Sore Muscles? Don't Stop Exercising (cont.)

"When muscle temperature is increased, blood flow increases, bringing fresh oxygen and healing nutrients to the injured site," he says. "This increased blood flow also helps to wash away the chemical irritants responsible for pain."

While sore, don't expect to set personal records. Most likely, during a bout of DOMS, your exercise potential will be out of reach, says Draper. Delayed onset muscle soreness usually affects only the body parts that were worked, so perhaps you can work other muscle groups while letting the fatigued ones recover.

In a nutshell, don't beat yourself up. Just take it easy.

"Since there's a loss in muscle strength, athletic performance won't be at peak levels for a few days," says Torgan, "so it's best to plan a few days of easy exercise to prevent further muscle damage and reduce the likelihood of injury."

Don't Get in a Rut

It's also a process of muscle conditioning. Torgan says delayed onset muscle soreness also has a "repeated bouts" effect.

"If someone does an activity, they will be inoculated for a few weeks to a few months -- the next time they do the activity, there will be less muscle tissue damage, less soreness, and a faster strength recovery."

This is why athletes often cross-train and vary their routines to continue to challenge and develop their muscle strength.

It is important to distinguish the difference between moderate muscle soreness induced by exercise and muscle overuse or injury.

"If soreness prevents you from performing daily activities associated with living and work, then that is too much soreness," Draper says. "It can psychologically deter someone from continuing a workout program."

Both Draper and Torgan stress that soreness is not necessary to see improvements.

"There are all kinds of different little roads that your muscles can take to get stronger," says Torgan. Regardless of whether you're sore, there are still improvements occurring in your muscles during exercise.

However, moderate muscle pain might go a long way to keeping someone on the path to fitness.

"Soreness can serve as encouragement in a workout program because people like immediate results. Muscle doesn't visibly [grow] overnight; nor does your time in the mile drop from eight to six minutes," says Draper. "So something like soreness can give people encouragement that they are in fact working the muscle."

Originally published June 16, 2003.
Medically updated October 18, 2006.


SOURCES: Rick Sharp, professor of exercise physiology, Iowa State University, Ames. David O. Draper, professor and director of the graduate program in sports medicine/athletic training, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Carol Torgan, exercise physiologist; fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.


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