning muscle soreness is called “delayed onset muscle soreness,” or DOMS.  Muscle soreness doesn’t just occur in those new to training, but it may be more prevalent and longer lasting.

For a long time, scientist theorized that DOMS directly related to the lactic acid buildup, a byproduct of metabolism, in muscles caused during your training.  Scientists believed that soreness was caused by lactic acid that remained in your muscles for an extended duration after training. However, most of today’s exercise physiologists agree that DOMS is caused from tiny tears formed in your muscles due to the increased stress of training.

During your workouts, the increased demand on your muscles causes tiny tears in the fibers. Your body reacts to these tears during post-workout recovery by rebuilding the muscle tissue. That is why post-workout nutrition is so important. Eating properly after you train provides your body with the adequate fuel it needs to make these repairs. In fact, the better your nutrition, the faster you recovery from training.

As your body repairs torn muscle tissue, it also adapts to take on greater stress. This is when you add strength and size to your muscles. Your entire muscle growth process is based in the reason behind your soreness.  Because if this process, it is important to increase the demand on your body as you grow stronger.

Beginners suffer from DOMS more readily than those who have been training in sports or strength for a considerable amount of time.  It is quite possible one of the largest reason new trainees give up so soon. However, allowing your body to adapt to training decreases the intensity of DOMS.

In contrast, athletes who have been training for a long time still experience DOMS, and actually thrive on this feeling. Leaving a workout completely drained of energy and hobbling on sore legs means you trained your body at its maximum capacity.  Many scientists believe this is an important step in the process of hypertrophy, or the increased amount of muscle nuclei and/or contractile fibers supporting the muscle nuclei.

You can decrease your post-workout muscle soreness by performing a few simple tasks before, during, and after your training.

  1. Hydration: your first sip of water for your day shouldn’t occur after your training session. Contrary to popular belief, drinking water before and during your training session doesn’t cause cramps; dehydration does. Make sure you drink plenty of water throughout your day, including before, during and after your workout.

  2. Warm up and cool down: don’t just jump full throttle into your training session. Perform warm up exercises before you begin intense training. You can either warm up with lighter weights, light cardio, or a light metabolic circuit. Cool down in the same manner. Don’t forget to stretch!

  3. Sleep: sleep in a necessary ingredient in your arsenal of recovery mechanisms. Athletes require more sleep than the average gym-goer. Get at least 8 hours or rest each day.

  4. Eat: fuel your muscles before and after your workout for maximum recovery. Eating a ratio of 4:1, 4 carbohydrates to 1 protein, will help you build quality lean muscle and shorten the duration and intensity of DOMS.


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