Why do I feel sore days after working out?

Break it down to build it up

Grace talks about Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Image By Lucas Clarysse from Unsplash

Ever wondered why you sometimes feel sore on the second day after exercise and sometimes not at all?

Exercise-related muscle pain often happens after unaccustomed or excessive workouts. If you do something new or come back to a movement after a long time, you will feel sore. 

This might seem pretty obvious, but there are misconceptions about this basic principle.

Misconception 1.
You should feel sore after every workout, or else it didn't "do" anything.

Misconception 2.
You should never feel sore after a workout.

Let's break it down.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Muscle soreness can develop after exercise, often 24-48 hours post-exercise. It is usually the eccentric movement of the muscle that causes it. That means when the muscle is contracting while lengthening. 

Some examples of this are running downhill - if you think about what your quads are doing here, they are stretching out to reach the next step on the hill below but also contracting as they push you off the ground to propel your forwards. Another one is a Plyometric jump (the technical term for jumping up and down) or slow squats. As you slowly go down into a squat, your quads are stretching as your knees and hips move towards each other, and it is contracting as it is under load. This is an eccentric movement. 

Why do I feel sore

When you work out, your muscle experiences many tiny little micro-tears in the tissues (not like pulling your muscle!). It is essentially being broken down during the exercise which causes an inflammatory response, and that can result in swelling. As you can imagine, this may result in soreness.

What does it feel like

The feeling is a dull muscle ache. It can be quite localised to the muscles that you worked and can result in stiffness and tenderness. You may also experience a short-term lack of strength and mobility.  

It can be quite intense. If anyone has done a lot of walking lunges for the first time in a while, you will be familiar with the difficulties when sitting down (like on the loo!) or walking down stairs. 

Why do we care

To build muscle we have to break it down so that the body can build it back up to be stronger. 

Sometimes you’re just going to be sore. But this is also why the way you recover is so important as it is during recovery that you actually get stronger. A good recovery helps limit the damage and at the same time helps your body build itself up to be stronger.

What is important to note is that you don't have to be sore after every workout for your body to get stronger. If you went hard and aren't sore afterwards, that doesn't necessarily mean the workout wasn't beneficial. 

Just because you don’t have muscle soreness after every session doesn’t mean your body isn’t adapting or building strength. It may just be that you did movements that you are accustomed to and you recovered well!

How to recover well 

To minimise muscle soreness, there are a few things you can do.
 Of course, you can't eliminate it completely, nor should you want to. 
Most important is to eat and sleep well after an intense workout or when you do something new. Don’t eat inflammatory foods or drink too much alcohol the next day. Do some light stretching post workout and the next day. Treat yourself to an Epsom salts bath on the day that you train, before you get sore. 

When you do get sore

If you do experience severe soreness the next day or the day after, stay active to ensure your muscles don’t stiffen up too much and even consider getting a massage.

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