Muscle-related pain happens at some point to everyone from athletes, fitness instructors and novice exercisers. No matter which of these groups you’re in, chances are that you can relate to one of these following scenarios:
- You return from a run and, within minutes, feel an abnormal strain in one of your calves or hamstrings.
- You go to your favorite yoga class and overbend, creating uncomfortable tension in your low back.
- You’re in the weight room, and a deadlift drives a sharp, acute pain to jolt through your glutes.
While it’s normal to feel sore after exercise, the muscle pain associated with that soreness could be the result of a more serious injury. Knowing what provokes muscle pain, why certain workouts exacerbate it, and what methods of treatment or prevention can help to soothe it ensures that you stay safe and fit.
What are the root causes of this muscle pain?
When it comes to physical activity, some kinds of muscle pain are normal. For example, pain the major muscles you’re currently focusing on is caused by a “buildup of lactic acid, a natural byproduct of exertion that your muscles produce,” explains Jamie Starkey, lead acupuncture physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
Another common source of muscle pain is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which can develop hours, or sometimes days, after a workout. This discomfort, Starkey continues, is from exertion-induced microtears in the muscle fibers and connective tissues.
“You most likely will experience DOMS when you begin a new exercise to which your body is unaccustomed, or if you have increased the intensity of your workouts,” she adds.
While DOMS and lactic acid buildup are temporary nuisances, there are other fitness-related muscle pains you should not overlook.
Pulls, stress fractures and unusual inflammation are signs of more acute—or even chronic—muscle damage which can be a result of multiple factors. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research cites the following as potential causes for a muscle injury:
- Incorrect form, technique, acceleration or intensity of a specific movement
- Overtraining of the same body parts which leads to muscle fatigue and weakness
- Hyperflexion of a muscle beyond its natural, safe and healthy range of motion
- Inadequate nutrition or hydration which depletes muscle endurance and inhibits post-workout recovery
Why does it happen after specific workouts?
If you feel sore after a hard weight training workout, there’s a good reason why: eccentric muscle movement. This is when the muscle fibers lengthen in order to finish a repetition—the downward motion of a bicep curl, for instance. Eccentric movements increase the demand on your muscles and central nervous system, which tears the muscle and can thus lead to soreness.
This soreness is normal and is accompanied by “prolonged strength loss, a reduced range of motion, and elevated levels of creatine kinase in the blood,” according to a report in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.
The same report suggests that you may feel the same soreness after a long endurance event, like a bike or running race. Just like with weightlifting, in these workouts, your legs are moving through one eccentric movement for each stride or cycle, which means lower body muscles like quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings are being worked in the same way.
Take the example of running down a hill. David Roche, professional runner, explains, “When running down a steep slope, your knee is likely almost straight upon landing. In that position, with your knee straight, your quad muscle is at its shortest. Then, as your leg absorbs the impact, your knee bends, lengthening the muscle.”
How can you treat it and minimize the risk?
If you experience fitness-related muscle pain during or after a workout, there are a number of ways to treat the inflamed, tender or achy spot and to protect it from soreness in the future. Frontiers in Physiology recommends the following recovery techniques and precautionary measures—with data to back them.
- Massage: Bodywork therapies, like deep-tissue massage, lymphatic drainage and foam rolling can increase blood and lymph circulation in order to reduce muscle fatigue. In fact, a 20 to 30-minute massage performed within two hours post-exercise could alleviate DOMS for 24 hours.
- Compression: This targeted application of pressure on the exerted muscles can help to break down creatine kinase (CK), a protein that accumulates in the muscles to cause swelling. When this concentration of CK is dispersed, the muscles are less susceptible to persistent inflammation.
- Active Recovery: Low-impact exercises like swimming, for example, can stimulate the repair of muscle damage after a high-intensity workout. This moderate exercise is called active recovery, and it directs blood to the muscle tissues in order to flush metabolic waste and relieve tension and pain.
- Cool Exposure: Cold water immersion and cryotherapy are both ideal for treating inflammation. When cool temperature is applied to the muscles, fluid retention is prevented in those muscle tissues, which boosts circulation and helps muscle tears and swelling to heal quicker.
- Stretching: It’s important to note that Frontiers in Physiology does not advise a post-workout stretch, as this could actually prompt DOMS. However, a gentle stretch before you exercise will reduce tightness in the muscles and enhance their range of motion which lowers the risk of injury.
Understand your fitness-related muscle pain
As the body acclimates to movement, and the muscles learn how to handle intensity and resistance, you can expect to feel some discomfort. Overtime, however, this will likely become less, as your muscles adjust to the movement, speed, weight or pace. If that level of fitness-related muscle pain becomes more acute, prolonged or worrisome than normal, listen to that warning and take measures to address it.
Remember: pain receptors are the body’s primary mode of communication with the brain when something is wrong, explains The International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Be smart and aware of your own body during exercise because it’s wired to keep you safe!
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