Why Am I So Damn Sore & What Do I Do About It?


Why Am I So Damn Sore & What Do I Do About It?

Over the years that I have coached, I’ve found that muscle soreness in CrossFitters seems to be treated like a significant others addiction to  The Voice. You’re not really sure if you like it or not (or maybe you’re very sure that you don’t like it) but you accept that it’s part of the deal, it keeps coming back, and you just find a way to deal with cheese ball Blake Shelton & co until it’s done. As CrossFitters we understand the meaning of real muscle soreness. The kind of soreness that makes you hobble out of bed in the morning and hang onto the handrails for dear life when walking down stairs. It also may appear as rite of passage in this fitness training method. But do you actually know why you are getting this sore (hint, it’s not latcic acid)? Why do some workouts cause severe muscle soreness and others not? ? If these thoughts have crossed your mind at some point, read on

Science-y types refer to this type of soreness that we experience as “delayed onset muscle soreness” or DOMS for short. The PHD’s do this to distinguish between “immediate” soreness that might be experienced as a result of injury. There is a lot of bull shit on the internet about DOMS, held up by uneducated fitness professionals. Here are a couple of examples of myth’s you may have heard:

  1. Muscle soreness means you have overdone it and you should avoid this feeling as much as possible
  2. Lactic acid is the cause of your soreness & post exercise static stretching will help reduce this

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So What Causes Me To Get So Sore?

Up until recently there were 2 theories circulating by muscle physiologists. Below is a brief description of both and the answer to which one is right and wrong.

Theory #1: Metabolic Distress (a.k.a lactic acid)

This was the theory that during high intensity exertion that “lactate” (a.k.a lactic acid) built up in the muscle tissue as the body used up all the available muscle glycogen (stored energy) was used to power the effort. This is the feeling of doing a sled push OR riding the assault bike fast. While it’s totally true to say that muscle burn or discomfort during these type of efforts are linked to lactate (lactic acid), there is NO SCIENTIFIC evidence  that lactate is in any way linked to muscle damage or soreness, and anyone that has received a PHD in physiology in last 10 years will laugh you off as irrelevant if you mention muscle soreness and lactic acid in the same sentence.

Theory #2: The Mechanical Theory

The “mechanical” hypothesis points to eccentric actions of muscles as the main cause of muscle damage. What are eccentric actions? They are 1/3 of the kind of actions our muscles can do. Below is the description of each action a muscle fiber has. It is important to understand all 3, in understanding what causes soreness.

  1. Concentric muscle actions are where a muscle shortens when it generates tension, a true “contraction.” This usually refers to the actual lifting phase or acceleration phase of any movement: think of the “up” phase in a squat or shoulder press for example – muscles are shortening and the weight is lifted.
  2. Isometric actions are when muscles generate tension but there is no change in length: think about holding a handstand position like a plank or handstand – lots of muscle tension but no movement.
  3. Eccentric muscle actions are usually associated with the lowering phase or deceleration phase of any movement, also known as a negative. During an eccentric muscle action there is tension in the muscle but it is actively lengthening at the same time. The “down” phases of a squat or shoulder press are examples. It turns out that eccentric actions are structurally much more stressful for muscle fibers than any other form of muscle action.

“It is important that you understand that eccentric actions are a key ingredient in order for muscles to adapt effectively to a strength or power training program.” – Dr. Andy Galpin

These eccentric actions are the ones that break down the muscle to a greater degree, thus stimulating greater eventual repair and adaptation. In comparison, concentric actions just do not have the same anabolic effect. Studies have shown that muscles loaded with only concentric contractions fail to respond to a strength training program to the same degree (in both strength and size) as muscles that are exposed to both concentric and eccentric actions.

The main consequence of muscle damage that we all feel is DOMS. This is soreness that first appears about eight hours after the exercise bout and typically peaks about 24-48 hours later. It’s particularly noticeable when you get out of bed in the morning. We experience muscle tenderness, pain when we touch the muscle, and stiffness that causes pain when we move or stretch it. With some gentle movement the pain usually subsides, but after prolonged periods of little movement (sitting in front of a computer, for example) it rears its ugly head again. Usually the DOMS will have mostly disappeared after about four to five days, but can persist for longer in some cases, as anyone who has done Karen for the first time can tell you.

Why does CrossFit make me so sore compared to other exercise I have done?

Easy, the constantly varied movement patterns. A specialized athlete (olympic lifter, soccer player, gymnast..etc) will typically use similar muscle groups day in and day out. Thus, the specific muscles concerned will adapt and become quite resistant to muscle damage and DOMS. The CrossFit athlete is using a far greater diversity of muscle groups with constantly differing movement patterns. The result is that we will regularly be hitting muscles with unaccustomed exercises. Voila! DOMS is inevitable in this scenario.

So what does soreness mean ?

It seems reasonable to speculate that it evolved as a way to tell us to “ease off” while the muscle is recovering. To repair the microdamage to the muscle fibers the body initiates a local inflammatory response that starts the healing process. As we all know, inflammation is usually accompanied by pain, swelling, and redness. Since the inflammation is inside the muscles themselves, we can’t see the redness (increased blood flow) or the swelling, but we can sure feel the pain! So you might be thinking, “Maybe I should just pop an anti-inflammatory?” Well, not so fast, but we’ll get to that later

Silver Lining

I know it all seems very negative to this point. But there is a silver lining. It’s called the “repeated bout effect.” This refers to the fact that another similar bout of exercise will not have the same consequences as before. We all intuitively know this. This is what training is all about: improving our muscular work capacity and recovery capabilities.

So What Is The Point?

Here are some take aways from this information that may help you next time you are hobbling down your stairs…

  1. Training if your muscles are sore: You are the owner of your body and you need to make this call for yourself. Mild to moderate DOMS isn’t a big deal. However, if you are that person who can barley sit down on the toilette, it’d be best to give that body part a day off. Here is an example: if you just did Karen (150 wallball shots) and it would probably be best to skip doing heavy back squats the next day and opt for a run. The movement patterns are totally different and don’t tax your muscle tissue the same.
  2. Overtraining: If you are completely wrecked from a workout (say your legs after Karen) for longer than 5 days it’s probably a sign of overtraining and you would be well advised to listen to your body and take appropriate rest until your body and mind are back in the game. Remember that muscle damage and soreness are essential and probably unavoidable pre-requisites for optimal muscular adaptation. That being said if you have a strong aversion to feeling sore, you should either stop doing CrossFit or reframe your attitude.
  3. Stretching: stretching can minimize the short-term sensation of pain and soreness, however it’s not going to get rid of your DOMS. If you read this article and have the reading comprehension skills of a 2 year old you already know that they only way to heal torn muscle fibers is adequate recovery. Any scientific study done in the last 10 years have failed to find a effect of post workout stretching on soreness. That being said static stretching after a workout when the muscles are warm is a great thing to do! When done on a regular basis it will improve your flexibility, which will help increase performance and decrease your chance of injury.
  4. Massage: “While it may be very relaxing and assist in general recovery, there is no conclusive evidence that this will reduce the extent of DOMS. Cryotherapy (ice) also appears to have minimal effect. And this brings us to anti-inflammatory medication. Popping an ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug to reduce DOMS might seem like a good idea but is not recommended. It may indeed reduce the amount of discomfort that you feel, but (a) soreness is there for a reason and by artificially reducing it you run the risk of further injury to a muscle, and (b) there is good evidence that anti-inflammatory medication can slow down the adaptive processes in muscle.” – Dr. Tony Webster
  5. Water: Water won’t help flush your DOMS, however after high volume bodyweight workouts (Cindy, Mary, Nicole, Barbara, Murph…etc) it will help prevent Rhabodo, the leak of creatine phosphokinase into your bloodstream. So make sure you drink up!

Bottom line here is, as with other things in life, is that there is no easy way. Muscle damage and soreness should be accepted as what it is – useful feedback from your body telling you to give that specific muscle group some relative rest. Everybody has a different body and you must learn to listen to yours. As a novice (generally 2 years of training or less) or intermediate (more than 2 years of training) CrossFitter your best bet is to progress gradually in your workouts in terms of weight and repetitions used and check your ego. You’d never go shred 60′ monster waves with Laird Hamilton if you had only surfed 3 or 4 times. Also, don’t take long layoffs from CrossFit, you lose your adaptations in roughly 3 weeks if you don’t keep training.  Lastly, although it won’t prevent soreness is wise to take at least 5-10 minutes to stretch after the workout, the increased flexibility will make you feel better and may improve your performance.

The information in this article comes straight from scientific research papers written by Dr. Andy Galpin, Dr. Tony Webster & Dr. Zach Long, as well as an article in the CrossFit Journal that was also written by Dr. Tony Webster.

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