We push ourselves, we do our best and we feel like the kings and queens of the world… until the next day that is when an 80 year old granny can beat us up, everything hurts and crawling out of bed classifies as “achievement unlocked”.
When you exercise small microscopic tears occur in the muscle. The damage and the inflammation along with the tears then causes the pain you feel a day or so afterwards. This effect is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and it is a giant pain in the butt, sometimes quite literally.
Muscle soreness kicks in 24-48 hours post workout, how severe it is and how long it lasts depends on your fitness level and how often you work out. Working out for the first time in a long while will nearly cripple you the next day - it is part of the process but it can be helped. You don’t need to be in pain all the time nor do you need to throw yourself into an ice bath, as a matter of fact – really, don’t. The ice bath treatment in the movies because, along with the burning helicopter moments, it looks good. What you really need is to fight fire with fire and… exercise more.
The fitter you get, the more regularly you exercise the less sore you’ll be the next day and you will eventually be sore no more. Or nearly. Our bodies are designed to work, they are the happiest when they work and throwing them into the fire (intensive exercise) and then ice will be of practically zero benefit. Every process that goes on in your body is a natural one and it will cope with it, provided you let it. Exercise strengthens it, helps it get more agile and robust – muscle soreness is part of this process.
We are used to recovery days and rest days to allow muscles to repair and for the pain to go away but it isn’t the most effective way to get where you want. More than that, the more you rest the higher the chances you are going to give up on the whole fitness thing. What you need to do is train for recovery, walk or jog or do light exercise at a slower pace and with fewer reps and that will aid your recovery.
While we experience muscle soreness it’s easy to start feeling lazy, slow down, take a break… have a doughnut. What happens then is what physicists call the “rolling stone effect”. A stone that’s in motion tends to stay that way and one that’s at rest wants to do nothing but rest.
The moment you slow down the body likes it. Muscle soreness and official “rest days” then become a valid excuse. The moment you give your body permission to rest it stops working and then it doesn’t want to start. In other words, thinking you’re doing the right thing you’re only making your own life more difficult.
Here’s how to change this: Accept that your body is geared up to deal with muscle soreness and fatigue. The the main battle on the issue happens in your head, every single time. Exercising with sore muscles, reasonable training without going all out, is extremely beneficial and will help you get stronger faster and, eventually, reduce the next day soreness. You just need to power through in the beginning and do something, anything but do it all the same.
Rest, Ice, Elevation, Compression (RICE)
We were first introduced to the term RICE (Rest, Ice, Elevation, Compression) as a post-workout recovery back in the 70s but since then we have come to conclusion that pills, sprays and icing blocks, that have been used to bring down the inflammation in the affected region and help the body recover faster, are most probably having the exact opposite effect, delaying healing of the body and the return to full training by up to two days. Dr. Gabe Mirkin the very man who gave us the term RICE has debunked his own theory.
The post-workout muscle inflammation is important because it’s the first stage of healing and the muscle soreness you face is really part of the body’s natural process to help you get stronger. When you interfere with it (by taking a cold shower, applying a cooling spray or taking an ice bath) you are only slowing down the process and delaying the healing that needs to take place.
If you’re experiencing muscle soreness you should not be using anti-inflammatories, you should not be using ice and certainly should not be resting, or only resting for 24 hours. You’ll increase healing by movement without pressure. Doing less intensive exercise will help you get where you want faster and help you develop better quality muscle.
If you can’t go through an exercise routine just yet do something else: go for a walk, swim a little, throw a Frisbee, play catch-ball. The point is that your body is very much like the moving stone of the physicists’ example. You just can't let it come to a complete rest. You will only have to work that much harder to get started again.
Here's a Plan
If this is your 'rest day' you need to work for it. How hard you work depends on how much your muscles ache. below are some suggestions and the good news is you only need to pick one.
My muscles are in agony - Keep them warm and: Go for a walk. Do some stretching. Throw a ball. Take a long swim at the pool.
My muscles are really hurting - Wrap up well and: Go for a jog. Do five push-ups (every two hours). Do ten squats (every two hours).
My muscles are just sore - Business as usual but: use a lighter training routine. Go for a run.
My muscles are aching - Welcome to the club: Do what you always do but level down (if you've been doing them at a higher level) or take a longer break between sets. Add some stretching before and after your routine.
The body’s made to work. It adapts to stimuli which then causes change. You get stronger, faster and fitter only when that stimuli is present and the body is made to adapt to it. So next time you feel the urge to take a break because you’ve worked a little harder than usual think that what you’re really working for the “you” you want. Don’t stop, change pace and keep on working for your goals.