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There is a standing joke with some of my clients...the first few days after beginning their training program I ask them if they've tried the "toilet test". This sounds crass, but you immediately appreciate the full extent of muscular work required to sit on a toilet when your legs feel shot. The "stairs test" is a good one, too.
We have a good little laugh, but there's something going on here. Why do you get so sore, especially in the beginning? Are the workouts too hard? Is it ok if you DON'T feel sore? Are the workouts hard enough? Let's figure this all out...
Muscle soreness seems to go hand in hand with exercise and physical activity. Most people expect to feel some sort of pain following a good workout session, and others avoid exercise altogether because of the soreness that will most likely ensue. However, few regular exercisers know what soreness really is, what it's caused by, and how to avoid it. Prepare to be enlightened.
The muscle soreness you feel following a workout is most likely what the scientific community has termed Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). You may have heard of this term. DOMS is experienced as pain and inflammation in the muscles, decreased range of motion, and decreased strength of the affected muscles. Basically when your muscles feel like lead. It can be felt within 8-12 hours following exercise and may last 24-72 hours. In fact, complete recovery may sometimes take up to 3 weeks.
DOMS is most closely associated with eccentric muscle contractions (the breaking or decelerating type of contraction--picture downhill running or walking downstairs) or exercises that one is unaccustomed to. This type of muscle soreness is generally caused by a sequence of events beginning with damage to the muscle structure, accumulation of calcium, release of intracellular proteins, and inflammation that activates the pain receptors. There are plenty of complex chemical reactions that occur following exercise and subsequent tissue damage, and any of these reactions can have some effect on soreness.
I thought it was lactic acid.
A common myth associated with soreness is that lactic acid buildup is a cause. Muscle and blood lactate levels actually return to normal levels 30-60 minutes after exercise. (If light activity is performed, lactic acid is removed much quicker than this.) So if soreness is typically felt 8-12 hours following the workout, then lactic acid is not to blame...it's already gone. Furthermore, the biggest culprit of severe soreness is eccentric contractions such as those done by the muscles when running downhill. Studies have shown that running downhill produces less lactate than on flat ground. So if you're sorer after running downhill, but you formed less lactate, then lactic acid is clearly not the cause.
What if I don't get sore?
Another common myth is that if you're not sore after a workout, then it's not working anymore. This is not true, because there are definite ways to reduce the occurence of DOMS. Performing a thorough warm-up prior to activity has been shown to significantly reduce soreness because it increases overall muscle function. Another way to reduce soreness is to gradually allow the muscles to adapt to the stress rather than jumping right into it. Finally, by performing more bouts of eccentric exercise the muscles will adapt to it and will be strong enough to handle the loads. For example, if you perform more bouts of downhill running your muscles will adapt and no longer respond with soreness.
However, we must address the fact that one of the causes of DOMS is unaccustomed exercise. It is well known that changing your routine often and adding variety is important for progressing and seeing continued benefits. So, these various changes may cause necessary soreness. But if you don't feel sore even though you are on a well-designed and periodized program, it may be that you are just easing into it well enough and warming-up sufficiently to prevent soreness. It doesn't mean it's not working.
Every body is different.
Because soreness is a result of many variables, chemical and mechanical, it will be experienced differently from person to person. Chronic soreness can be a predictor of overtraining, but most people should not judge the effectiveness of their training program by whether they are sore or not. Be sure to be following a program that progresses, uses many multi-joint exercises to challenge all the muscle groups of your body, and provides variety and interest (like this one).
What you should do about it.
When you are sore, there are several things you can do to alleviate the pain and start to move better. If the pain is pretty extreme, take an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen and ice the area. With such extreme pain, you're probably experiencing a lot of inflammation that should be managed. You should also take a few days off from your workouts or normal activities to let your muscles heal.
If the soreness is fairly moderate, one of the best things to do is just move. Get those muscles working again! Your tendency may be to succumb to the stiffness and look like a crotchety person for a few days, but you should gently force your joints into normal ranges of motion. Foam roll your muscles until the pain lessens and then perform a dynamic warm-up, dynamically stretching through full ranges of motion. If you feel up for it, proceed with your planned workout. More likely than not, you will feel much better after your workout than when you started.
So, the next time you fail the toilet test, you'll know what's going on and what to do about it. Keep in mind, the more fit you are, the less soreness you'll experience in general. However, from time to time a workout will sneak up on you and you'll be reaching for that foam roller!