Summer is right around the corner and you’re hustling to get your bottom into shape. Problem is, you started late, ramped up fast and now you’re hurtin’.
So, what to do about this type of post-exercise pain — often referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)?
It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways is to keep moving, says Victor Ibrahim, physician for the soccer team D.C. United.
“Light movement — for example, a cool-down after working out — is very helpful,’’ Ibrahim says.
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In fact, one study says that exercise is the most effective means to alleviate pain during DOMS, which appears between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.
Which raises the question: What kind of exercise causes this pain and what exactly is happening in the body when the pain occurs?
“Generally, the more impact on the muscle, the more soreness,” Ibrahim says. That impact will be more dramatic and jarring in a weakened muscle (makes sense!), which is why a sudden uptick in exercise can be quite painful.
“This is also the reason spring training camps are so painful. Having been involved in preseason training for NFL, NHL, NBA and MLS players, I can assure you even the elite athletes are not immune,” Ibrahim says.
In terms of the type of impact, eccentric strain seems to cause the most soreness, says Matt Fitzgerald, a running coach, sports nutritionist and author of dozens of training books, including The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition.
“Eccentric strain occurs when a muscle tries to resist its own lengthening,” Fitzgerald says. For example, when you run, he says, the quadriceps (front thigh) stretches when the foot lands and at the same time resists the stretch to keep the knee from buckling.
“So in essence the muscle is being pulled in two different directions at once, which causes microscopic tearing of muscle fibers and subsequent soreness,” he says.
The exact physiological cause of delayed onset muscle pain is still under debate, but most researchers believe it’s a result of muscle trauma repair, Ibrahim says, adding that isometric (static) muscle exercise can also cause DOMS, while it seems that concentric (dynamic) contractions (such as the up phase in a biceps curl) do not.
Many things happen during muscle trauma repair, including inflammation (part of the body’s healing process) — which is why taking anti-inflammatories can help with the initial pain reduction but does not seem to help in muscle repair longterm.
But let’s get back to you and your pain and ways you might get rid of it!
How about a massage, foam rolling and other ways to “rub out” the pain?
“Massage can be really helpful, especially if you get it early on,” says Liz Puloka, a Washington massage therapist. “Massage increases the blood flow — it brings in fresh blood and lymph to the affected area.”
She says Swedish massage — which uses five styles of strokes — is the most effective type of massage for DOMS because it is especially beneficial for improving blood circulation.
But Puloka says even though a massage is helpful, she would personally “attack the muscle soreness from as many angles as possible.”
“I would encourage movement,” she says, echoing Ibrahim. “Movement is essentially an internal massage for the body.”
She also recommends applying heat, which has been shown to reduce soreness.
Ibrahim agrees. “Improving circulation is helpful. A hot shower or hot tub does the trick for most of our athletes,” he says, adding, “Always make sure you are well hydrated before hitting a hot tub post-exercise.”
But how about the ice-tub submersions that seem to be all the rage among athletes — do they work?
The jury is out.
It seems that ice — like anti-inflammatory medication — is helpful in the short term, Ibrahim says, but does not have long-term therapeutic effects in terms of muscle repair.
This is why some doctors such as Ibrahim say that anti-inflammatory meds such as ibuprofen, though they give you immediate pain relief, are not great in the long run because they hamper the inflammation phase of the repair work.
In terms of home remedies, does specific nutrition help prevent or reduce DOMS?
Fitzgerald says that because post-exercise muscle soreness is due partly to oxidative stress (free radical damage), a diet that is rich in antioxidants can help reduce soreness by protecting the muscle fibers from this type of damage. Protein also seems to help, he says.
“Consuming protein with carbohydrates soon after completing a workout will accelerate the healing of damaged muscle fibers and the dissipation of soreness,” Fitzgerald says.
Caffeine also seems to help.
But while you are striving to get rid of the aches, just remember the pain is not necessarily a bad thing, Ibrahim says.
It usually indicates — unless it goes on for more than a few days and is acute (time to see a doctor) — that you are making progress, that your muscles are adapting to the increased demands and are getting stronger.
“For the vast majority of us, exercise will require some soreness until the muscle reaches its steady state,” Ibrahim says, adding that even brief periods of inactivity are enough to weaken muscles and thus require the “pain of rebuilding.”
As the saying goes — no pain, no gain. But at least now you have some tools — and not bad ones at that: massage, hot tub and latte, anyone?