One of the most common things I hear at the gym sounds something like: “I had such great workout the other day! I felt sore for days afterwards!!!”. I have never understood the excitement people had about such thing, because:
1) Soreness does not equal a good workout and
2) Personally, I HATE being sore!
Thus, I decided to write an article outlining some important facts you need to know about muscular soreness, and the ways it affects your health, performance, recovery, and more! Let's start with a simple definition: Muscular soreness is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous activities. Now let's talk about various myths and facts related to it...
Myth 1: “Muscle soreness equals a great workout” - FALSE.
Just because you are sore does NOT mean that you had a good workout and here is why. The goal of any workout should be getting closer to reaching your fitness goal(s). Being sore the next day is irrelevant. I get it, when you feel sore after a workout you get that amazing feeling of accomplishment and you think that you’ve worked your muscles harder than before. But what happens when you are sore for a couple days? Your workout schedule becomes very inconsistent as you skip or ease-up on your workouts. Whether your goal is to lose fat, get stronger, increase mobility, improve your sport performance, muscle soreness will slow you down from reaching your goal. Here’s why:
You are more likely to catch a cold or flu when you are sore. Muscles get sore because of micro-tears that occur when the training intensity is higher than the muscle is used to. This causes your body to spend extra effort on the recovery process of that muscle, which simultaneously takes away from proper immune function. This is why doctors don’t recommend doing strength training or other high intensity exercises (interval training, working out till failure, etc.) when you are fighting a cold or flu.
You will need extra rest. You shouldn’t exercise an already sore muscle because this runs the risk of injury. And because you should avoid doing this, that means you will have to avoid working the muscle (and consequently, avoid working on your fitness goals) for a couple of days until the muscle is no longer sore… which means losing precious time in reaching your goals!
Myth 2: “Stretching before and after training will prevent soreness” - FALSE.
You can stretch as long as you want before your workout, but if you go from doing 20 squats per session to up to 200 squats (considering same intensity) you will be walking funny for the next few days. Stretching after the workout to prevent soreness doesn’t make any sense. Think about it: your muscle fibers already have micro-tears, but now you decide to stretch those muscle fibers to improve recovery? If anything, you’ll just make more damage.
What can help if I’m already sore?
Rest. Your muscles will need some quality rest which means lots of sleep (8+hours a night) and no strenuous (high intensity) exercises.
Stay hydrated. Water accounts for more than 70% of your muscle weight so it goes without saying that drinking plenty of water will be very helpful.
Diet. Your body will need macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates and essential fats as well micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. So make sure to have plenty of whole foods in your kitchen.
Active stretching. By “active” stretching I mean taking your muscle through its full range of motion doing certain mobility drills. A good example will be hanging on a bar to stretch your biceps; sitting in a bottom of a squat (ass to grass) to stretch your glutes and quads or doing ankle rocking to stretch your calves. Mobility drills like these will help promote blood supply which will deliver important nutrients to your sore muscles.
Massage. Same concept as stretching - improved blood supply. Self-massage is an alternative if seeing massage therapist is not an option.
Light cardiovascular exercises. That will promote blood circulation which will supplement speedy nutrient delivery.
What should I avoid doing when I’m sore?
High intensity exercises involving an already sore muscle. This could lead to some serious muscle strains that can put you out of commission for a while (I learned this the hard way). Muscle strains can then lead to tendinitis that will require an even longer recovery process as well as medical attention.
Using ice and anti-inflammatory medications. Despite common belief that icing helps reduce muscular soreness, it seems like this statement is no longer valid according to Dr. Gabe Markin who introduced us to a well known RICE principle in 1978. The man himself wrote an article in 2014 stating that icing actually slows down the recovery process of an over-trained sore muscle. You can read his article via this link: https://web.archive.org/web/20140629055909/http://drmirkin.com/fitness/why-ice-delays-recovery.html
Fad diets. You don’t want to restrict your body from any nutrients since they could be exactly what your sore muscles need. Avoid fad diets at all times in the first place.
How can I avoid getting sore, but still get results?
Design a proper strength and conditioning program that will be based on your fitness goals. If you haven’t read any books on program design, then I would recommend hiring a knowledgeable trainer who will help you with that. Your program should be gradual and should involve constant improvement and proper progressions. The key is having a goal and using a program that will gradually help you reach your goal.
Avoid exercising to failure. That's probably the biggest one! When you do a set to failure, you are pushing your body beyond its strength limits - that will result in soreness 99% of the time. Not only will you get sore, but you are also risking a very high chance of getting a muscle tear, think torn biceps after a set of curls to failure; torn pectoral muscle after failing to bench press a heavy weight and there are so many other examples. Not only you are done exercising for a long time, but you also need a surgery. Not worth it! You are also risking developing a very dangerous condition: Rhabdomyolysis - piece of torn muscle gets in the bloodstream that can result in kidney failure. This condition requires immediate medical attention and will unfortunately keep you away from any form of exercising for a very long time. It mostly happens with marathon runners, triathletes, crossfitters, etc., but can also be caused by very strenuous eccentric exercises when done to failure (negative pull ups to failure for example).
Avoid changing your routine too often. The easiest way to get sore is to change your workout routine every time you come to your gym. Your body will never get a chance to adapt to constantly changing demands and you will most likely be sore after each workout, while getting better at nothing.
Get plenty of rest after your workouts to allow full muscle recovery. Aim for 8+ hours of sleep, the more you sleep the better!
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