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Pain, No Gain: Avoiding Post-Workout Soreness

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I’ll start with a confession: despite the fact that I’ve written about how important weight training is, I’ve seriously skipped out on the weight room over the past year. I figured training for a half marathon and hitting the cardio equipment regularly would keep me lean and fit enough—that’s what those little calorie counters on the machines are telling us, right?


Enter my reality check. After taking my gym up on a free body-fat analysis, I learned that my cardio workouts were definitely not doing the trick. Despite my hours on those machines, my body fat was in an unhealthy range. Scary. 


In hopes of jumping back on the weight-training bandwagon, I bought a few sessions with a personal trainer. The problem was, a week into this new “lifestyle,” I was sore. I’m talking a lot of pain—I was having trouble walking down flights of stairs. It was sort of embarrassing. 


While I appreciate that hurts-so-good mentality of getting back in shape, I can’t help but wonder—is there anything I can do to make my recovery time a little less painful so I can get back to the gym sooner? And sit on the toilet without crying out in pain? (Yep, I just went there.) 


What’s Really Going On?
First of all, why do we experience that intense achiness following a tough workout? 


It’s called delayed-onset muscle soreness, known in the workout community as DOMS, and it’s caused by microscopic tears in our thighs, back, butt, and arms. Scientists believe this damage, coupled with the inflammation that accompanies the tears, is at the root of our pain; furthermore, these tears can take a day or two to repair themselves. The amount of tearing—which determines the intensity of the soreness—depends on how hard and how long we exercise. Painful post-workout soreness is especially likely to strike when we start a new workout or intensify what we’re already doing, because our muscles are suddenly working a lot harder than they’re used to. 


“I look at it as my body’s way of telling me to slow down before hitting the weights again,” says Jenny Swain, a professional bodybuilder and personal trainer, “to avoid any real muscle damage.” 


How Can I Eliminate the Pain Faster?
Home treatments can usually help relieve muscle pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. No exercise physiologist or professional trainer has found a cure for DOMS yet, but stretching, icing, massage, and rest are definitely helpful in the muscles’ recovery process. 


Stretching and ice are probably the fastest forms of relief. After you warm up, slow stretching can help further increase blood flow to sore areas, which in turn speeds up the healing and minimizes stiffness (more on stretching later). Icing super-tender muscles will numb the pain temporarily. 


Massages can have similar rejuvenating effects, encouraging blood flow and relaxation. A good massage can reduce soreness and, of course, help us forget about all the pain that we’re in—workout-related or not. 


Still hurting? Give it a rest. Sometimes you’ve just gotta take it easy while your body repairs itself—because you know it can accomplish this feat a lot better than any treatment you take it upon yourself to try. 


Should I Still Hit the Gym When I’m Sore?
Absolutely, if you feel up for it, but just be mindful of the specific activities you’re doing. The muscles that formed the tears need at least twenty-four to forty-eight hours to recover, but this doesn’t mean you have to bypass a cardio session or a workout for other muscle groups. 


Even though it might seem counterintuitive, revisiting the scene of the crime can help reduce soreness—just don’t do the same activity that caused the soreness in the first place. Was it a tough weight-lifting session? Try hitting the elliptical machine. Feeling that long run in your legs? Spend some time swimming or on the stationary bike. This variety improves your overall circulation and keeps your muscles mobile and pliable. To avoid injuries, limit your use of your sore muscles to an intensity level at least 50 percent lower than the level the day before, says the Mayo Clinic. 


These guidelines apply even if you still feel sapped of energy. Researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa found that prolonged exercise can increase our blood levels of tiredness-inducing molecules by sixty to one hundred times. This means that even though our brains might be feeling the burn, the benefits of improving circulation are important—and our bodies will thank us. 


Do Certain Foods Help?
“Making sure your body is properly fueled before and following an intense workout is super important,” says Mark Jellinson, a San Francisco-based personal trainer, who adds that people should eat within a half hour of the end of a tough workout. This meal should include complex carbohydrates (like sprouted-wheat bread, brown rice, or oatmeal) to restore your glycogen stores, and protein (such as eggs or lean chicken or turkey) to help repair muscle tears. Water is crucial, too, since dehydration can lead to fatigue. This balanced meal not only will help repair your muscles’ microtears but also will give you energy to get through the rest of the day. Other snack ideas Jellinson suggests are nuts and fruit, a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread, or cereal with some yogurt or cheese. 


Nutritional supplements have also been studied as a potential treatment for muscle soreness. Antioxidants like vitamins C and E have been shown to aid muscle repair, though these findings are still inconclusive, according to a University of New Mexico study. But popping a multivitamin certainly can’t hurt. 


What About Stretching?
Jellinson notes that most exercisers don’t stretch enough and claims, “Stretching is really underrated when it comes to counteracting soreness.” Spending five minutes on the mat after a workout can help break the cycle of soreness and tight muscles. 


A 2007 Australian study found that stretching didn’t actually relieve pain associated directly with DOMS, but in my experience, spending a little time loosening up can certainly subdue achy-feeling muscles. “It also builds up elasticity in new muscle fibers,” says Jellinson. 


When it comes down to it, exercising should really make us feel more energized, toned, and fit—not like hobbling old people. While a little fatigue and soreness are normal (especially if you’ve taken a one-year hiatus from weight lifting, like I did), your doctor should definitely check out anything extremely painful or prolonged. 


Now, on to that massage appointment …

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