Muscle soreness after exercise can be quite uncomfortable (sometimes painful). What exactly does muscle soreness mean and can you really prevent muscle soreness by stretching?
Muscle soreness is very commonly misunderstood within the health and fitness industry. It is commonplace for one to assume that muscle soreness is directly related to the effectiveness of a workout and that muscle soreness can be avoided altogether by stretching more. Both of these assumptions are incorrect.
Let's begin with the jargon - the muscle soreness that we are discussing is called "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness", or "DOMS" for those who like acronyms. This muscle soreness will often peak within 24-72 hours following a strenuous workout, or, following the relatively strenuous use of muscles in a new manner.
DOMS is typically most apparent when you first initiate a new exercise regime. The next day after your first workout can be a killer! You can be aching from head to toe in muscles that you never knew you had before!
Alternatively, if you've just taken a month long holiday, your first week of may make you extremely stiff, because you haven't used those muscles in such a manner in an extended period of time.
The muscle soreness after exercise that you experience is not a direct function of the "effectiveness" of your workout - no matter what your goal, whether that be weight loss, gaining muscle, toning, enhancing your fitness etc. You can have a highly effective workout and not feel any muscle soreness at all. This is because DOMS is more a function of the degree of inflammatory from microscopic trauma induced as a result of a bout of physical exercise. This trauma is most prevalent when your muscles are subjected to an activity that they are not conditioned for.
When you experience delayed onset muscle soreness, you will notice that you become tight. The flexibility of your muscles diminishes significantly. It is the reduction of flexibility that often leads to the incorrect assumption that if you were to stretch more following a workout, this would avoid any muscle soreness the following day. Not so.
As mentioned, muscle soreness is a result of trauma induced within muscle tissue. It has nothing to do with flexibility. Following your workout, you will be very flexible because the muscles would have warmed up and thus become far more elastic. Yet as soon as they cool down and the inflammation becomes realised (ie. the pain sets in), the muscles will tighten right up.
Does stretching assist in overcoming DOMS? No. Stretching will enhance your flexibility, but it will not speed up the rate at which your muscles are able to repair the trauma from exercise. The muscle's recovery is a physiological process that is independent from lengthening the muscle (ie. stretching).
Muscle soreness very acute when you begin to stretch the muscle. Therefore, if you are more flexible, the muscles won't be stretched quite as much (relatively speaking). This can relieve the discomfort that you may feel in day to day activities (like walking after exercising your legs). However, good flexibility will not decrease the amount of trauma that has been induced.
The great thing about muscle soreness after exercise is that it's a very profound reminder of the effort that you invested during your exercise session. Call me crazy, but think of this as a trophy that you can carry around with you for days after your exercise session!
As uncomfortable as the muscle pain may be, it is something that we all have to deal with. It is usually most profound within the first week of exercise, so if you can get over that initial hump, you'll be home free!