Guest post by Liam Howells
Can You Really Speed Up Recovery From Muscle Soreness?
You’ve been training hard in the gym for a while now. You’re getting fitter, stronger and starting to look better too. People are starting to check you out; and rightly so.
But there’s just one side effect from the work you’re putting in…. no matter what you do, a day or so after your workout you suffer one very distinctive side effect – muscle soreness.
And whether you know it by the term muscle soreness or the more popular ‘DOMS’, you’ll certainly be familiar with how it feels – that horrible, debilitating pain that forces you to leave the gym an extra 10 minutes early so you can climb the smallest flight of stairs, the mental challenge of retrieving something from the floor… and of course the dreaded squat to the toilet seat.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), aptly nicknamed ‘muscle fever’, is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise. The intense discomfort, however isn’t a generic side effect of exercise – it will be entirely dependent on how you’re training.
In this article we’ll talk about the methods used in the fitness and health industry to help you recover from DOMS. Do any of them actually work?
WHAT IS DOMS?
Go in the gym and ask any of the guys down there – what’s the one thing you wish you could put the brakes on when it comes to your workouts? Chances are they’ll say – muscle soreness.
But DOMS is a necessary evil. You just accept it for what it is – a side effect of smashing the weights room and crushing a few reps out of the dumbbells. It’s a sure fire sign that you’re forcing your body to adapt and grow, right? Well, not necessarily.
Despite what the regulars down at the gym say, the absence of this soreness post-workout isn’t necessarily an indicator of the level of effort shown during your workout. In fact, a recent study by Brad Schoenfeld stated that “although DOMS may provide a general indication that some degree of damage to muscle tissue has occurred, it cannot be used as a definitive measure of the phenomenon” .
So, has seeking out this pain for all these years been completely futile?
It certainly doesn’t mean that muscle soreness is completely pointless, as it still leaves us safe in the knowledge that some sort of adaptation is taking place. If the muscle fibers are damaged, they tell us. But if you don’t get soreness it doesn’t mean you haven’t had a good session. So don’t panic.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND DOMS
So what exactly is DOMS? Well, apart from being a quite literal pain in the arse (post leg day joke) the soreness you get in your muscles after training is widely thought to be caused as a result of both eccentric exercise (lengthening of the muscle fibres) and unaccustomed exercise – that means any exercise that’s new or you haven’t done for a while. It’s the pain that you feel as a result of microtrauma (small injuries) to the muscles.
The soreness and pain experienced from this microtrauma usually hits the hardest 24 to 72 hours after exercise.. but I’m sure you could have told me that.
Up to six hypothesised theories have been proposed for the mechanism of delayed soreness, namely:
- lactic acid
- muscle spasm
- connective tissue damage
- muscle damage
- and the enzyme efflux theories.
WE’VE MOVED ON FROM THE LACTIC ACID THEORY
For a long time, DOMS was widely thought to be a response to the build of lactic acid in the muscles.
I’d like to think that we’re better than this theory now and it has in fact been disregarded by a large proportion of the fitness industry for two main reasons.
Firstly, due to the fact that lactic acid levels have been proven to return to normal within one-two hours after your workout, and also because concentric contraction (which is also able to cause lactic acid build up) has been shown to be unable to cause DOMS .
A MULTIFACTORIAL REALITY
The truth is, no one knows for sure what causes DOMS, it’s more likely though that it’s not caused by just one of these mechanisms, but an integration of two or more of these . Scientists currently believe this damage, coupled with the inflammation that accompanies these tears, causes the pain, not one mechanism on its own.
EASING THE PAIN
A number of treatments have been trialled over the years to reduce the pain that accompanies DOMS. This of course would help to restore maximal function of the muscles as rapidly as possible and allow you to start pumping iron again as soon as possible; so it’s an important part of the training cycle.
And that’s good right? If you reduce soreness it means you can get back in the ‘saddle’ sooner.
These strategies are often referred to as recovery modalities, and when it comes to these different treatments, there are a large number of options readily and cheaply available to the recreational gym user, which all claim to speed recovery time and/or reduce the severity of DOMS.
Massage is a prime example (and probably the first you’d think of) of a popular recovery treatment for DOMS. It is used in everything from beauty parlours to sport rehab facilities for a number of reasons. But can it really enhance recovery and reduce pain?
Massage therapy is generally defined as ‘the rubbing and kneading of muscles and joints of the body with the hands, especially to relieve tension or pain. (5) At first glance it can be viewed as a very promising description for those wanting to reduce soreness.
FYI, I wouldn’t imagine that seedy backstreet massages help a great deal with muscle soreness… you all know what I mean.
One study that might support massage as a DOMS-reducing tool though, investigated both physiological and psychological recovery after exercise . It showed that massage as an intervention significantly increased perceptions of recovery, but not necessarily physical.
This study is in line with the majority of research on psychological effects of massage, which tells us that massage produces positive effects on recovery with regards to psychological mechanisms (a reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood).
Both positive effects for sure…. But neither help us walk upstairs any quicker.
Post-exercise massage has also been shown in some cases to reduce the severity of muscle soreness but has shown no effects on muscle functional loss .
Although the pain felt as a result of DOMS in some cases may be slightly reduced, there is a lack of evidence to suggest that muscle function is restored in any way. Of course, if you’re reading this looking for a reason to keep getting massages then just remember that there’s also a lack of evidence to suggest that it doesn’t work either.
Active recovery is another very popular tool used to reduce delayed muscle soreness. It’s easy to weave into your lifestyle and isn’t as costly as massage – without even knowing it, you’ll probably already have employed active recovery strategies after a tough workout.
Active recovery includes cooldowns, low-intensity exercise and water-based activity. Many believe that if done right it could hasten recovery after intense exercise.
As a treatment, active recovery strategies are most commonly used immediately after exercise, but sometimes on days between competitions or heavy training as well. Anything that is light and focuses on duration rather than intensity would count here (So yeah, that half arsed workout that we’re all guilty of from time to time probably counts).
When recovery time was studied by Bentley, active recovery both after and during resistance eccentric training bouts were found to produce small reductions in DOMS following eccentric resistance training when measured 48 hours to 6 days post-exercise.
FYI eccentric training refers to the downward phase of an exercise, for example the lowering of a barbell to your chest during the bench press or the way down to the ground during a squat.
It appears that using light resistance training or low-intensity ergometry in short daily bouts could in fact help to reduce DOMS.
The same study also showed that active recovery – especially light resistance exercise – helps to reduce the losses in upper body strength following eccentric exercise, but may not affect measures of isometric strength or lower body strength .
WARM WATER IMMERSION
Warm water immersion alone, although less widely studied than cold water immersion, is one recovery tool that has demonstrated alleviating effects.
One study exposed participants to warm water (38 °C/100°F) for 30 minutes post workout . This exposure was found to lead to a decrease in the ‘exercise-induced deflection of muscle cell reaction’ (which to you and me means that it helped to reduce inflammation).
The study also reported a significant decrease in the skeletal troponin I (calcium-sensing protein), creatine kinase (involved in the synthesis and use of energy-providing molecules) and myoglobin (provides oxygen to working muscles) following the warm water immersion.
And although these sound like complicated biology terms, they simply mean that the enzymes and proteins responsible for causing inflammation and damage tapered off – and that’s a good thing.
Armed with this new information it could also mean that you don’t ever have to take an ice bath ever again, which is great news for you and your manhood.
TART CHERRY JUICE
A weird one I know, but a number of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents have been identified in tart cherries, which have both recently been linked to improved athletic recovery and as a result performance. There’s also a fair amount of research to suggest that the numerous health and lifestyle benefits of cherry juice include treatment for insomnia, which could be a two birds one stone scenario considering the benefits of sleep for muscular recovery.
This juice has become very easily accessible and relatively cheap, making it something that almost anyone could use to help out with recovery and the reduction of muscle pain.
There have been a number of trials on the effectiveness of tart cherry juice aiming to prove, or disprove whether it does in fact help with the recovery of muscular function after exercise and the reduction of the pain associated with DOMS.
One of these studies showed that strength loss and pain were significantly less when the juice was consumed twice daily both before and after resistance training .
In a similar trial, using a group of healthy runners as participants, each of them was asked to drink tart cherry juice twice per day, 7 days leading up to and during a running event. They also reported higher satisfaction with the pain reduction they attributed to the drink than the placebo group .
As a result, post run exercise muscle pain was shown to be significantly reduced. And what’s more – because of this the participants were said to be more inclined to use this drink in the future.
Although there might not be quite enough evidence to say that tart cherry juice does reduce DOMS just yet, it does provide enough reason to get add it into your diet. Even if the sourness means you’ll pull some rather unsightly faces in doing so.
It is worth noting though that consuming this fruit with milk should be avoided because previous evidence shows that the proteins in milk inhibited the antioxidant activity in the body . And it probably tastes awful too.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are routinely prescribed post-exercise to alleviate the pain caused by DOMS and to restore normal physical function of the damaged muscle fibres.
Before you freak out, these are 100% legit drugs, the most widely recognised and attainable of these are probably Aspirin and Ibuprofen, which you probably own anyway.
There is concern though, that the use of NSAIDS to treat exercise induced muscle damage may impair the adaptive response of your muscles to exercise in the long-term. And the very enzymes that anti Inflammatory drugs aim to block, which cause inflammation and pain in the first place may in fact be necessary for muscle regeneration and adaptation.
I know what you’re thinking…. ‘Liam, you just said that these drugs are routinely prescribed to help people with the pain felt after training and now you’re saying that long-term use of NSAIDS could inhibit muscle growth and positive enzyme reactions (slow down gainz)’
Well, based on current evidence, there is little in the way to prove that the occasional use of NSAIDS will negatively affect muscle growth.
For the untrained individual it doesn’t seem that regular NSAID usage will impact muscle growth over the short term, in fact one study has documented the positive results of such usage. But given the impairment of potentially necessary side effects to exercise, longer term NSAID use may well be detrimental .
SHOULD I USE ANY OF THESE METHODS IN RECOVERY?
Although evidence suggests that some of these modalities will have a small effect on reducing the pain felt and recovery time post-workout, it is important to understand that the pain, however uncomfortable it may be, is an inevitable part of the adaptation process.
None of the above methods offer any immediate detriment to health and therefore can be incorporated as part of your workout/recovery with minimal risk, but unfortunately for all of us, the results may never be as impressive as we wish them to be.
Trust me, I’m as disappointed as you are.
The Microtrauma to your muscles following strenuous or unfamiliar exercise (also knows as DOMS), as you already know, can be extremely uncomfortable to say the least. I’ve been known to waddle around the gym for up to a week following a heavy leg session.
However by using one or a selection of these modalities, the pain experienced can at least be reduced to a certain extent, even though there is little in the way that can be done for the loss of function, which again can be attributed to the aforementioned microtrauma.
The science behind some of these methods is flimsy to say the least. Whereas for others, it does offer some benefits.
But with my own coaching clients, I always at the very least recommend days of reduced intensity (active recovery) for people who experience excess pain or who require longer time to recover from sessions.
The type of active recovery recommended would of course depend upon the type of training completed on the previous day, but usually consists of something such as a light jog, walk or swim.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
‘Liam is a coach, advanced nutritional advisor and speaker from Sheffield, UK based at liamhowells.com. He is an outgoing fitness enthusiast who has always found passion in working out, training clients, and programming for a variety of goals and abilities.
He strongly believes in living an active, healthy lifestyle and enabling others to take control of their lives with education, positive habits, and effective goal setting.
His business, amongst other things, is used as a platform for his established and reputable online coaching system that specifically targets dedicated and professional individuals.’
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