If Exercise Is so Good for Us, Why Do We Ache Afterwards?

You know the story. You finally take advantage of the weekend and get in a round of golf or a few games of tennis, or go skiing or running, or just work in the garden. And, just as the exercise gurus said you would, you feel better and more energized afterwards.

Then Monday rolls around, and the soreness begins to appear. Muscles begin to ache in places where you didn’t even know you had places, and even the slightest movement becomes an ordeal. What’s up with this? How can something that is supposedly so good for us – exercise – cause something that feels so bad for us?

What causes muscle achiness after exercise?

In the past, when we were growing up, we were told that this muscle soreness was the result of a buildup in the muscles of lactic acid, which is a chemical byproduct of exercise. The trouble with this theory was that while lactic acid may contribute to what athletes call “the burn,” it’s a very temporary phenomenon, and goes away within an hour. The muscle achiness we’re talking about, which is technically called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, doesn’t show up until one or two days after you exercise. The general consensus is that it’s the newness of the particular exercise that is the culprit, not how “in shape” we are otherwise. Thus athletes who are in great shape and run every day can become sore when they go skiing, and use an entirely different set of muscles to deal with the pressures of constantly leaning in a downhill direction.

Although no one really knows for sure, the prevalent theory these days is that exercise – especially exercise that involves muscles and muscle groups that you don’t use regularly – causes tiny microtears in the muscle tissue. They are most likely to occur whenever you change your exercise routine or increase the duration or intensity of it. And, these tiny, microscopic tears in the muscle are a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, they are precisely what enables us to become progressively stronger as a result of regular exercise. The body begins to heal the microtears, and as it does, those muscles become stronger and more resilient, less likely to tear as easily, and thus more able to handle similar exercise in the future. But on the other hand, they cause DOMS, and your body aches like crazy for a couple of days as it rids itself of toxins created during the healing process.

What can I do to prevent or treat delayed onset muscle soreness?

Unfortunately, there is no universally effective method of preventing DOMS. Many sports medicine experts recommend hydrating – drinking a lot of water before, during, and after exercise, to help the body flush these toxins out.

Traditional sports wisdom says that you should stretch before and after exercising, but more recent research indicates that stretching before exercise doesn’t help as much as generally “warming up.” Stretching after you exercise is better at relieving and possibly preventing muscle soreness. Massage, although it may feel good at the time, seems to have little effect on DOMS, and doesn’t affect either the level or duration of the pain.

Many athletes and doctors recommend eating immediately after exercising, especially eating protein. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that professional cyclists who drank a combination protein and carbohydrate drink during and after their ride were able to ride 29% longer during their first ride, and up to 40% longer on subsequent rides than cyclists who drank only a carbohydrate drink.

If the DOMS becomes severe, treat it the same way you’d treat other forms of muscle pain, with ice or cold packs, and with anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen. Interestingly enough, however, and probably the last thing you want to hear when your body is so achy that it’s difficult to move two days after exercising, the best thing you can do may be to exercise again. Active recovery involves performing gentle, low-impact aerobic exercise during your recovery period, which in many tests has shortened the healing time and led to reported decreases in perceived pain. Stretching or performing yoga may also help.

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