We’ve all experienced that agonising post-workout pain, where the simple act of sitting down or taking the stairs becomes near impossible.
But if you thought having “a day off” from exercise was the answer (you worked hard, after all) experts agree that attempting another workout, rather than skipping the gym altogether is actually going to be better for you -- and your muscles.
“The pain we experience following an intense workout is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and it occurs 24 to 72 hours following unaccustomed exercise,” professor David Bishop, College of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University told The Huffington Post Australia.
“It is the result of micro damage in the muscle, which causes inflammation and leads to swelling of the muscle and pressing against pain receptors -- ultimately, muscle soreness,” Bishop said.
Sounds kind of scary, right? But this micro damage is actually quite a positive thing.
“Our muscles are super plastic and will quickly adapt so that the next bout of exercise is not as stressful or damaging -- this is what’s called the repeated bout effect -- where your body naturally responds to the stress it’s been put under,” Bishop said.
Basically, your body’s response is like lyrics to a Kanye West song: harder, better, faster, stronger.
“After the first exposure, the muscles adapt so that the same exercise doesn’t cause the same damage. This explains why the first time following a heavy session hurts the most,” Bishop said.
It’s also the reason why if you are sore from a workout, you are better off doing some gentle exercise rather than skipping the gym altogether.
Professor Tim Olds, School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia agrees the best thing you can do for muscle soreness is to keep working through it, granted you are injury-free.
“What’s happening is the muscle is building up to be bigger and stronger than it was previously, so it’s more resistant next time,” Olds told HuffPost Australia.
As far as other remedies go, Bishop explains there hasn’t been a lot of research into muscle creams and that not too many have been shown to work.
“If it’s a cream that’s dealing with pain it will help that aspect of it -- just like taking a tablet doesn’t get rid of headache -- you just don’t feel the headache anymore. Pain relief may make you feel better, but it’s not helping the muscle to heal any quicker,” Bishop said.
And while stretching is always a good idea, Bishop said there isn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest pre or post-workout stretching will prevent or reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.
“I would recommend people stretch for other reasons, for instance, to maintain flexibility so it becomes part of your regular exercise routine,” Bishop said.
So what can you do for sore muscles following a heavy session?
“Prevention is always better than a cure. Ease your way into it, don’t go from sitting on the couch to running a marathon,” Bishop said.
And if you do find you’re sore from a workout, heading straight back to the gym is your best bet.