Matt Fitzgerald—Muscle soreness is a normal consequence of exercise. In most cases it's mild, emerging shortly after a workout is completed (if not during the workout) and lasting no longer than a day or two. But sometimes the pain is intense, and when it’s intense it is almost always delayed, emerging the morning after the workout and lasting as long as three or four days.
Known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), this rarer type of pain occurs after workouts that are unusually long or intense. Naturally, what constitutes an unusually long or intense workout differs between individual runners, and may also differ for any single athlete over time. For beginners, and for those who are returning to training after time off, virtually any workout is unusually long and intense, and that’s why DOMS occurs most frequently and is most severe at the beginning of the training process.
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A certain amount of DOMS is unavoidable at this time. However, there are ways to minimize it, and minimizing DOMS is a worthy goal, because that muscle pain is a sign of muscle injury. By ramping up your training in a way that limits morning-after pain you will not only spare yourself discomfort but you'll also keep your muscle tissues healthier and get fit faster, because you won’t have to take days off to recuperate.
The most obvious way to limit DOMS at the beginning of the training process is to ease into your training and ramp up your training workload slowly. Your first run after time off should be very short and moderate-intensity—no longer than 20 minutes and light enough so that you could hold a conversation throughout it. Even if you feel you could do much more, resist the temptation. The thing about delayed-onset muscle soreness is that it is delayed, so you can’t predict how much DOMS you will experience later based on how you feel during the workout.
You must also resist the temptation to increase your training workload aggressively after that first workout is under your belt. No matter how fit you are, a run that is significantly longer or more intense than those you are accustomed to will cause significant DOMS. So by all means, increase your training, but do it slowly, with no workout ever being more than slightly tougher than any of the preceding ones.
The Repeated Bout Effect
There’s another effective way to limit DOMS that is very nearly the opposite of the one I just described. You can actually increase your muscles’ resistance to the muscle damage that causes DOMS very quickly by causing a small amount of muscle damage with a few short bursts of maximum-intensity effort. This method is based on the observation in scientific research that exercise-induced muscle damage triggers rapid cellular adaptations that protect the muscles from similar damage in subsequent workouts. This phenomenon is known as the “repeated bout effect.”
What’s great about this is that you don’t have to stress your muscles to the point of inducing severe DOMS to take advantage of it. Stimulating just a little soreness now will spare you from experiencing a lot more later.
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To inoculate your muscles against future damage, insert a few short sprints (for example, 4 x 10 seconds with 1-minute passive recoveries between sprints) into your third or fourth workout after a layoff. I don’t recommend sprinting in your first workout because you need to give your body a chance to gain or regain some basic coordination in your activity before you go all-out. Otherwise the risk of acute injuries such as muscle strains is high. You can further reduce the risk of acute injuries by sprinting on a steep hill rather than flat ground.
Also take advantage of the repeated bout effect when you introduce speed training into your program. If you begin with a full-fledged speed workout, you may find it hard to get out of bed the next morning. Instead, start with a truncated session consisting of just a few fast intervals. This will inoculate your muscles against the strain of faster running so you can handle your first full-fledged speed workout much better.
Some of the most commonly practiced measures to limit post-exercise muscle soreness actually don’t work. Many runners believe that cooling down with easy jogging after a hard run prevents DOMS by flushing lactic acid out of the muscles. But lactic acid doesn’t cause post-exercise muscle soreness and cooling down at the end of workouts does not reduce muscle soreness the next day. Research has also shown that ice baths fail to prevent DOMS and massage is ineffective as a treatment for it.
Pain medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen do provide temporary relief from muscle soreness; however, you should never train so hard that you must resort to it. Save the medication for after your races, when you really need it! Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs actually impede muscle tissue repair, so you wouldn’t want to rely on them daily, anyway. What’s more, exercise itself is analgesic, so on those days when you find your muscles sore from your last workout you will probably actually get some relief from a light recovery session.
While cooling down after a hard workout does not prevent DOMS, warming up before one does. A good warmup literally warms, lubricates, and increases the elasticity of the muscles, preparing them to handle high-intensity work with less strain. Think about what waking up in the middle of the night and being forced to sprint 100 yards would do to your body compared to a similar sprint performed mid-afternoon after a thorough warmup!
An effective nutritional means of limiting the muscle damage underlying DOMS is consuming carbohydrate with protein during workouts. A 2007 study by researchers at James Madison University found that a carbohydrate-protein sports drink consumed during an exhaustive cycling workout reduced muscle damage by 83 percent compared to a carbohydrate-only sports drink. As a result, performance in a second workout undertaken the following day was improved by 40 percent in the carb-protein group compared to the carb group.
Muscle soreness will always be a part of the running experience. As they say, no pain, no gain. But you can limit DOMS by increasing your training slowly, by doing a few all-out sprints early in the training process to trigger the repeated bout effect, by warming up thoroughly before hard runs, and by consuming carbohydrate with protein during runs.