By Timothy Ireland
You just finished an intense upper body workout. You pushed your self to the limit and arose victorious in today’s battle against the gym. Now fast forward a day or two. You wake up in the morning and come to the grim realization that even though the battle was won, the war is certainly not over. Even the trivial task of merely lifting your bed sheets off of your self is done so with soreness radiating from your upper body. Your previously worked out muscles may even feel sore to the touch and continue to feel this way for another day or so.
We all experience this type of muscle soreness after working out from time to time, but what is it? What is really causing your muscles to feel this way? Is this type of pain inevitable or can we possibly take our fate into our own hands and prevent it? The pain you are feeling a day or two after a workout is what can be described as delayed onset muscle soreness, referred to as DOMS. Now, I understand that people feel as though this is a very straight forward topic and often connect the dots of “Ok I worked out and now my muscles are sore, because well….no pain no gain, right?”. Unfortunately, as with most cases regarding human physiology it is never that straight forward.
What is this phenomenon that causes something like lifting your coffee to become the world’s most torturous thing?
Let’s recap: You workout hard and that causes your muscles to be sore a day or two later. But before I can explain what causes DOMS we need a nice blank canvas, free of all the myths and wrong information regarding muscle soreness you may have painted it with over the years. Firstly, It is not something you may have heard of called lactic acid build up! It has nothing to do with lactic acid! I do not care what that huge guy at your gym with a GNC tank top and lumberjack beard told you while you were making small talk at the water fountain; it simply is not true. For those of you who are unaware of what exactly lactic acid is and where it comes from do not worry we can cover that briefly right now.
When you breath your body takes in oxygen and uses that oxygen to bind with glucose to create energy from the process of breaking down glucose into a substance called pyruvate, when sufficient oxygen is available pyruvate will then be used to create more energy (McArdle, Katch and Katch, 2015). Unfortunately we cannot always deliver oxygen fast enough to meet our energy needs; as when you are resistance training or sprinting for example. So let’s say you’re doing bench press and your muscles need energy fast, but as we just stated previously you can not deliver oxygen fast enough to release all that energy from glucose and pyruvate, so what do you do? Well, your body decides to not use oxygen for the further energy extraction from pyruvate, because it simply isn’t there (shocking I know). Instead your body converts pyruvate into lactate without using oxygen which still releases some energy, but not nearly as much if oxygen were present (McArdle et all., 2015). This release of energy with insufficient oxygen supply is what you mainly rely on during activities that need short duration bursts of energy, like resistance training (McArdle et all., 2015). It’s fast it’s cheap, its kind of like comparing McDonald’s to a five star restaurant. Okay, awesome, so now you understand how this lactate thing is produced. Lactic acid build up is when you continually rely on this fast energy process to go on and thus more lactate builds up. Lactic acid build up is that burning feeling you get near the end of a set or sprint.
Phew! Stay with me here. Now that you got a quick lesson as to what lactic acid build up is it will only take a sentence or two to explain how this burning pain you experience during your workout is not at all linked to the pain you feel a day or two after your workout. DOMS are not caused by lactic acid because all that lactic acid you accumulated during your workout is totally cleared from your muscles within an hour or so once you finish working out! BOOM! Before you go and side with that GNC tank top guy, hear me out. Or even better, let’s look at this peer reviewed journal article study done on 10 healthy cyclists in 2011, regarding blood lactate removal after maximal anaerobic exercise; anaerobic means without oxygen (Ferreira, Da Silva Carvalho, Barroso, Szmuchrowski and Śledziewski, 2011). So in this study 10 cyclists essentially preformed a maximal anaerobic cycling test against a set resistance for 30 seconds (Ferreira et al., 2011). We can take what we previously learned about lactate production and appreciate the fact that after a continual 30 second maximal effort a lot of it would accumulate. Keeping in mind here that at rest your blood lactate levels are generally somewhere around 1 mmol/L. The results from this study found that after the 30 seconds of maximal effort the cyclists had blood lactate levels as high as 12.5 mmol/L and after just 60 minutes of recovery their levels had already dropped down to as low as 3.19 mmol/L (Ferreira et al., 2011). So yeah, this proves my point in saying that DOMS is not due to you having high levels of blood lactate still kicking around days after your workout.
Congratulations! We are at the end of the rainbow, now I can properly reveal what the heck DOMS are exactly. So when you workout harder than your body is accustomed to you elicit small micro tears in the muscle fibres! These micro tears only occur while the muscle is lengthening; the lowering phase of a bicep curl for example (Braun and Sforzo, 2011). The soreness and inflammation you experience from DOMS however is mainly due to the fact that when you tear the muscle fibre you also tear small areas of the fibre which contain calcium ions (Ca2+), and it is in fact the flooding of calcium ions into the muscle fibre that will lead to the soreness and inflammation a day or two post workout aka DOMS.
Now I don’t want you thinking of DOMS as a villain here or anything. As your body adapts to the workout routine you will cease to experience DOMS for a while (few weeks or a month) unless you take a few days off or increase the intensity heavily (Braun and Sforzo, 2011). It is important to ease into a new routine to prevent unwanted DOMS, because as you can imagine, if you workout one day then are too sore to work out the following 2 or 3 days you are not getting as much of the benefits you are woking towards. It is also interesting to note that you don’t have to experience DOMS in order to increase your fitness or even get stronger (Braun and Sforzo, 2011). Although avoiding DOMS will require a more well suited workout plan based on your current abilities and current physical health status in order to be able to calculate what intensity you should work at. Once you experience DOMS the only real way to recover is to rest and let your body do its thing (Braun and Sforzo, 2011). I would advise you to not simply push through the pain as this could just worsen the symptoms (Braun and Sforzo, 2011), and no sorry GNC, tank top, lumberjack bearded guy, stretching will provide zero benefit in helping the recovery process and could actually make it worse (Braun and Sforzo, 2011). Since the pain is manifested by small micro tears in the muscle fibres… stretching/elongating those tears will (hopefully obviously) not aid the situation! Ice may help control pain, but the effects of ice bathing have been split.
Hopefully after reading this the next time you wake up and can’t lift your bed sheets off of you, you will know why!