Feeling sore after exercise? Here’s what science suggests helps (and what doesn’t)


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Andrea Mosler, La Trobe University and Matthew Driller, La Trobe University

Have you been hitting the gym again with COVID restrictions easing? Or getting back into running, cycling, or playing team sports?

As many of you might’ve experienced, the inevitable muscle soreness that comes after a break can be a tough barrier to overcome.

Here’s what causes this muscle soreness, and how best to manage it.

What is muscle soreness and why does it occur?

Some muscle soreness after a workout is normal. But it can be debilitating and deter you from further exercise. The scientific term used to describe these aches is delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, which results from mechanical disruption of the muscle fibres, often called “microtears”.

This damage causes swelling and inflammation in the muscle fibres, and the release of substances that sensitise the nerves within the muscle, producing pain when the muscle contracts or is stretched.

This pain usually peaks 24-72 hours after exercise. The type of exercise that causes the most muscle soreness is “eccentric” exercise, which is where force is generated by the muscle as it lengthens — think about walking downhill or the lowering phase of a bicep curl.

Athletic man suffering from shoulder pain
Soreness in the days after exercise is normal, and actually results in stronger muscles.
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There’s good news about this pain though. When the muscle cell recovers from this “microtrauma”, it gets stronger and can produce that force again without the same damage occurring. So although this strengthening process is initially painful, it’s essential for our body to adapt to our new training regime.

The inflammatory component of this process is necessary for the muscle tissue to strengthen and adapt, therefore the repeated use of anti-inflammatory medication to manage the associated pain could be detrimental to the training effect.

Will recovery gadgets put me out of my misery? Not necessarily

Before we even think about recovery from exercise, you first need to remember to start slow and progress gradually. The body adapts to physical load, so if this has been minimal during lockdown, your muscles, tendons and joints will need time to get used to resuming physical activity. And don’t forget to warm up by getting your heart rate up and the blood flowing to the muscles before every session, even if it’s a social game of touch footy!




Read more:
Heading back to the gym? Here’s how to avoid injury after coronavirus isolation


Even if you do start slow, you may still suffer muscle soreness and you might want to know how to reduce it. There are heaps of new recovery gadgets and technologies these days that purport to help. But the jury is still out on some of these methods.

Some studies do show a benefit. There have been analyses and reviews on some of the more common recovery strategies including ice baths, massage, foam rollers and compression garments. These reviews tend to support their use as effective short-term post-exercise recovery strategies.

So, if you have the time or money — go for it! Make sure your ice baths are not too cold though, somewhere around 10-15℃ for ten minutes is probably about right.

And a word of caution on ice baths, don’t become too reliant on them in the long term, especially if you are a strength athlete. Emerging research has shown they may have a negative effect on your muscles, blunting some of the repair and rebuilding processes following resistance training.

A man floating in a float tank
New recovery methods and gadgets are marketed everywhere, but most of them require further research.
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But the efficacy of other recovery strategies remain unclear. Techniques like recovery boots or sleeves, float tanks and cryotherapy chambers are newer on the recovery scene. While there have been some promising findings, more studies are required before we can make an accurate judgement.

However, these recovery gadgets all seem to have one thing in common: they make you “feel” better. While the research doesn’t always show physical benefits for these techniques or gadgets, often using them will result in perceived lower levels of muscle soreness, pain and fatigue.

Is this just a placebo effect? Possibly, but the placebo effect is still a very powerful one — so if you believe a product will help you feel better, it probably will, on some level at least.

The ‘big rocks’ of recovery

Some of the above techniques could be classified as the “one-percenters” of recovery. But to properly recover, we need to focus on the “big rocks” of recovery. These include adequate sleep and optimal nutrition.

Sleep is one of the best recovery strategies we have, because this is when most of the muscle repair and recovery takes place. Ensuring a regular sleep routine and aiming for around eight hours of sleep per night is a good idea.

An elderly lady in bed sleeping
Ultimately, adequate sleep and optimal nutrition are the best ways to recover after exercise.
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When it comes to nutrition, the exact strategy will vary from person to person and you should always seek out nutrition advice from a qualified professional, but remember the three R’s:

  • refuel (replacing carbohydrates after exercise)

  • rebuild (protein intake will aid in the muscle repair and rebuilding)

  • rehydrate (keep your fluid intake up, especially in these summer months!).

Enjoy your newfound freedom when returning to sport and exercise, but remember to focus on a slow return, and to make sure you’re eating and sleeping healthily before spending your hard-earned cash on the hyped-up recovery tools you may see athletes using on Instagram.The Conversation

Andrea Mosler, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Sport and Exercise Medicine Research Centre, La Trobe University and Matthew Driller, Associate Professor, Sport and Exercise Science, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Health check: why do we get muscle cramps?



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Some people experience cramps frequently after vigorous, high-intensity exercise.
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Alan Hayes, Victoria University

Many of us know the feeling of a cramp – whether you’ve been struck down on the sports field or woken with a start in excruciating pain in the middle of the night. A cramp is the involuntary contraction of our skeletal muscle, and it hurts.

Some people often experience cramps after vigorous, high-intensity exercise, but there are also many who experience them with no exercise at all – mostly at night. These “nocturnal” cramps occur with increasing frequency as we age, and are common in pregnancy.

Interestingly, these cramps are usually restricted to the lower limb. This is generally the same as athletes experiencing exercise-associated muscle cramps. So, are the causes the same?

What causes cramps?

Actually, we don’t really know, but there are several theories.

We know cramps are rarely seen at the start of a sporting contest, but regularly seen at the end. So fatigue seems to be the defining factor in exercise. Some researchers have long suggested dehydration and electrolyte imbalance (such as decreased salt content) as a cause.

But recent reviews have downplayed this theory, as the evidence is mostly observational. This means while there may be an association between dehydration, salt depletion and cramps, we can’t prove one caused the other.

Also, in these studies, people who were prone to cramps didn’t have differences in hydration or electrolyte content compared to people who were not prone to cramps.




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Health Check: what happens to your body when you’re dehydrated?


And if electrolyte imbalance was implicated, then all the muscles in the body would be affected. But only muscles actively being used tend to cramp, particularly those that cross more than one joint, such as the calf muscle and hamstrings. These may be contracting from a shortened position when the knee is bent.

Mismatched reflexes

Muscles have an inbuilt reflex mechanism. When the muscle is tensed, or contracts, a reflexive message is sent to the spinal cord for the muscle to lengthen and relax. This protects the muscle from injury.

The recent reviews suggest what is called the altered neuromuscular control hypothesis to explain cramps. Here, the protective reflex action is disrupted, which usually happens when the muscle is tired. So, in this instance, the muscle contracts, but the usual signal to the spinal cord for it to relax is inhibited. There is now no protective relaxing of the muscle that follows, meaning it contracts for longer than you want it to.

When we tense our muscles a message is sent to the spinal cord for the muscles to relax.
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But the reason for neuromuscular fatigue, and why this inhibits the reflex, is not well understood. Cramps are also more common at the start of a sports season, when muscles are less conditioned. This is most likely due to higher levels of fatigue occurring in less trained muscles.

The altered neuromuscular control could also explain nocturnal cramps, as older muscles of inactive people are generally shorter. Whether this is the case in pregnancy is still debated.

Hot conditions have also been associated with increased cramping, but this likely relates to higher rates of fatigue when it’s hot. Despite what people may think, cold doesn’t increase the incidence of cramps, but may be likely to make the severity of cramps worse as reflexes are stronger in cold, stiff muscles.




Read more:
Health Check: how to exercise safely in the heat


Are certain people more susceptible?

Some people seem to experience cramps more often than others, which may be related to the sensitivity of their muscle reflexes.

Fatigue is a clear risk factor, both in long-term endurance athletes and in those participating in high-intensity activities. This is because high-intensity activities require the use of our powerful, fast-contracting fibres (fast fibres), as opposed to lower-intensity activities that use our slower fibres. Fast fibres are more susceptible to fatigue.

Cramps are more prevalent in males, which may be because males have more fast fibres, or because females demonstrate less fatigue when exercising at similar relative intensities.

Cramps may occur during the night, including commonly in pregnant women.
from shutterstock.com

Nocturnal cramps are more commonly reported in older age. There is also a particularly high prevalence of cramps in pregnancy, generally beginning in the second trimester and often worsening in the third.

No one really knows exactly why this occurs. It may be due to increased fatigue from carrying the extra body weight, or increased pressure on the leg muscles due to slowed return of blood to the heart.

Hormones could play a role too, and there have been suggestions that women taking the contraceptive pill could be more prone to cramping. Connective tissue stiffness is altered by sex hormones.

But, while reflex sensitivity does change with the phases of the menstrual cycle, the muscle stretch reflex is actually lowest at ovulation, and there is limited evidence that the pill affects this.




Read more:
Chemical messengers: how hormones change through menopause


How do we treat cramps?

Salt tablets and magnesium have been commonly used for cramps, but because electrolyte imbalance and dehydration don’t appear to be the cause, their usefulness is debatable.

Stretching is generally the best way to get rid of a cramp.
From shutterstock.com

The best way to get rid of a cramp is by stretching the muscle, since the reflex to do this is likely being inhibited. However, stretching a severely cramping muscle might cause a degree of damage to the muscle.

So, contracting the opposite muscle in the muscle pair (usually on the other side) may be a better approach. This involves, for example, contracting the quadriceps (at the front of the leg) when the hamstrings (at the back of the leg) are cramping.




Read more:
Health Check: do you need to stretch before and after exercise?


Given the overall lack of understanding of exactly how cramps occur, evidence-based prevention strategies are few and far between. If fatigue is one of the main causes of increased susceptibility to cramps, then methods to delay fatigue – such as fluid intake and salt replacement during exercise – may help prevent them. This can also aid performance.

The ConversationMassage (due to reduced nerve sensitivity) and stretching may also help decrease the incidence of cramps in older people and during pregnancy.

Alan Hayes, Assistant Dean, Western Centre for Health Research and Education, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.