I've noticed that sometimes after I work out, it's not till the next day that my muscles feel sore, but when they hurt, they really hurt! What causes sore muscles, and how come you don't always feel it right away?
Sore muscles mean your workouts are working!We’ve all experienced it – you do strenuous work or exercise and wake up the next morning with muscle soreness. Even when you didn’t hurt the night before, you may be experiencing something known as DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. Whatever the activity or project was, you did too much, too quickly. Now, you’re dealing with sore muscles.
What Causes Those Sore Muscles?
Theories about the cause of muscle soreness have changed through the years. Not long ago, lactic acid would have been fingered as the culprit for those aching muscles. However, that theory has been all but dismissed today.
During high levels of physical activity, lactic acid is produced because the muscles’ demand for oxygen is greater than the blood can deliver. In order to produce the energy the muscles need to function, the body begins a process that works without that oxygen. The byproduct of this effort is lactic acid. As it builds up and gets locked inside your muscles, the acid can cause a burning sensation within the muscle tissue.
For many years, lactic acid buildup was thought to be the cause of sore muscles. However, this theory has been disproved, since we now know that lactic acid does not remain in the muscles for any length of time. Rather, it is completely washed out between 30 and 60 minutes after the physical exertion. Most muscle soreness, on the other hand, becomes noticeable between 24 and 36 hours after the exercise. After the lactic acid cause was debunked, the cause of muscle soreness was again a mystery.
Today’s most popular theory about the cause of sore muscles lays the blame on micro-trauma to the muscle fibers. When you overexert yourself physically, whether during work or play, you cause some localized irritation of the muscle fiber membranes, which can cause soreness.
This micro-trauma causes calcium molecule leakage from these muscle fibers, as well as an accumulation of histamines, potassium, prostaglandins, and local edema (fluid retention). The painful sensation occurs when fluid retention in the muscle area places pressure on the muscles’ nerve endings. The soreness generally is not caused by damage to the muscle itself, unless your muscles are not sore, but in extreme pain.
Other Possible Factors
• Overwork of the muscles releases chemical irritants, which can irritate pain receptors.
• An increase in blood flow to the area because of the intense muscle activity causes swelling and irritates pain receptors.
Whenever you overdo it physically, it’s possible you’ll wake up experiencing some residual pain. However, by moving your sore muscles, you can gradually return them to their normal state. You should take care about performing heavy exercise again, though, since the damaged muscles have temporarily lost some of their strength. Give them some time to recover and heal before attempting to exercise or work at the level which originally caused the injury and soreness. There is no “cure” for achy muscles that have been over-stimulated by exercise or overuse, other than time.
Feel the Burn
The muscle soreness you are feeling could be an indication of muscle growth. Light training in the same exercise as well as stretching sore muscles can help decrease the soreness. It is also OK to train and/or use your sore muscles before they are 100 percent recovered, as long as you do so with caution and care. Reckless overwork of sore muscles can cause serious damage, which will hinder your overall goal of gaining strength. However, improvement in muscle performance (i.e., increased strength, control, and endurance) is directly related to the pattern of muscle stress and recovery.
Should you stop before you “feel the burn?” Research indicates that you should work through the burn, unless you are no longer looking to improve, but simply want to maintain your current level of fitness. It’s only about eight hours after you’ve worked your muscles hard that your body goes to work, releasing the cytokines that cause inflammation and soreness; increased blood flow and redness; and increased fluid flow in the damaged area, causing swelling. The cells around the aggravated areas release factors that encourage tissue growth and heal the damaged muscle fibers. Muscle fibers become larger with each repetition of this process, and sometimes grow in number by splitting to create new fibers.
Eventually your muscles will no longer become sore from the same old routines. While you may be thinking this is a great thing, this is only partially correct. The reason soreness no longer affects you is that your muscles have grown to the point where they are no longer overworked from your regular workout routine. If you are happy with your current level of fitness and muscle mass, continue your routine as is, and revel in the lack of pain. Remember, though, this will only be routine maintenance. Muscles grow by building upon the breakdown caused by your workouts, so you will never become stronger by repeating a routine that no longer causes you to become sore.
Ways to Avoid Sore Muscles
Now that you understand why it can be a good thing to be sore, here are a few things you can do to reduce the pain.
• When you exercise, gradually increase the intensity of your workout. This will allow the strength and endurance of your muscles to grow gradually and avoid the intense pain of overexertion from a single workout.
• Avoid making sudden, major changes to your routine. Introduce new things slowly, and work up to your max.
• Make sure you stretch and warm up properly before any physical activity. Cool down and stretch again at the end of the activity. This will help you avoid sore muscles in the day(s) following the activity.
• Make sure you are using proper form when exercising, as incorrect posture and positioning can cause sore muscles.
It is best to think of sore muscles as an injury. You cannot push them too hard, or you will cause more damage or possibly serious injury. Avoid further vigorous activity to the point that it causes pain. Do some low-impact aerobics to help increase blood flow. Gently massage and stretch the affected muscles. If your pain is bad, try taking an anti-inflammatory painkiller like ibuprofen. And the best thing you can do for sore muscles? Give them time to heal.