Hardly any phenomenon is as widespread in the field of sports as the common muscle soreness. The statement that every single strength athlete has had his or her own individual experience with a more or less severe manifestation of this unpleasant occurrence is therefore probably quite true.
It seems all the more astonishing that there are still many myths circulating around muscle soreness today that stubbornly persist in the collective memory of the fitness community despite the latest findings from sports science. The prevailing lack of clarity about the causes, correlations and the resulting consequences for the organism sometimes leads to many athletes acting incorrectly, and thus torpedoing their own performance themselves.
Therefore, if you want to reach the maximum in terms of muscle building, it is imperative to deal with the phenomenon of muscle soreness in order to be able to intelligently plan training and regeneration phases. The following article aims to provide clarity in this regard. We tell which misconceptions circulate around muscle soreness, what the causes of muscle soreness are, how it can be avoided as far as possible, and what you can do about it.
- What is sore muscles?
- How does sore muscle develop?
- Cause research in training practice
- How can I prevent sore muscles?
- Prevention through intelligent training planning
- What should I not do under any circumstances?
- How can I treat sore muscles effectively?
- What to do if the muscle soreness does not disappear?
What is muscle soreness?
Superficially, muscle soreness is a phenomenon that every strength athlete has had to deal with at some point. The typical symptoms that occur in this context, such as feelings of tension, slight swelling and sometimes severe pain on movement, are all too familiar and sometimes feared. Only those who have tried to climb stairs in the first few days after a hard leg workout really know how to assess the disruptive potential of muscle soreness.
What lies behind the obvious phenomena on the physiological level was long disputed in science. Until a few years ago, the assumption in the field of sports medicine was that over-acidification of the muscle was the cause. This assumption was based on the energy production process of the organism, which is no longer able to cover its energy requirements in an aerobic manner, i.e. with the aid of oxygen, in the course of high loads. As a result, the body is forced to metabolize carbohydrates without oxygen, which leads to the formation of lactate, which accumulates in the muscles and is only slowly broken down under stress.
However, studies in recent years have shown that the so-called acidosis hypothesis is not tenable with regard to the development of muscle soreness. One of the arguments against this is the time delay with which the symptoms ultimately occur. The first pain usually occurs no earlier than twelve to twenty-four hours after the end of exercise, which rules out the involvement of the metabolic end product lactate, since by this time it has long since been broken down into water and carbon dioxide. In addition, muscle soreness occurs primarily in training beginners or in the course of unaccustomed exertion. This also clearly speaks against the acidification hypothesis, since the formation of lactate is not limited to comparatively untrained athletes, but can be significantly higher again, especially in competitive athletes.
How does muscle soreness develop?
At this point, the legitimate question arises as to what actually causes muscle soreness. To understand the underlying cause-effect relationships, it is first helpful to take a detailed look at the microscopic anatomy of the skeletal muscles. Each muscle is surrounded by fascia and is composed of muscle fiber bundles, which in turn are made up of up to twelve muscle fibers. However, when viewed under the electron microscope, it can be seen that muscle fibers are not a homogeneous tissue type, but once again have different components, such as myofibrils.
These functional units of the muscle fibers are subdivided into further subunits by the so-called Z-disks. The Z-disks form the termination of the individual sarcomeres and are accordingly exposed to considerable stretching stresses in the course of training. When an inexperienced athlete is new to sports or an experienced athlete exposes his or her body to an unaccustomed load, the extraordinary strain can cause the Z-discs in the myofibrils to rupture.
These injuries to the muscle tissue, technically known as microtraumas, are microscopic tears that fill with fluid. In the course of this process, edema forms, leading to swelling of the affected muscle. After about twelve to twenty-four hours, the inflammatory substances produced in the course of the injury enter the surrounding tissue, where they come into contact for the first time with nerve cells, or more precisely, pain receptors. This time-delayed release of the messenger substances thus explains the fact that muscle soreness usually does not occur until the following day after a workout.
Causal research in training practice
In everyday training, there are many causes that force the tearing of the Z-disks. First and foremost is the unaccustomed strain on the muscles due to a new movement sequence or a significantly higher training load, which can be the case with beginners as well as experienced athletes. An interesting finding of sports science, especially with regard to weight training, is the fact that the probability of tearing the Z-disks is up to 30 percent higher during the eccentric loading phase than during the concentric loading phase. The muscle is sometimes abruptly decelerated during the eccentric loading phase, resulting in negative mechanical work in the physical sense, which releases extremely high forces in relation to the individual muscle fiber. The eccentric strength training approach, which focuses on performing negative repetitions to stimulate muscle growth, is also based on this finding.
In addition, it was found that the likelihood of muscle soreness occurring is closely related to the dynamics and speed of the eccentric load. In the field of strength training, however, this aspect is of less importance, since such abrupt braking effects are predominantly part of the repertoire of endurance sports. One example is hill running, where the thigh muscles have to absorb several times the body weight. This also applies to dynamic sports with many rapid changes of direction such as soccer, tennis or squash.
A third factor that should not be underestimated and that promotes the occurrence of muscle soreness is muscular fatigue, which leads to suboptimal coordination of the individual muscle fibers. Conversely, this in turn entails the overloading of the Z-disks elsewhere. In practice, this means that the likelihood of muscle soreness increases with load duration, even in trained athletes. However, the extent to which this is ultimately true depends explicitly on the training level of each individual athlete.
How can I prevent muscle soreness?
If you have been under the misapprehension that muscle soreness is a sign of a particularly effective workout, based on the motto "no pain, no gain", you should start rethinking at this point, because it is basically nothing less than a muscle injury. Since muscle injuries, even if minimal, significantly lengthen the recovery time between workouts and thus torpedo the optimal utilization of the principle of supercompensation, it is best to prevent muscle soreness from occurring in the first place.
The basic prerequisite for prevention is first a sensible warm-up program, during which not only blood circulation is promoted but, more importantly, the elasticity of the muscle tissue is increased, which also makes the Z-disks less likely to tear. Such a warm-up program should ideally consist of a global warm-up in the form of a five to ten minute cardio session on a treadmill, rower or cycle ergometer, and a local warm-up in the form of a few warm-up sets for the target muscles. Stretching is not recommended both immediately before and after strength training. While stretching before a workout can result in a measurable loss of tension in the muscles, reducing maximal performance, mechanical stretching of the muscles after a workout can lead to increased microtrauma in the tissues.
To promote blood circulation, which as already mentioned is also essential for optimal nutrient supply and thus energy provision, the muscles can be treated in advance with blood circulation-promoting oils or creams. Such products, which contain rosemary, for example, are available in pharmacies and online stores for sports nutrition.
Prevention through intelligent training planning
Sore muscles can also be prevented through smart training planning. However, the basic prerequisite for this is that every athlete, regardless of their level of experience, avoids overestimating themselves by not using particularly high training weights out of the blue. On the contrary, the development of performance should be gradual and gradual, so that the muscle tissue can slowly but steadily adapt to the requirements without the development of performance being slowed down by micro-injuries.
In practice, this means that both the training weight and the training volume should increase only slowly and never by leaps and bounds. It is all too understandable that it is more motivating to make rapid progress. However, less is more in any case in terms of tissue strain. It is equally understandable that most athletes only long for the sofa at home after their actual workout and by no means think about doing another cool-down. However, this cool-down also plays an important part in reducing the likelihood of muscle soreness occurring, or at least reducing its intensity.
As with the warm-up, cardio equipment is used at this point. After the active regeneration, which lasts five to ten minutes, the passive regeneration follows immediately. This is done, among other things, by the prompt supply of carbohydrates and proteins, which help the organism to initiate the regenerative metabolic processes as quickly as possible. In addition, measures to promote blood circulation such as sauna sessions or warm fatigue baths are also recommended after training. The latter should last around twenty minutes and can be further optimized in terms of effectiveness by adding bath additives such as Leukona, Pernionin or even common salt. In view of all those measures that help prevent sore muscles, it should be remembered that their application does not guarantee 100% success.
What should I not do in any case?
If, despite all precautions, the muscles have fallen victim to soreness after all, and every movement hurts, good advice is usually expensive. The emphasis is on the term "good", because especially on the Internet often hair-raising tips circulate, which are supposed to provide relief. Among these dubious suggestions is also the already mentioned stretching, which is extremely counterproductive especially in the acute phase 24-48 hours after training for the reasons mentioned. Stretching to loosen the muscles should accordingly only be practiced when the pain has already completely subsided.
The same applies to the use of massages in the acute phase. These also cause strong mechanical irritation of the myofibrils, which increases the microscopic tears and thus the regeneration time. Therefore, massages should also be applied only after the pain has subsided, usually after two to three days.
Another fact that is often neglected is alcohol consumption. This should be avoided within the first 24 hours of muscle injuries, including sore muscles, as the resulting release of the stress hormone cortisol delays regeneration at the metabolic level.
How can I effectively treat sore muscles?
But what is the right way to act when muscles harden and ache? In any case, it would be wrong to ignore the muscle soreness according to the already mentioned motto "no pain, no gain" and to train over the pain. And to say it right from the start: sore muscles cannot be treated with medication as if by magic, although preparations such as Traumanase forte or Wobenzym can provide relief from the symptoms under certain circumstances.
In principle, the rules that should be known to every strength athlete with regard to the holistic promotion of blood circulation in the muscles apply at this point. In detail, for example, blood circulation-promoting lotions and oils can be used. In addition, the increased supply of the branched-chain amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine (BCAA) can also help to repair the damage in the muscle tissue faster than would be the case without the appropriate supply. Apart from the use of special nutritional supplements, blood circulation can also be stimulated by sauna visits and warm-cold alternating baths.
In addition to passive treatment, active therapy also plays an important role in the regeneration processes. Even if large muscular loads on the affected muscle areas are to be strictly avoided during the healing phase, this does not mean that any load is forbidden. The affected muscle needs activity to flush out metabolic waste products produced during tissue repair. Swimming in particular has proven to be an effective form of active regeneration, as it involves a large part of the skeletal muscles. Especially for ambitious athletes, it will be difficult to "train" at low intensity at this point, but moderation is clearly more important than personal ego in this case.
What to do if the muscle soreness does not go away?
The length of time it takes for muscle soreness to heal depends primarily on the training experience of the athlete in question, as well as the intensity of the underlying load, which means that the beginner will suffer from the resulting consequences after his or her first strength training session significantly longer than an experienced athlete. As a rule, however, muscle soreness heals in one to three days.
In rare cases, for example after a competition in the field of endurance sports or after switching to a different training system such as P.I.T.T.-Force in the context of weight training, the half-life of the muscle soreness can be up to a week. If the discomfort is still as severe as before, it may be a good idea to seek out a sports physician to clarify whether there is not another muscle injury that should be treated medically.
The bottom line is that sore muscles are not a negligible phenomenon, but an overuse-related muscle injury that should be taken seriously in any case. The bottom line is that muscle soreness can be effectively managed with the help of an appropriate warm-up program in combination with intelligent training planning and the use of measures to promote blood circulation, although its occurrence cannot be completely ruled out. If the techniques applied in the course of active and passive regeneration still show no effect after a week, even experienced athletes are advised to consult a specialist.