Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the miserable tenderness that follows a tough workout, typically indicates that damage has occurred to the muscles involved. Most experts are in agreement that the pain of DOMS is related to microscopic tears in muscles, most of which occur because of impact and the negative, eccentric portions of exercises. These tiny muscle strains, along with the resulting inflammation, are likely the primary causes of muscle soreness.
The pain of DOMS is most common when beginning a new exercise program, a phenomenon that is poorly understood. Some experts suggest that the inefficiency of movement when learning and performing new exercises, produces more muscular damage than when the nervous system is precisely tuned to a movement. For this reason alone, the muscle soreness a workout produces does not correlate with the productiveness of the workout, though the type of muscle damage that comes with DOMS is valuable in pursuit of certain fitness goals.
When Exercising Helps Relieve Muscle Soreness
Although doing another workout may not come to mind immediately when managing muscle soreness, it can be extremely helpful in relieving the pain and expediting the recovery process. When muscles are only moderately sore and exercises can be performed with proper form, a light workout serves to increase circulation to affected areas. The consequential cleansing of irritants and influx of nutrients accelerate the processes that alleviate sore muscles, allowing for a quicker return to intense exercise.
When Workouts Might Harm Sore Muscles
When the gradually increasing discomfort of DOMS reaches unbearable levels, though, performing additional exercise can be tremendously counterproductive. A level of pain that interferes with performing simple daily tasks, such as reaching up for a box of cereal or bending down to pick up a ball, usually means that the muscles need more recovery time. Going through another intense workout can cause further damage to the muscles, which in turn can stall recovery, minimize the gains made from the previous workouts, and lead in some cases to debilitating injuries. Moreover, these painful workouts are usually performed far below the levels of performance that stimulate improvements. In such situations, the risk of injury typically outweighs any possible rewards.
Depending on the degree of muscle soreness experienced following an intense bout of exercise, a lower intensity recovery workout can produce a wide range of results. When dealing with mild discomfort, a gentle workout can loosen muscles, alleviate pain, and significantly hasten recovery. In cases of debilitating soreness, though, additional stress may not be the best option. Under these unpleasant circumstances, ice, rest, massage, heat, and stretching are more sensible alternatives.