Why Do Your Muscles Become Sore Anyway?
Whenever you engage in an unusual level of physical activity, whether lifting weights, going for a jog, or simply moving a heavy piece of furniture you create microscopic tears in your muscle tissue. Don’t worry; this is normal – when your body rebuilds the damaged muscle it grows back bigger and stronger than before. This is the same mechanism that athletes and bodybuilders use to become faster, bigger and stronger. As a general rule, the more you exert yourself, the more microscopic tears you create, and the more soreness you feel later on as the muscles are being repaired by your body. The soreness itself is a result of both the damage to the muscles, and chemical waste products produced by the muscles during use (namely lactic acid).
Different Types of Muscle Soreness
If you’ve found yourself with sore muscles and have come here in search of relief – the first thing you should do is determine the cause of the soreness. Is it normal post-workout soreness or does it feel much worse than that?
Normal, Post-Workout Muscle Soreness
Many people who work out on a regular basis will describe this type of muscle pain as ‘good’ – many even enjoy it as a sign that they’ve pushed themselves hard enough to see a benefit from their exercise as the muscle fibers grow back stronger than before. Normal muscle soreness manifests itself as a dull but localized pain in the worked muscles that doesn’t limit range of motion but may be accompanied by tightness and temporary loss of strength. It can appear right after your workout, or several hours after your workout (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Treatment You can reduce some of the discomfort by stretching the sore muscles often to keep them from tightening up along with participating in light cardiovascular training to get the blood and lymphatic systems moving (to assist flushing of remaining waste products like lactic acid). Anti-inflammatories such as ibuprophen can help relieve the pain (More tips on how to get rid of pain), but it has been argued that they may also limit muscle gain.
Strained or Overexerted Muscle Soreness
This happens when you push too hard, too fast and is most common in people who are just beginning a workout program and overdo it on the first few trips to the gym. The symptoms are the same as in normal, post-workout soreness but with the addition of tenderness in the area of the strained muscle and painful tightness which may limit your range of motion. Treatment If the pain is severe, see your doctor. If it’s tolerable, try not to use the muscle and each day you should notice an increased range of non-painful motion. Stretching *may* help depending on the extent of the strain. If the soreness turns into pain as you stretch, stop and just give that muscle some time to heal. Anti inflammatory medication such as ibuprophen can lessen the immediate pain, but may also lessen your muscle gain.
Pulled or Torn Muscles
This usually happens because a muscle was not fully prepared for exertion or incapable of handling the demanded exertion and is exactly what the title implies. Depending on the amount of overexertion a muscle can be partially or completely torn. A small tear will result in a sharp pain in the effected muscle followed by a similar pain whenever the muscle is called into use. Severe strains cause swelling as blood pools around the injured muscle to protect it and provide some damage control. A larger, or complete tear will be extremely painful and may result in an inability to use the muscle at all – if you are sitting at your PC reading this then you likely don’t have one of these unless your pain threshold is abnormally high.
Treatment If you suspect a severely strained or torn muscle, stop exercising, ice the area, and go and see your physician immediately. Continued use of the damaged muscle will only increase the damage and extend healing time. Do NOT apply heat as this will increase the blood flow and swelling, if the area does begin to swell, wrap it snugly with an ace bandage and keep it elevated until your doctor can examine it.
Preventing Sore Muscles
If you’re going to work out, you’re going to experience muscle soreness. You can however, reduce your chances of strains, pulls and tears. Here are some tips:
- Gently stretch each muscle group for at least 60 seconds before and after your workouts
- Begin and end every workout with an absurdly light load. If you’re about to run, start with 10 minutes of fast walking. If you’re about to lift weights, do a couple of speed sets using only the bar and going through the entire range of motion
- Hydrate! Lots of water or an electrolyte containing sports drink
- If weight training, stretch the target muscles between sets
- Finish every workout (even weight training) with 10-15 minutes of light cardio. This gets the blood and lymphatic system flowing and will help eliminate waste products built up from the workout
- Get a massage
- Ice the worked muscle group immediately after especially hard workouts