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How to overcome muscle soreness after a workout

Whether you are a fitness newbie, or if you're returning to training after a long layoff, you are going to experience a fair amount of soreness. This is what you should do

Exercise means soreness, this is how you manage it.(Istockphoto)

By Shrenik Avlani

LAST PUBLISHED 26.02.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

I have been working out and playing all kinds of sports since 2008. Even then, coming back to actively working out after a five-month break has left me sore all of the past week. I was prepared to be slightly uncomfortable for the first couple of weeks, as my muscles and joints get used to the excess load I subject them, but that still doesn’t make it any easier. 

Such soreness and physical discomfort is fairly common though, especially among those exercising for the first time, or resuming such activities after a long break, say coaches and sports medicine experts.

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“Soreness is a common phenomenon after any workout that one is not used to or when exercising after a long time," explains Vaibhav Daga, head of sports science and rehabilitation at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai. “It typically occurs 12-24 hours after an exercise session and is called DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness). It occurs due to lactic acid accumulation and minor inflammation in the muscles that have been used. It might sound alarming, but this allows muscles to adapt to new loads and strengthens them."

When you exercise, your muscles work in eccentric (lengthening) and concentric (shortening) motions, explains Spoorthi S., a fitness expert at Cult.Fit. “This causes inflammation and microscopic damage to the muscles, which causes the ‘pain’ that you experience. A few other things you ought to be prepared for when exercising for the first time or returning to training after a break are tenderness in your muscles, pain and/or stiffness in the muscles and joints you focused on during the session. You would also have a poorer range of motion as a result of pain and stiffness," Spoorthi says. 

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She adds that one need not worry about such soreness in the early days of adopting the active life. Such soreness typically lasts for around three days, after which it starts diminishing. Another thing you are likely to experience is acute muscle soreness. This happens during your workout specifically in the muscles that you are working. This is normal and reduces within a few hours. 

However, you need to be able to differentiate between good pain (such as DOMS) and bad pain, which is usually a result of an injury. Such pain is usually sharp and also limits movement of the involved joints. “If you are injured, the discomfort and pain would be more focused on a specific part and last a longer time. In such a scenario, consult a doctor immediately," says Spoorthi. 

While some soreness is inevitable, you could still take measures to reduce it or recover faster.  Once you start advancing in your fitness journey, the frequency of DOMS occurrence is significantly lesser. “Unless you start working the muscles differently, perform a different type of activity or exercise or palace excessive stress, you are less likely to be sore," says Spoorthi. 

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Whatever you do, do not stop training. “The body will adapt to the stresses of the exercises once you keep doing them with a proper recovery period in between sessions. The best way to tackle the soreness is post-exercise stretching, sports massage, compression garments, ice baths, steam, sauna, and normal tub baths are a few ways to tackle this soreness," says Daga. Stretching helps minimise soreness, increases flexibility, releases tightness, and improves your range of motion. However, do not overdo the stretching as it could further damage muscle fibres and lead to injuries.

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Other things that help overcome the post-workout soreness are healthy eating, staying active post-workout, foam rolling and hydrating properly. The right amount of proteins can help speed up recovery while staying active throughout the day increases blood flow to different parts of the body. The blood carries oxygen and nutrients to sore muscles and the sooner they reach, the better you will feel, explains Spoorthi. Foam rollers help in myofascial release and reduce pain through pressure, while hydrating properly and drinking enough water helps, since dehydration is one of the biggest causes of muscle soreness.

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In the world of health and fitness, the adage “no pain, no gain" holds true. “The soreness and pain you experience after a training session is good. It shows you have worked hard for your body to get fitter. Once you get adapted to the activity you will accommodate this pain response," says Daga.

Four Ways To Prevent Doms:

-Take a slow and gradual approach. Increase the intensity or complexity of your workouts one step at a time. 

-Drink, drink, drink. Hydrate well and at regular intervals. Eating foods high in water content also helps. 

-Get enough protein. Proteins contribute to muscle building and recovery. 

-Never skip your warm-up and cool-down exercises. Go for exercises that improve your muscles’ range of motion before starting the workout. For cool down, perform static stretches focusing on the muscles targeted during the workout.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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