Contrary to popular belief, it isn't such a good idea to base the success of your training sessions by the amount of soreness you feel the next day. So, let's debunk the many myths and misconceptions about muscle soreness and go through some recovery strategies that you can start using today.
How do we get sore?
You just crushed a really hard workout. Let's say you upped the weight within some of the exercises in your workout, or you tried a new activity, exercise, or machine. You feel great — until you wake up the next morning, barely able to move.
Enter delayed onset muscle soreness, better known as DOMS.
As its name suggests, DOMS is muscle soreness that becomes evident six-to-eight hours following activity, peaking around 24 to 48 hours post-training. While the symptoms will often start to diminish at about 72 hours, the time and extent of DOMS is highly variable.
Muscle discomfort is the most common characteristic of DOMS, but there are other symptoms. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), these may include reduced range of motion and joint stiffness, local tenderness, and diminished muscle strength. These symptoms appear gradually following exercise and should not be confused with acute pain that may arise during physical activity.
You’re most likely to experience DOMS when you introduce a new training stimulus, like a new exercise, increased weight used or overall exercise volume. Or you may experience it if you’re new to physical activity in general. Your body is making adaptations to better prepare your muscles to do that activity again. That’s why on Day 1 of a training program, after doing squats with 10-15 pound weights, you can be brutally sore the next day. But, as you continue your training program, you can progressively increase the weight and won’t be as sore.
While all kinds of muscular contraction can cause soreness, eccentric contraction — where the muscle lengthens as it contracts — most often leads to DOMS.
The eccentric contraction includes the lowering part (or releasing the weight) of an exercise such as lowering down into a squat or push-up position, running downhill, or releasing the band back to the starting position during a resistance band row.
Muscle Soreness: Myths & Misconceptions
While you may think you know everything you need to know about the muscle soreness that has you waddling like a duck days after a workout, you may find what’s actually happening in your body surprising.
Myth #1: It’s not a good workout unless you’re sore the next day.
We often wear our muscle soreness as a badge of honor and believe that if we’re not sore, we’re not doing enough during our workouts. But that’s simply not true.
Studies show that soreness itself (using a scale from 0 to 10 to assess the level of soreness) is a poor indicator of muscle adaptation and growth. There are many factors that influence how DOMS presents itself in individuals. There is great variability, even between people with similar genetics and even among highly-trained individuals and athletes.
While muscle soreness is all part of the process, soreness and DOMS isn’t the best gauge of how effective your workout was or who’s in better shape.
I would argue that if you are sore after every single workout you are simply not recovering properly. There is also something to be said about how demotivating it is to move your body while being extremely sore. Being too sore can lead to minimally effective workouts and even a decrease in exercise adherence.
I don't know about you, but if I was painfully sore after every workout I would be less likely to continue that training program and or take several days off to recover from a crippling workout (which would be detrimental to achieving fitness results).
Myth #2: Pre- and post-workout stretching is a good way to prevent and treat DOMS.
A large review of studies on the effects of stretching before or after exercise on the development of delayed-onset muscle soreness found that pre- and post-workout stretching did not reduce the effects of DOMS in adults.
In fact, research has found that static stretching prior to working out does not safeguard you against injury (or soreness) and actually may decrease your power and strength.
While you may not be able to avoid soreness altogether, ACSM suggests advancing slowly with a new workout and progressively adding weight, intensity, and training volume throughout a 6 to 8 week program. This gives your muscles time to adapt and recover. It is also extremely important to always including a proper warm-up that include myofascial release (foam rolling) and dynamic stretching as part of your routine.
Myth #3: The more fit you are, the less likely you will get DOMS.
It’s true that you will start to feel less sore as your body adapts to your workouts and learns to distribute the workload across your muscle fibers more effectively. That’s why you should should strategically change up your exercise routine every 4 to 8 weeks.
However, there is also a genetic component to how sensitive we are to pain and soreness. People can be no-responders, low-responders or high-responders to soreness. If you’re a high-responder, you will experience DOMS more acutely than someone who is a no- or low-responder when given the same training load. While you can’t change your genes, it is important to know where you fall on the spectrum to understand how your body may respond to changes in your workouts and what recovery strategies you can implement.
The 5 R's of Recovery
It is true that a certain degree of soreness seems to be necessary to stimulate protein production and muscle growth but the intensity of the soreness shouldn't need to be extreme after every workout. There are a number of ways to alleviate those can’t-make-it-up-the-stairs symptoms.
When in doubt, remember the 5 R's of recovery:
1. REPAIR your muscle tissue with protein. Aim for 20-40 grams of a high quality protein source post workout. Consuming protein is vital to workout recovery and results, with current research showing that for optimal muscle health, people need about double the amount of protein that experts once thought. For example, the current recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein, which represents the minimum required for good health, is 0.8 grams of daily protein per kilogram of body mass. For a 150-pound adult, that is 55 grams of protein per day. However, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends 1.5 to 2 grams of daily protein per kilogram of body mass per day for optimal muscle growth and positive body composition changes. For the same 150-pound adult, that equates to 102 to 136 grams of protein per day. Spacing out the protein intake throughout the day will ensure that you are always in a positive environment where muscles repair themselves.
2️. REFUEL your gas tank by consuming quality carbohydrates such as potatoes, gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and rice, and whole fruits. The amount will vary depending on what you are recovering from and your personal goals. The NSCA suggests 1/3 to 1/6 of your body weight in grams of carbohydrate post exercise (ex. 150lb person can aim for 35-75 g of quality carbs depending on your goals). The higher intensity of your workout (like sprint workouts, plyometric training, resistance training, and HIIT) the more your body will use carbs as it's preferred fuel source leading to a higher amount of carbs needed to replenish energy stores.
3️. REHYDRATE with water. An easy hydration strategy is to weigh yourself before and after exercise and replacing every pound of body weight lost with 16 oz of water post-workout. Keep a water bottle handy throughout the day and save the sports drinks for longer bouts of activity (2-3 hours) or when in very hot, humid environments. Additionally, we want our parasympathetic nervous system to take over post workout (the nervous system responsible for resting, digesting, and rebuilding) so refrain from ingesting caffeine after exercise which activates the sympathetic nervous system (the nervous system responsible for the flight or fight stress response).
4️. REINFORCE your immune system and reduce inflammation in your body by consuming antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables like blueberries, cherries, kiwis, avocados, and leafy greens – the more vibrant the color the better. Research also suggests that an Omega-3 supplement (and other whole food sources rich in Omega-3 fatty acids like nuts, seeds, salmon, and avocados) have anti-inflammatory properties that help manage pain and accelerate recovery. Additionally, high-quality CBD has shown to help you recover from workouts thanks to it's anti-inflammatory properties. Cannibinoids interact with the body's endocannabinoid system, and there is substantial evidence that the compounds have therapeutic properties for treating various health conditions and managing pain.
5️. RESTORE your brain, muscle tissue and central nervous system by getting 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep. Check out my article 'Get The Best Night's Sleep' for some helpful sleep strategies. Research also suggests that just 10 minutes of deep tissue massage or myofascial release after a workout enhances the effectiveness of energy creators (mitochondria) in the cell walls and excellerates blood flow, while also creating a natural pain-relieving effect. And, it helped diminish inflammation.
When all is said and done, muscle soreness and DOMS shouldn’t be your only gauge of your level of fitness, progress, or strength improvements. Don't get me wrong, it is important to push yourself within your workouts but, in reality, the way you recover from your workouts is just as important in achieving your fitness goals.
You should leave the gym with a little left in the tank and with excitement (and the ability) to return the next day.
In the long-term, you’ll build more muscle, strength and endurance if you give your muscles a chance to take a deep breath and recover. Start prioritizing your recovery regimen with the same focus and energy that you bring into your training sessions.