Muscle Recovery 101: Complete Guide to Sore Muscles

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WHY WE GET SORE MUSCLES AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM

Plus some proven tips to speed up that recovery.  We’re serious, the scientists say these work!

Sore muscles are a monster. Those days when you skip washing your hair because it’s too hard to lift your arms over your head. When climbing the stairs at work feels like hiking Everest. And when the thought of sitting down to the toilet brings a few tears to your eyes. 

It happen to us all. But why do we get sore and how do we jump start our muscle recovery?

WHY WE GET SORE MUSCLES

There are two kinds of sore muscles:

  1. Acute Muscle Soreness: the kind you feel during your workout or right after, that feel good burn. It’s usually pretty mild and goes away pretty darn quick and most of us see it as a badge of honor that you pushed yourself in your workout. 
  1. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): is a whole other ballgame in the soreness world.  It’s the soreness that kicks in a day or two after your killer workout – and it can make any movement feel like a challenge.  This is the soreness that hurts. And the one we beg to end

So why do we feel the torture of DOMS? And how do we speed up our recovery to get back in to the gym sooner?

For those of you that just want the quick tips to speed up your recovery, check out these 15 scientifically proven strategies to speed your muscle recovery.  But if you want to get a few more nuggets of info, keep reading.

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FIRST, LET’S TALK ABOUT LACTIC ACID

man with his hand rubbing his sore shoulderBack before we knew better, most people thought that sore muscles were from a lactic acid build up.   But now we know it’s not lactic acid’s fault (yet we still can’t seem to shake this myth).

Post-exercise soreness is actually caused by simple mechanical damage to muscle fibers, free radical damage, and inflammation. Sounds nice and fancy, but it just means that the stress from your workout damaged your muscle fibers and get they got inflamed.  And those make you feel a little sore and achy. 

Now lactic acid is floating around in there with the tears and inflammation, but it’s not causing that soreness. 

So what does?

THE MYSTERIES OF DOMS

Muscle soreness is confusing, even to the experts.

Almost any kind of challenging exercise can lead to sore muscles. Doing 1000 pushups or learning how to do a hang clean for the first time can make you sore. Because you’re pushing your muscles in new ways or to new limits.  Ways they aren’t used to.

And because they’re working longer and harder, you’re causing more tears in the fibers than normal (the good kind of tears, the ones that are repaired for muscle growth). 

In that acute soreness – the one that’s quick to come and quick to go – that soreness is just from those muscle tears.  Now those tears don’t actually hurt you, but when theres a little inflammation around those tears, that’s when you feel sore.

But when scientists look for the cause of DOMS, the soreness that lingers for days, they come up a bit empty on the whys. 

The exact cause isn’t known, but those smarty-panted folks doing the research tell us that it’s somehow related to mechanical and metabolic stress. Now as nerdy as that sounds, it doesn’t really tell us much. Because we could probably guess it isn’t due to financial or relationship stress… but who knows, maybe those contribute.

So the mechanical stress is the rips and tears with the inflammation around it.  Just the same for the acute soreness.   Easy enough.

But the metabolic stress part is a little more complicated.

And here’s what that means:

Think of your muscle as a factory and all the little cells as workers.  The goal of that factory is to turn molecules into energy.  And the more that factory is open and operating, those cells working, the more energy that’s made.  Simple.

But just like any factory, there are always a few byproducts that come out that weren’t planned as part of that end product.  Like a big factory that ends up with empty boxes, trash or unnecessary parts and pieces, your muscle factory also puts out some extra stuff when making that energy, like protons and lactate.   And although these things are byproducts, by themselves they don’t make you feel sore.  But the gurus think that when you combine all these byproducts together with the tears and inflammation, you get that soreness that lasts for days.  And the more that factory works, the more byproducts get made, the more sore you feel.  They aren’t sure why – but they are all somehow related. 

So that long soreness is probably from a combination of muscle tears, inflammation, and extra byproducts floating around that don’t need to be there.  Now when you don’t really know where the soreness comes from, it can be hard to beat it.

Women holding a kettlebell infront of her muscle soreness

BUT HERE’S WHAT WE DO KNOW ABOUT DOMS

Lifting those heavy weights are not what cause your sore muscles, shocking I know! The soreness actually comes from when you lower those weights back to the ground (in a controlled way of course).  

When you lower that bicep curl back down to the ground, the eccentric motion of that exercise, that’s when you’re actually causing those muscle tears and putting that muscle factory into overdrive.  And with lots of extra eccentric work in your training, you’re asking for more and more tears, inflammation and extra byproducts taking you to extreme soreville. 

Now that little soreness can be good – that badge of honor that you’re tearing your muscles down only to build them back up. 

BUT DOMS ISN’T ALWAYS FRIENDLY

DOMS has a dirty little secret.

When your muscles are sore, your odds are probably pretty good that your next few workouts aren’t going to be great.   It’s just harder to move. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep training and progressing toward your goals. But you could probably see that your training gets knocked down a few notches when it’s hard to even walk.

A small downside to DOMS, but that’s not too extreme or dangerous.

The danger comes when you have more than your usual soreness. When you’re so sore and tight you can hardly move, your muscles swell up (not in a good way) and you start peeing the color of dirty pond water. If that happens to you, get to your hospital because you might have rhabdomyolysis.

Although the name makes it sound like a cool thing, rhabdo is not.  Rhabdo breaks down your muscle tissues and releases a damaging amount of protein into your blood that could lead to serious kidney damage.

Woman doing pushupsNow hearing about rhabdo can be scary, but it’s not something most of us have to worry about. If you’re spending 45 minutes at the gym every day and feeling sore but functional, then you don’t need to be concerned. Your muscles will get themselves into recovery and shake the soreness soon. Rhabdo happens when someone pushes wayyyyy past the limits of their body (think about those 100+ mile runners) and their body starts to breakdown from extreme stress. That’s when recovery doesn’t happen and your factory starts closing down for good (or at least until you see a doctor).

But for 99.9% of us, rhabdo is nothing to worry about. Embrace your soreness as the sign of change and growth.

SO WHAT ABOUT RECOVERY?

Soreness sucks. But your muscles are pretty smart and know how to get into recovery mode.  

Rest and recovery is, dare I say, more important than the actual weight lifting! You could lift weights until the cows come home, but if you never give those babies a break, you’ll never see the growth and change.

Now, the problem is that since we don’t know why DOMS happens, we don’t really know exactly what puts our muscles into recovery mode.

How quickly you get into muscle recovery can depend on a few things like familiarity with the exercises, fitness level, volume and intensity of training, genetics, sleep, diet.  They all can play a part in your recovery.

But from a scientific perspective, muscle recovery happens because of protein synthesis.  It’s how we create new proteins that repair the inflamed rips and tears.  Patch them back up good and new so you’re feeling fluid and fresh again.

But protein definitely isn’t all you need to kick the muscle soreness.  Most of use will try to beat muscle soreness with stretching, foam rolling (check out some info about that here), and some light active recovery.  And these things can be helpful.  

Woman on a ball doing SMR to loosen her sore muscles

But we can also change how we train to keep ourselves out of the extreme soreness.

TIPS TO PREVENT SUPER SORE MUSCLES

  • If you’re a beginner, take things slowly. Don’t try to tackle the world all at once. If this is your first time training, a 10-mile run is probably not the best first workout. Not only will it give you extreme soreness, but you’re much less likely to stick to a training plan for the long haul. Start slow.
  • Increase your training progressively. Once you’ve started at the beginning, slowly increase your training in a systemized way. Don’t go from squatting the bar to squatting 350lbs. You have to take baby steps. Keep pushing yourself, but in a slow, progressive way.
  • And if you’re trying a new exercise for the first time, step down on your weights.  Any new exercises can be challenging. Sure, you might be able to lift the heavy weights you’re used to, but use a lighter weight and get familiar with the exercise before you dive into the big boy weights. It keeps you from extreme soreness but it also prevents injuries.

The moral of the story: listen to your body. If your muscles are too sore to move, then you need to give yourself more time for recovery.   If your soreness is pretty minimal, than your recovery time is probably much shorter and you can be back kicking butt in the gym tomorrow.

You don’t have to believe in the no pain, no gain saying for every workout. Soreness is a good thing for muscle growth, but even workouts that don’t leave you sore can still get you moving toward your fitness goals.

But when the soreness does hit, you can use these 15 scientifically proven strategies to boost your muscle recovery and get back into the gym quicker.  Just click download your free guide and it will be delivered to your inbox instantly!

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