Soreness: What Causes it and How to Treat it

Monday, June 02, 2014

Whew!  I have been sore this week!  Ever since leg day last week my quads and glutes have reminded me of their presence every time I go to sit.  While I wouldn't say I have been in pain (activities haven't been hindered), I have definitely felt the fruits of my labor for the last several days. In some ways, I count it an honor.  My body is getting stronger; I have been working hard.  However, some days it would be nice to not have that twinge when walking down stairs or when wearing my favorite 5 inch heels.  Oh, and in case you're wondering, I'm wearing those heels here:

Did I mention I have a thing for shoes?  Especially tall ones?  Ones that make my calves pop?  But anyways, I digress.  My point is, I love wearing heels to work - except when those same calf muscles scream when wearing them.  So what's a girl to do?

First, do you know *why* you get sore to begin with?  Muscle soreness is the result of two things:  lactic acid build-up and inflammation.  Lactic acid is released when a workout is tough enough that your tissues are not getting the amount of oxygen they request - sort of like when you go to a restaurant and order a drink...  and then have to wait on refills.  Your muscles call for oxygen, but your blood just can't carry enough, fast enough.  When that happens, carbohydrates are broken down in an abnormal way, resulting in lactic acid.  Contrary to how that might sound, that is not a bad thing!  It means that you had a killer workout!

The second cause of soreness is inflammation.  When you work out hard, you actually cause your muscle fibers to tear.  Your body then repairs those tissues, and you are stronger than you were before.  The mechanism for that repair is inflammation.  Your body rushes blood and other compounds to the site of the tears to repair itself, resulting in swelling (even if you can't see the swelling with your own eyes).  That swelling is actually what is causing the soreness.

All right, enough with the physiology lesson, how do we treat soreness?

How we treat soreness ultimately depends on what is causing it.  Lactic acid causes a short-lived soreness, usually no longer than a day.  If you think your soreness is due to a build-up of lactic acid, the best thing you can do is keep moving.  Yep, exercise is what fixes lactic acid buildup.  The type of exercise matters, though.  If you're sore, take it easy.  Do some yoga or take a long, easy walk.  Keep your muscles moving, but don't tax them too much.  You want them to move the acid, not make more.

What about when your soreness lasts more than a couple hours?  In that case, the cause is most likely inflammation.  While this type of soreness sticks around a little longer (up to 5 days!), there are techniques to combat it.

  1. The first is, yet again, to keep moving.  Exercise helps to loosen the tension and the scar tissue within your muscles.  I won't lie to you.  If you are intensely sore, it will be hard to get started.  But once you do?  It will only get easier with each passing minute!  
  2. Use cold and heat appropriately.  Within the first day, use ice for 20 minutes out of each hour.  The cold helps to constrict and therefore control the amount of blood flow to your muscles.  After the first day, feel free to use heat to relax the muscle fibers.  Personally, this is my favorite technique.  Nothing like a warm, relaxing rest.
  3. Next, make sure you are hydrated!  Muscles are made mainly from water.  That also means that to repair themselves, they need more water.  So drink up!
  4. Proteins are the building blocks of muscle tissue.  Make sure you are hitting your protein goals with your nutrition.
  5. Try foam rolling (pictured at right).  Foam rolling is a form of self-massage.  It consists of using a dense tube of foam to roll over sore muscles.  It helps to break up the connective tissue surrounding your muscles.  Warning:  it does hurt, at least at first.  But then it gives way to one of the most glorious feelings ever.  Be sure, though, that you are not rolling over joints or bone!
  6. Finally, there is some evidence that suggests that epsom salt baths are helpful due to the magnesium content in the epsom salts.  The magnesium may help with soreness in general and is absorbed through the skin.
One final thing...  You may notice that nowhere did I suggest taking advil or ibuprofen.  That was absolutely intentional!  Ibuprofen halts the inflammatory process and, yes, stops the pain.  However, there are some pretty compelling studies that indicate that ibuprofen is so good at battling inflammation that it also prevents the body from repairing itself.  If you take ibuprofen for your soreness, there is a chance that not only is your body *not* repairing itself, but you may miss signs of injury due to its numbing properties.  That being said, I strongly suggest using ibuprofen only when absolutely necessary!  Get stronger, not injured!

Did I miss anything?  Do you have any other suggestions or remedies?  Tell me about them in the comments!

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