sore muscles after exercise
Sore muscles after exercise is normal and a sign your muscles are repairing themselves

If you have ever had an intense workout and woken up with sore muscles the next day, you’re not alone. Even professional athletes and weightlifters are susceptible to sore muscles and stiffness from time to time. But are sore muscles a good sign?

Experiencing soreness in your muscles after exercise is pretty normal. Also called delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) or muscle fever, it usually occurs 12-72 hours after strenuous exercise, especially for beginners. 

When you work out a muscle that is rarely used, or you put strain on it with heavy weights, you’re causing tiny tears in your muscle fibers. Soreness is typically temporary, lasting as your muscles adapt and repair themselves. Gradually, your muscles grow larger and stronger.

However, DOMS may not always be a good sign if you have overdone it. Soreness is your body’s way of signaling that it’s time to decrease muscle activity to prevent further damage.

What causes sore muscles after exercise?

Muscles are made up of two proteins: actin and myosin. These overlap each other, forming a bridge-like structure. When the muscle is put under more strain than it’s used to, this causes a disturbance and separation in those protein structures. This puts greater pressure on the remaining active muscle units and increases muscle fiber damage. 

DOMS after exercise is often mistakenly believed to be due to the buildup of lactic acid. However, what’s causing the soreness is the microtrauma in the muscle fibers that triggers pain receptors in the body. Also, calcium accumulation inside your cells activates proteases and phospholipases, which break down and degenerate the muscle protein. All of this stimulates inflammation of the affected area and causes pain.

What are signs and symptoms of delayed onset of muscle soreness?

DOMS is a temporary set of symptoms that occur as your muscles adapt to increased tension. Symptoms peak 24-72 hours after working out and usually go away within a week. Main symptoms include:

  • Dull, aching pain in the affected area
  • Muscle tenderness (hyperalgesia) or stiffness
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Decreased muscle strength
  • Muscle swelling and fatigue

How to prevent delayed onset of muscle soreness

While DOMS can’t really be prevented, you can take some precautionary steps before working out to reduce the intensity of soreness and prevent it from worsening:

  • Make sure to do proper warm-up and cool-down exercises before and after your workouts. This can decrease the risk of tissue injury.
  • Wear compression workout clothing, which can keep your muscles constricted and reduce swelling.
  • Stay hydrated and eat foods rich in proteins, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Train with the help of a professional, certified trainer.
  • Avoid overstretching and lifting very heavy weights in improper forms or postures while exercising. It’s better to do lighter weights in more sets, and with proper form.

How is delayed onset of muscle soreness treated?

DOMS usually requires no treatment. Symptoms go away on their own with time if you don’t continuously exert your muscles. However, you can take a few simple measures to ease soreness: 

  • Massaging: Massaging sore muscles after high-intensity exercises using foam rollers (self-myofascial release) increases blood flow to the muscles. This helps relieve stiffness and helps muscles return to their normal functions. Seeking the help of a professional massage therapist or physical therapist can help.
  • Topical analgesics: Applying menthol-based topical analgesics or pain relief creams, balms, and patches over the affected area can help relieve pain caused by DOMS. Products should be used according to the instructions on the packaging.
  • Steaming hot bath: Taking a steaming hot bath after exercising dilates your blood vessels, improves blood circulation, and helps muscles relax. Applying ice on sore muscles also helps.
  • Contrast bath therapy: This therapy involves a series of brief immersions in water that alternate between warm and cold. The changes in temperature contract and expand the veins, which supplies nutrients to your muscles and helps injured tissues heal.
  • BCAA supplements: Amino acids essential for muscle repair are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are found in branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements that help repair torn microscopic fibers and reduce pain.
  • Rest: The importance of rest cannot be overemphasized. Especially after a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) working, you should rest to allow your muscles time to recover.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/9/2021
References
Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Treatment Strategies and Performance Factors. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):145-64. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12617692/

Krum NL. Understanding Muscle Soreness – How Much is Too Much? National Kidney Foundation. https://www.kidney.org/content/understanding-muscle-soreness-–-how-much-too-much

Domonell K. This Is Why You Have Sore Muscles Two Days After You Work Out. September 4, 2017. https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/body/exercise/delayed-onset-muscle-soreness-muscle-pain

National Health Service. Why Do I Feel Pain After Exercise? https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/pain-after-exercise/