Nothing derails your fitness goals like feeling sore. Yet getting sore is almost unavoidable—it’s a rite of passage, if you will. But it doesn’t have to wipe you out. Over the next couple of months we’ll give you some tips to follow and, if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) monster altogether.
1. Start SLOW
It’s very tempting to begin an exercise program with a lot of enthusiasm, but try your best to go at a reasonable pace. If you’ve never exercised, or it’s been a long time since you have, go much easier than you feel you are capable of on Day 1 and ramp things up at a pace that is based on how you feel. If you’re not sore, go a little harder the next day. If you’re a little sore, take it down a notch. If you’re very sore, scroll down to the next section of this article to mitigate the soreness.
The reason is that your body has two types of muscle fibers: fast and slow (there are actually increments of these but this is enough for our scope). Fast-twitch fibers are very strong but break down easily and take a long time to repair. This translates into soreness. By easing into a program, you rely on your slow-twitch fibers which aren’t as strong but recovery very quickly. Going full bore on Day 1 activates your fast-twitch fibers, and leads to extensive breakdown and soreness. The harder you go, the sorer you are likely to get because there is something called emergency fibers, the fastest of the fast, which can take two weeks to repair.
2. Minimize Eccentric Motion
Concentric contraction is the shortening of the muscle, while eccentric contraction is the lengthening part of the movement. DOMS is almost entirely related to the eccentric part of the movement. You might be asking yourself, can I do one without the other? Good question.
If you’re doing a biceps curl, the concentric part of the movement is when you move the weight up, while the eccentric part is the way down. In order to avoid the eccentric part, you need to drop your weight. This won’t make you very popular in a gym and might ruin your floor at home, so probably not a very helpful suggestion.
You can, however, limit the amount of time you’re lengthening your muscles. Slowing down your concentric motions and returning to the start position quicker is one way to minimise eccentric contraction.
You may have noticed that a lot of very popular exercise programs actually target eccentric movements. That’s because training them is highly effective, just not until your body is in shape to handle it. Which it never will be unless you proceed slowly and carefully.
Dehydration can also make you sore as exercise increases your water needs a lot. Hydration is your body’s first defense against post workout soreness.
How much water you need varies depending on your activity level but an easy gauge to use is to drink half your body weight in fluid ounces each day (14 ounces equal roughly 400ml). That’s before you account for exercise. For each hour you work out, you should roughly add another litre (on average). This, too, varies based on the individual, heat, humidity, exercise intensity, and so forth, but you probably get the idea. You need a lot of water for optimal performance.
Water isn’t the only factor in hydration. Electrolytes, or body salts, are also sweated out when you exercise and must be replaced. If you’re training an hour per day or less, you probably don’t need to worry about them unless your diet is very low in sodium.
4. Get Post workout Fuel
The hour after you finish exercising is your nutrition sweet spot. The quicker your muscles recover, the less sore you get.
What this snack should consist of has been debated for ages but countless modern studies show that glycogen depletion (replenished quickest with simple carbohydrates), should be your primary concern. Glycogen is a fuel that your muscles store in limited amounts. When it’s gone, muscle damage increases until it’s been restored.
Protein, which repairs muscle tissue but is very slow to digest, replenishing body salts, and targeted micronutrients (aka vitamins), all come next.
What is debated, however, is what that ideal carb to protein ratio should be. It basically comes down to how depleted your glycogen stores are. The more depleted, the more important carbohydrates become in your replenishment strategy, keeping in mind: the body can store enough glycogen for about an hour of hard training. If your workouts are 30 minutes or less, you may not need any carbohydrates. Approach an hour and you probably need at least some.
Glycogen depletion is characterized by feeling empty. If you hit a point in your workout where you feel like you can’t go on, or you’re performing worse than you had been, you’re likely out of glycogen. When this happens you’ll want to shut down a workout and fuel up ASAP.
When you’re out of glycogen, it’s most effectively replaced by a targeted recovery supplement. These are formulated using every nutrient your body can use for recovery. In lieu of that, almost anything carb heavy can be effective. Something like a small bowl of cereal, perhaps with a banana, is a decent substitute. Aim to consume between 100 and 250 calories, depending on your size and how difficult your workout was. More than that probably can’t be digested within an hour.
What Happens If You Do Get Sore?
No matter how careful we are in not overdoing it in the gym we all seem to get carried away sometimes. Depending upon how much you skewed it, you can be back at full strength within a few days. Occasionally you may go way beyond what you should have done. In such cases, you can be out up to a couple of weeks. Either way, these tips will help you get back on the fast track.
The last thing you want to do, when everything hurts is to move. But that’s exactly what you need to do. While you won’t want to continue with your gung ho workouts, you’ll still want to exercise daily. How much you do depends upon how sore you are.
If you really overcooked it, and things like walking down stairs feel like a torture test then you won’t want to do much beyond moving as much as you can. All movement promotes blood circulation, and the more blood you circulate around your body, the quicker you’ll heal.
If you have a more sensible soreness, you can even do your workout at a gentler pace.
2. Use Circulation Techniques
You can also induce circulation techniques at home. While none of these will rid you of soreness alone, each one you can put into practice improves your chances of relief.
Ice and heat – Though ice slows circulation over time, it’s a fantastic circulation tool when used strategically. Your body is almost a hundred degrees. Rubbing ice on (or submerging for short periods of time) affected areas causes blood to rush from that area. Applying a little heat brings it back. It’s a bit like moving, without the movement.
Hot/cold showers – On the same theme, alternately turning your shower on hot, then cold, and pointing it at sore muscles causes a similar effect. The greater contrast between hot and cold you can stand, the greater the recovery effect.
Nutrition – The better you eat, the better your body works, period. When you have excessive breakdown, which you do when you’re sore, every nutrient helps. It’s a common tendency to drown injuries (and soreness is a small injury) with alcohol and desserts. And while that may help your mental state, it will slow down your recovery.
What Not To Do If You’re Sore
You can put ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin in the “what doesn’t work” section. While they are a common tool for recovery and pain relief, studies have repeatedly shown that they don’t aid in muscle recovery and, in fact, may exacerbate muscle breakdown.
Therefore, they should be avoided as much as possible. Understandably, you may want to use them to mask the pain in the most acute stages. Just know that it’s masking, and not solving, the recovery process.