Ask the Expert: Why does it hurt when I train?

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Q: I only have time to exercise three to four days a week, so I work out really hard on those days using a combination of intense circuits and running. I leave the gym feeling great, but the next day I often wake up feeling stiff, sore, and very old. The following day, I am generally good to go. I’ve been told that this is a normal response to training. Is this true, and if it is, are there things I can do to prevent it from happening?

 —Connie

A: Dear Connie:

It sounds like you are experiencing DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. This very common problem occurs when people work their muscles harder than they are used to. DOMS occurs in athletes at every ability level, and is especially common with eccentric exercise—that is, exercise where muscles are contracting while they lengthen. An example of this would be the lowering phase during biceps curls. DOMS typically appears 12 to 24 hours after exercise and varies in intensity from mild to debilitating.

DOMS only occurs in the muscles you exercised, and contrary to popular belief, is not due to the accumulation of lactic acid. It is believed to be the result of small muscle fiber tears that cause several temporary things including inflammation, tissue swelling, pain, reduced range of motion, and reduced strength.

DOMS basically needs time to heal and nothing has been shown to speed this up. Remaining active at a lower intensity, applying ice, and using massotherapy (medical or therapeutic treatment by massage) and anti-inflammatory medications help reduce the pain, but do not speed up the rate of muscle repair. The best way to deal with DOMS is to prevent it from happening. This can be done by avoiding sudden large increases in your training workload. This is particularly important if you are doing a lot of eccentric exercise. While doing a good warm-up, stretching, and cooling down are important parts of a smart training program, they have not been shown to reduce the risk of developing DOMS.

The bottom line is that DOMS is a common problem that occurs when people work their muscles harder than they are used to. It should resolve in one to three days. If it persists, you may be dealing with something else, such as a larger muscle tear. Given that you are frequently experiencing DOMS, you are probably training too hard. Backing off a little will have no significant impact on your fitness, but will certainly reduce the amount of pain you are experiencing. Remember, exercise is medicine!

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