Full of motivation, you jumped into your training plan with both feet and gave your workout everything you got.
But then on the next morning, when you try to get out of bed…OUCH!
Your muscles ache and are stiff, swollen and tender. What you have is a bad case of sore muscles.
But where does the pain come from and what can you do to relieve it?
Aching muscles aren’t absolutely necessary to make progress. But for those new to sports or those starting a new training program, they are often unavoidable.
Where do sore muscles come from?
Sore muscles can be the result of hard training sessions or new and unfamiliar movements. If you are performing new exercises or haven’t done them in a while, you are pretty sure to get sore muscles. Why?
Because your body hasn’t adjusted to the activity yet. The individual muscle fibers are not working together, so it can happen that certain fibers are doing all the work, while others are essentially taking a break. Since just a few fibers are carrying the load, they can quickly become overworked.
Basically, if your muscles are overworked, this can lead to muscle stiffness and tiny tears in the muscle fibers, called microtears. Even well-trained marathon runners will experience aches and pains after their first squash match. This comes as no surprise, given that they are not used to the movements.
What happens in the muscles?
The reason you feel so fatigued is small micro-injuries to the muscles. These injuries increase the concentration of inflammatory markers in your blood, causing lymph to leak into the muscles through the tiny tears. This makes your muscles swell and lengthen.
Thus, what we think of as sore muscles are nothing other than the lengthening of the muscles, which we perceive as pain. Eccentric exercise (e.g. walking downhill, negative resistance training), plyometric training (like jumping) or fast sprints, with abrupt changes of direction, can lead to sore muscles.
How long will the soreness last?
Generally, your muscles do not feel sore immediately after your workout, but a few hours later. Peak soreness is usually between 24 and 48 hours after your workout. But don’t worry, most of the time the aching goes away relatively quickly. The worst soreness should be gone within a week.
So, sore muscles are nothing other than tiny injuries to your muscles. But your body is clever: It rebuilds the damaged tissue and, in the process, increases your body’s level of performance. Provided that you give your body sufficient time to recover, of course.
Your muscles will get used to it
Your body’s amazing system of muscles is a master of adaptation, capable of adjusting to the different demands placed upon it. Did your muscles ache after your first strength training session? The good news is that it will get better! If you do the same training within a certain interval, you will see and feel that your muscles ache less or not at all because your body has adapted to the training load.
Good to know:
As a rule, it takes two or three sessions to get used to a particular load. The reason you don’t get sore muscles is that your body is now at a higher level of performance than before the training stimulus.
How to avoid sore muscles
Sore muscles are very common among beginners, or after long periods of inactivity. There are a few tricks to help avoid sore muscles or prevent them from developing in the first place:
- When beginning to train, start slowly and increase the intensity gradually. Warming up is absolutely essential to get your muscles ready for the upcoming workout. Plus, it helps you to avoid stiff muscles afterwards. But warming up not only prepares your muscles. Your cardiovascular system also shifts into high gear, and the coordination between your muscles and your nervous system improves. Thus, warming up essentially gets your body up to speed. This not only prevents sore muscles and injuries, but it also increases your performance.
- Also, if you are tired, you should avoid fast and explosive exercises. When you are fatigued, your coordination is impaired and your muscle fibers do not work together as smoothly as usual.
- Did you just finish a hard workout and are already worried about the pain you will feel tomorrow? Cooling down reduces the risk of stiff muscles and helps you recover more quickly. But if you develop sore muscles anyway, don’t panic. As the saying goes: Rest is the best medicine for sore muscles.
A few home remedies can help:
- moderate exercise (running, swimming, cycling)
- warm herbal baths, contrast baths and showers, sauna
- massage with stimulating lotions
- foam rolling
- and even some foods
Watch out: Aching muscles are a bad sign
The danger sore muscles present is frequently underestimated. They are often the precursor to pulled or even torn muscles. How can you tell the difference? If you are feeling discomfort that developed gradually, it’s probably just soreness. However, sharp, severe pain that happens suddenly could be a sign of an injury. In the case of very severe pain, you should turn your training down a notch. Do some recovery training (easy running) and stimulate your circulation by visiting the sauna or taking a contrast bath/shower. You can also postpone your next workout for one or two days.
If the pain lingers, consult a medical professional.
Massages don’t always relieve pain, but can in fact make it worse. If the massage is too intense, it can cause the tiny tears in the muscle to rip further. But there’s nothing wrong with a light massage to increase the flow of blood to the muscles. In the case of very sore muscles, stretching is also counterproductive because the mechanical stress intensifies the pain and delays recovery.
What about muscle cramps
Muscle cramps can also be a painful companion on the path to your fitness goal. Muscle fibers contract unexpectedly and sometimes without warning, causing pain. This can happen during or after exercise. The most commonly affected areas are the calves, feet and thighs. A muscle cramp can sneak up on anyone – from beginners to professionals.
What causes muscle cramps
Different causes can lead to developing muscle cramps: magnesium deficiency, heavy training loads, high temperatures, lack of sleep, fluid and mineral imbalances…. Most likely a combination of these factors will lead to a muscle cramp.
Generally, if a cramp is caused by fatigue it is usually localized in one muscle and happens suddenly. On the other hand, dehydration cramps develop over time, might be felt on both sides and are usually accompanied by lots of sweating and other signs of dehydration.
What to do if you get a muscle cramp
If pain occurs, you should take a short break from your activity. Replacing water and electrolytes lost during exercise is advised. If the cramp is caused by fatigue due to too much training load, it will probably decrease with light stretching and massage.
But the best thing is not to let it get this far.
How to prevent muscle cramps
Here are a few tips for preventing muscle cramps:
- Drink enough fluids. Especially on hot days (or if you sweat a lot during your workout), make sure to drink enough liquids.
- Keep your muscles loose. Incorporate stretching and relaxation exercises into your training plan.
- Include variety and minerals. Magnesium not only comes in the form of fizzy tablets. It is also found in whole grain products, green vegetables and bananas. Good sources of calcium, which is essential for muscle contraction, are dairy products, spinach and egg yolks.
- Give yourself time and increase the workout intensity gradually. Your body first needs to get used to the new training sessions.
Do you often have problems with aching muscles? Then our blog post on foam rolling and stretching might interest you.