While lactate is causing soreness in your muscles, you can be certain that your workout is effective, and in the meantime, Bill Gates will continue to sponsor chip implantation through 5G towers.*
Why is lactate not to blame for muscle soreness, why does your friend not experience soreness after physical activity while you can’t even get out of bed, and what can you do to alleviate muscle soreness?
In this post, I address some of the most seemingly obvious questions about Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), for which, however, there is not always a clear answer.
Let’s start from the beginning.
1. What causes DOMS and why does it happen?
There are several hypotheses about why we may experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this seemingly simple question.
For a long time, lactate was blamed for everything. This theory was popular among scientists and athletes, but has since been debunked.
Here are a few interesting studies on this topic:
- A 1936 study shows that lactate returns to normal levels in less than an hour, depending on subsequent activity. If you run or walk, this happens faster, but even if you do nothing, lactate levels return to normal within 50 minutes. The feeling of soreness, however, sets in much later;
- A 1983 study tested the hypothesis of the relationship between lactate levels and soreness. The lactate level was tested in runners on a treadmill, and despite a significant surge in lactate during the workout, the runners did not experience soreness. However, runners who ran downhill had relatively low levels of lactate, but still experienced soreness;
- A 2004 study completely debunks this concept by showing that lactate breaks down into several elements due to its physiologically neutral pH, and the main element is lactate. The most important discovery is that lactate is not something that limits metabolism, but rather serves as a fairly efficient fuel.
Currently, the most likely cause of DOMS is considered to be muscular strain, as well as micro-tears in the muscles during overly intense exercise. They are primarily (but not exclusively) provoked by exercises aimed at eccentric contractions.
Now it's going to be tough (for me, it was), but let's try to figure it out in brief terms: there are several types of muscle contractions, including concentric and eccentric. During concentric contraction, muscle tension is sufficient to overcome the load, and the muscle shortens during contraction. This happens when the force created by the muscle exceeds the load that opposes its contraction. During eccentric contraction, the tension is insufficient to overcome the external load on the muscles and muscle fibers lengthen during their contraction. Instead of pulling the joint in the direction of muscle contraction, the muscle acts to slow down the joint at the end of the movement or otherwise control the movement of the load.
In running, eccentric loads are trainings with height gain and fast descents. For example, when you descend, your quadriceps contract to bend your knee and simultaneously lengthen.
So what do those “micro-tears” look like? Here are images of the surface part of the lateral (outer) vastus muscle under a microscope the day after a fast descent and two weeks later, taken from a 2002 study in “The Journal of Physiology.”
On the 14th day, the muscle is almost healed and looks healthy. In the first photo, the changes in longitudinal sections and fiber damage are well illustrated here. Essentially, we see how our body adapts to the load. Each subsequent eccentric training will make the muscles stronger and more resistant to damage.
Another popular hypothesis for the cause of soreness is metabolic stress. In a normal state, muscle cells produce a certain amount of organic substances. During increased activity, the concentration of hydrogen ions and active forms of oxygen increases, which can contribute to soreness.
2. How long does muscle soreness last?
Average data for all types of sports look like this: the peak of painful sensations occurs on average 24-72 hours after physical exertion and lasts 4 days on average.
However, in the case of running, this statistic can differ, as indicated by a study from 2001 that examined the dynamics of muscle soreness after different exercises.
The trial compared the indicators of 400 long-distance runners (on average – 34 km) and 82 untrained volunteers who performed stepping on a step-platform with a weight equivalent to 10% of their weight for 10 minutes.
All participants evaluated muscle soreness on a Likert scale from 0 to 6 points every 12 hours for five days, and additional laboratory analyses were conducted.
As a result, it was found that soreness in runners reached its peak immediately and then gradually decreased with each passing day. In the second group, which excercised on the step-platform, 45% of participants felt the most discomfort 36-48 hours after training, while among runners, the indicator did not exceed 14%.
3. Can you train with muscle soreness?
It’s unlikely that there’s anyone who hasn’t heard the saying “fight fire with fire” when it comes to relieving muscle soreness. I myself have done light recovery exercises after heavy, prolonged workouts and have felt relief. However, strangely enough, scientific data on this topic is inconclusive.
For some unknown reason, there aren’t many studies on the effects of physical activity on muscle soreness, and there’s no clear consensus. One study shows that there’s no difference in soreness levels between groups who engage in moderate-intensity aerobic activity, light intensity activity, or rest. Another study claims that physical activity is the most effective way to alleviate muscle soreness. According to a third study, massage is the most effective way to alleviate muscle soreness, and physical activity has no significant impact.
Muscle pain can restrict movement, affect running efficiency and coordination, and in some cases, cause swelling or even a rise in body temperature. It all depends on the intensity of the pain and accompanying symptoms.
In extreme and rare cases, muscle damage and persistent soreness caused by physical exertion can lead to rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that can cause kidney failure. This is accompanied by the release of myoglobin and other cellular components of muscle cells into the bloodstream.
Of course, if you experience a very high level of physical discomfort and unusual problems such as increased fatigue, changes in appetite, sleep disturbance, and thermoregulation issues, it’s important to take a break and give your body some rest.
4. Does genetics affect the feeling of muscle soreness?
According to the International Sports Science Association (ISSA), there is a clear correlation between genetic differences and the feeling of muscle soreness.
To be honest, I am afraid to venture into the field of genetics, but in brief, there are at least two genes that may be responsible for the feeling of muscle soreness:
ACTN3 – alpha-actinin-3, is a gene responsible for how muscle protein is formed and is located in fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers are quickly contracting fibers that have high strength and fatigue quickly. They are larger and hypertrophy quickly. They are used in short, high-intensity strength training, i.e. during anaerobic workouts. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are slowly contracting fibers that have low strength and fatigue slowly. They are small in size and hypertrophy poorly. They are used in long, low-intensity endurance workouts (running, walking), i.e. during aerobic workouts. Source.
There are three types of the ACTN3 gene: XX, RR, and RX. People with the XX type are prone to a lack of ACTN3 and production of ACTN2 genes. According to existing data, the ACTN2 gene is responsible for endurance, while ACTN3 is responsible for speed. Additionally, ACTN3 likely reduces muscle damage during eccentric contractions. In other words, people with more ACTN3 experience less soreness because they receive fewer “microtraumas.” The correlation between microtraumas and ACTN3 was found in a study that involved marathon runners and triathletes, detailed here.
A similar study was conducted with the second gene, MLCK (myosin light-chain kinase), and a correlation was also found.
Your lazy friend who never gets muscle soreness just got lucky on a genetic level.
5. If there is no muscle soreness, does it mean that the workout was wasted?
Yes and no.
Do not use muscle soreness as a measure of your progress. It is true that in cases where your body has adapted to the load, you may not experience muscle soreness. You can even check this by changing the duration or intensity of your workout. Based on my own experience, I can say that I do not experience any particular muscle soreness when I reach the peak monthly mileage compared to 1-2 months of training before it.
Muscle soreness should not be the goal, otherwise, you may be moving in the wrong direction.
6. What can I do to alleviate muscle soreness?
A simple example from the world of sports. British professional tennis player and former world No. 1 in singles, Andy Murray, performs the same recovery routine after each match. He takes a shower, has a snack and drinks water, then he gets a massage, and after that he lies in an ice bath (8-10°C) for 8 minutes.
Many professional athletes in different sports follow a similar pattern. Why do they choose this one in particular? Let’s figure it out.
Okay, this won’t ease muscle soreness, but it will prevent or reduce the intensity of its sensations. The better prepared your body is, the easier it will be for it to handle the load. Don’t overdo it by running the full distance of a marathon before running the marathon itself (remember, we are all amateurs here); however, a sufficient amount of training is the only reliable way to prevent the heavy feeling of soreness and fatigue after such a difficult run.
According to some of the aforementioned studies, one of the best ways to overcome muscle soreness is physical activity.
Any physical activity increases blood flow to the muscles. In turn, blood carries nutrients and oxygen to the muscle tissue. The faster these nutrients reach their destination, the faster they will begin to act.
Obviously, it’s not worth pushing the body to exhaustion; such workouts should be as gentle and subjectively easy as possible.
Although nutrition cannot prevent the onset of muscle soreness, it can help in the recovery process. Alexandra Cook, athletics coach, sports dietitian and long-distance runner with 20 years of experience, recommends consuming protein after workouts – the main nutrient needed for muscle recovery and adaptation. Active athletes are recommended to consume 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
She also emphasizes the importance of carbohydrates, which are vital for replenishing muscle glycogen depleted during a run. By the way, studies show that consuming carbohydrates 3-4 hours before exercise increases glucose levels and makes you more productive.
How many carbohydrates do you need?
- 5-7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day if the workouts last less than an hour
- 6-10 grams of carbohydrates if the workouts exceed an hour
- When it comes to a half marathon, 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour will maintain blood glucose levels and help you cope with the load better.
I remind you that these are all very approximate and universal data.
There is no definitive answer here. There are studies that show that muscle pain is significantly reduced if you drink water before, during, and after workouts. However, there are also scientific papers that claim dehydration is not the cause of muscle soreness and cannot amplify its effect.
In any case, the role of water in our body is extremely important:
- Rehydration after exercise is important for the body’s ability to regulate temperature, remove metabolic waste, maintain the cardiovascular system, and lubricate joints.
- Dehydration and associated electrolyte deficiency can cause dizziness, weakness, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and muscle spasms. The most important replaceable electrolytes are sodium and potassium.
- Carbohydrates also increase fluid absorption. That’s why popular sports drinks contain potassium, sodium, sugar (usually fructose), and of course, water.
For those who don’t participate in trail runs, the idea of using electrostimulation may seem wild, but at every race I’ve participated in, there has always been a Compex brand tent, where representatives of the brand offer the use of electrostimulators.
After Chornohora Sky Marathon 2020, I finally took up their offer, sitting in a comfortable chair with electrodes on my quadriceps and calves for about half an hour. I’m not claiming that this is what helped me specifically, but the next day I really did feel quite relieved. Obviously, there are too many factors to consider, so this is more of an observation than an experiment.
What do studies say about this?
As always, the results are also ambiguous, as are the factors that contribute to muscle soreness:
- When it comes to reducing lactate, this method has its place, but is less effective than submaximal or recovery training (source);
- Another study with 75 participants showed that muscle soreness after Compex, a cold bath, and in the control group (where nothing was done) was perceived equally (source);
- A third study showed that muscle electrostimulation is as effective in relieving muscle soreness as recovery physical activity (source).
A meta-analysis of 99 studies examining post-workout recovery methods to reduce muscle soreness claims that massage is one of the most effective ways to improve well-being. Soreness is caused by muscle damage, and massage can increase blood flow to the muscles and reduce swelling.
It has been demonstrated that a 20-30 minute massage, performed immediately after or within 2 hours of physical activity, significantly reduces pain for 24 hours after the workout.
Despite existing skepticism, here are a couple of the most popular studies on foam rollers: 1, 2. They demonstrate self-massage using a foam roller. 20 minutes of rolling immediately after physical activity, and then again after 24 and 48 hours, caused a significant reduction in pain and improved muscle function. The foam roller leads to myofascial release, which relieves tension in the muscle’s connective tissue.
For many, this technique can seem like something out of a Hollywood movie, but considering how many athletes actually use it, one can assume that ice baths are not only flashy but also effective.
According to the meta-analysis mentioned earlier, it has been proven that the optimal conditions for muscle recovery are immersion in water at a temperature of 11-15 °C for 11-15 minutes. Cold water slows down blood flow, which leads to the elimination of inflammation in muscle tissue.
What are some other useful and useless methods for dealing with muscle soreness?
Looking at the meta-analysis of existing studies, the results are quite mixed. However, experts note that compression clothing can have a moderate impact on post-workout soreness and other types of sports-related soreness. It helps to reduce lactate dehydrogenase, swelling, and perceived fatigue.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Science has a very clear answer on this: pills don’t help. Among ultra-distance runners, the use of ibuprofen is so widespread that when scientist David Nieman tried to study the use of this drug in California, he had trouble finding participants willing to run an exhausting 100-mile race without it.
Comparing the pain and inflammation experienced by runners who took ibuprofen during the race with those who did not, Nieman came to a clear conclusion. Ibuprofen did not reduce muscle soreness or pain, and blood tests showed that those taking ibuprofen actually had higher levels of inflammation than those who refrained from taking the drug. This is caused by a slight leakage of bacteria from the colon into the bloodstream.
Numerous studies show that stretching before, after, or both before and after exercise does not help prevent or reduce muscle soreness.
One should not stretch with acute muscle pain. Intensive stretching can further increase tiny tears in muscle fibers, causing microtrauma. In addition, prolonged and intense static stretching hinders blood flow to the capillaries. This can slow down recovery.
Research shows that cryotherapy, homeopathy, ultrasound, and the use of electric current are also ineffective.
Time and Sleep
Sleep affects a large number of factors that shape athletic performance (source) and overall quality of life. Time and rest are the most universal and effective ways to relieve muscle soreness, so if you are not in a hurry, you can simply rest.
Science doesn’t have all the answers regarding muscle soreness, but the ones we have are quite interesting, at least from an observational perspective. And even if some studies show that method X is ineffective, it doesn’t mean that this method won’t work for you. Like with everything else in running, you need to find what works for you through trial and error. It’s good that thanks to plentiful research, we have many options to choose from 🙂