Why Muscles Get Sore After Exercise

By Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN

If you’re like me, then after a workout you want to wobble out the door, barely able to hold up your car keys. A good training session should leave your muscles completely fatigued and begging for nutrients. Post-workout soreness is a pain you can live with, but why exactly does it happen? Your muscles get sore after exercise because of two major factors: muscle fibers tears and lactic acid buildup.

What does training do to my muscles?
In order for your workout to take affect on your muscles, you need to cause some significant damage during your training. This may sound paradoxical, but muscles grow during recovery, not during exercise. Thus, if you train well and hard, then you create tiny muscle fiber tears. After exercise, your muscles feel sore from a process called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.

These muscle tears send signals to your brain to recruit proteins and nutrients for the repairing process.  That is why post-workout recovery is the most essential part of your training. What you feed your body and how you recover determines the rate of muscle repair and growth.

Who is at risk of DOMS?
First, you need to understand that DOMS is actually a good thing. Your soreness is an indicator of a quality workout. Those who are new to training will experience a greater amount of soreness for longer periods after a workout. However, even seasoned veterans in the gym want to experience post-workout soreness. It actually grows on you after awhile.

How do I prevent DOMS?
Though you cannot completely prevent DOMS and still have an effective workout, you can decrease the intensity and amount of time you feel deep soreness by doing the following:

  • Eat within 30 minutes after your training session. Your post-workout meal should consist of 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
  • Stay moderately active after training by cooling down and performing static stretches.
  • Stay hydrated so that fluids remain in your muscle fibers and keep them well lubricated.

Does lactic acid cause DOMS?
When you workout, you experience two types of soreness: DOMS and lactic acid buildup. DOMS is the deep muscle soreness you feel after training. Lactic acid buildup is what causes the burn during training. Often these two are interchanged, but two different processes occur.

Lactic acid buildup occurs during anaerobic exercise because your body is not taking in enough oxygen to push the carbon dioxide out.  As you train, your body produces lactic acid from glucose and converts it into energy to fuel your muscles. Over time, your body breeches its lactate threshold and learns to train harder and longer.

What’s the bottom line on soreness?

Even though you may need to hold the railing up the stairs at the office for a few days after a leg-training day, muscle soreness is actually good for you. As your training progress, soreness decreases in intensity and duration. Loss of soreness caused from exercise is a good indicator that you need to switch up your workout. If you perform the same training program for more than 6 weeks and your body no longer feels the burn, then change your fitness program to break though plateaus and put the pain back into training.


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