The previous day’s workout was great. But 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? Sore 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. Basically, muscle tension is a sign of overworked muscles. 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. 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.
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. 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. Normally, the pain should go away in one or two days.
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. 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.
Sore muscles are a warning sign
The danger sore muscles present is frequently underestimated. They are often the precursor to pulled or even torn muscles. 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. But a word of warning about massages: 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.
How to avoid stiff 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
- stimulating lotions and exercises
A study from the USA has found that cherries contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. These prevent sore muscles and relieve pain. Other foods – like beetroot or coffee beans – are said to have a similar effect.
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. The most commonly affected areas are the calves, feet and thighs. A muscle cramp can sneak up on anyone – from beginners to professionals.
Unfortunately, magnesium deficiency is not the only possible cause: Other potential reasons range from heavy training loads and high temperatures to lack of sleep and fluid and mineral imbalances. If pain occurs, you should take a short break from your activity and stretch the affected body part(s). But the best thing is not to let it get this far.
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 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.
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