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Fitsmart: January 2015


January 6, 2015
By Brad Lawrence

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It’s a well-known fact that exercise makes us happier. But the feeling, at times, is short lived if you wake up so sore you have to peel yourself out of bed. This unfortunate phenomenon is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Everyone experiences DOMS, or post-workout soreness, from time to time – from elite athletes to first-time lifters – so don’t be discouraged if you have a bad bout. In general, DOMS kicks in between four to eight hours after your workout, and is usually at its worst after 48 hours. This type of muscle soreness is often accompanied by a decreased range of motion, and interpreted by our bodies as joint stiffness. Some people dread this feeling and have trouble finding the motivation revisit the cause of it. Others wear soreness as a badge of honour that signifies a great workout. However you decide to interpret DOMS, it’s important to understand what’s happening to your body at a muscular level. With this knowledge, ideally, you’ll have more input on the severity of your soreness in the future.

Many still believe the cause of DOMS is a build-up of lactic acid and other toxins in the bloodstream and muscles. However, advances in fitness research have largely disproved this theory, suggesting instead that DOMS is caused by trauma to, or tearing of the microfibers in our muscles and connective tissue. The trauma inflames the muscle and produces the deep-seated soreness we feel after training. Despite the pain, this is actually our body’s way of producing firmer, denser muscle and tissue mass.

The degree of soreness is largely dependent on a body’s ability to support the loads you’ve placed upon it; meaning, if you lift a heavy load that you’re used to lifting, your soreness will be minimal. Conversely, what seems like a light load placed on muscles that are unaccustomed to the weight will produce a great deal of soreness.

Exercise type and tempo also relate to the level of soreness. Muscles in general will suffer greater levels of micro tearing and trauma during the eccentric phase. The eccentric phase, you’ll recall from previous columns, is the lengthening or stretching phase that muscles undergo during an exercise, such as the lowering portion of a squat or dumbbell curl. This is why many people feel they’ve had a great workout after performing several negative reps during training, because the heavy eccentric phase produces more muscle trauma, and a greater degree of soreness follows.

Unfortunately, prevention of DOMS doesn’t exist, and probably never will. Muscle soreness is an unavoidable phenomenon associated with training. That said, we do have the information to minimize the effect of DOMS on our bodies if we prepare accordingly.

To begin with, start every workout with a proper warm up. Studies show a full warm up greatly reduces DOMS, as opposed to exercising cold muscles. A warm up also releases synovial fluid into your joints, preparing them for the exercise and creating a safer training foundation. When planning your workout, remember DOMS is the most severe when there has been an extended break between workouts, when trying a new exercise for the first time, when drastically increasing the load your muscles are accustomed to, or when performing workouts with greater than normal eccentric loading. Start slowly if you are trying an unfamiliar movement. Give your body a few training sessions to adapt to the movement, and increase the load over time.

While a common post-workout urge is to rush home to sit down and relax, instead finish your workout with a short cool-down period. This period is known as active recovery. Even a low-paced ride on a stationary bike will increase blood flow and help reduce DOMS in days to come.

Inevitably, everyone will have a rough encounter with DOMS. Try these treatment tactics to discover the best combination for your body.

Force yourself back: It may seem unimaginable at times to return to the gym after only a day or two, but re-exposing yourself to the same movements allows your body to adapt quicker, which will reduce future severity of DOMS.

Foam roller: Foam rolling may be the single best way to alleviate a sore muscle. Foam rollers work by helping to release tension in muscles and the fascia surrounding them. Releasing tension increases blood flow, which reduces inflammation and promotes quicker recovery. Try adding a form roller segment into your cool-down procedure.

Stretching: Stretching is a heavily debated topic; while it is a great tool for flexibility and mobility, there is no evidence that stretching reduces soreness. Some people believe that stretching helps them recover quicker, and that’s fine. Find out what works best for you.

Deep-tissue massage: Massage can reduce muscle soreness and swelling to some extent, but as with stretching, the results seem to vary from person to person.

Anti-inflammatory supplementation: Taking an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen will not actually speed muscle recovery; it will simply reduce pain and swelling in your muscles. Although you may feel better, your muscles will still require time to recover.

Give yourself a working knowledge of DOMS in order to fine-tune your training. By taking control of your DOMS treatment, you can and get yourself back in the gym sooner, and stronger. Happy training.


Brad Lawrence is a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department and a certified personal trainer. Email Brad at bradmlawrence@gmail.com


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