September 4, 2009
There are two types of exercise-related muscle soreness. Immediate muscle soreness quickly dissipates and is the pain you feel during, or immediately after, exercise. Delayed muscle soreness signals a natural adaptive process that the body initiates following intense exercise. This type of muscle soreness manifests itself 24 to 48 hours after the exercise session and spontaneously decreases after 72 hours.
Why does this happen?
Allow me to break it down for you (you’ll understand my humor in a minute, I promise). There have been numerous studies conducted to determine the cause of delayed muscle soreness. The most current consensus attributes this condition to microscopic tears in the muscle and surrounding connective tissue following eccentric exercise. A muscle contracts eccentrically when it lengthens under tension during exercise. For example, during a biceps curl, the biceps muscle shortens during the concentric lifting phase and lengthens during the eccentric lowering phase. Eccentric contractions also occur during aerobic activity, such as downhill running, in which the quadriceps muscle repeatedly lengthens against gravity to lower the center of mass and aid in shock absorption.
Who is likely to experience delayed muscle soreness?
Exercisers who experience delayed muscle soreness include conditioned individuals who increase the intensity, frequency or duration of their workouts, or participate in an activity with which they are unfamiliar. Individuals who are new to exercise, or those who have undergone a significant lapse in training, frequently experience soreness when starting or re-engaging in an exercise regimen.
What is the best way to relieve delayed muscle soreness?
To date, a therapy that consistently relieves delayed muscle soreness has yet to be identified. Studies attempting to identify the best methods to alleviate delayed muscle soreness are almost as abundant as the number of studies conducted to determine its cause. Cryotherapy (the topical application of ice), massage, stretching, and the use of nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), among other less conventional approaches, have been evaluated to determine if they can prevent or effectively treat delayed muscle soreness. While a sure fire way has still not been pinpointed, a few of the aforementioned therapies may have a mild positive impact if initiated immediately following intense or unusual exercise.
Can I prevent it from happening?
Once an individual has experienced delayed muscle soreness at a specific exercise intensity, he or she shouldn't encounter that sensation again until the intensity level is increased. This is because delayed muscle soreness has been shown to produce a rapid adaptation response, which means that the muscles adapt to a given exercise intensity level. Until (or unless) the exercise intensity level is changed, soreness won't occur.
Progression is your best weapon.
The most widely recommended approach to preventing delayed muscle soreness is gradual progression and conservative increases in intensity, frequency and duration. Preliminary light exercise may prevent the onset of soreness following a heavy eccentric-exercise workout. Beginners should exercise with light weights, two to three times per week for one to two months, and then gradually increase the intensity of their workouts. Conditioned exercisers who want to try a new workout or activity also should begin gradually, taking care not to be overzealous in how hard they exert themselves- particularly until their bodies adapt to the demands imposed upon them.
Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYTContributor
Jessica Matthews, M.S., E-RYT is assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. As a leading fitness expert, writer and educator Jessica is a regular contributor to numerous publications, including Shape and Oprah.com. She holds a B.S. in physical education teacher education from Coastal Carolina University and M.S. in physical education from Canisius College. She is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as well as an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) through Yoga Alliance and trained stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga instructor. Prior to teaching at Miramar, Jessica worked full-time ACE, serving in a number of key roles including exercise physiologist, certification director and senior health and fitness editor. Her past work also includes serving as aquatics director at Conway Medical Wellness and Fitness Center and designing health and physical education curriculum for grades K-12. Full Bio Jessica Matthews »