Why am I sore?

It’s January, my beautiful friends! And for a lot of us, that means using the inspiration of a fresh year to embark on wellness journeys galore. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely decided that a daily movement practice is part of your mission to thrive in 2022. You’re two weeks into that new training program and man, are you sore. Or maybe you’re like me and you are years into making exercise a habit. If this is you, do you ever think “If my workout doesn’t make me sore, I didn’t work out hard enough?” Ever heard the phrase “No pain, no gain?” Well, don’t believe it. It’s a lie. Let’s talk about the science behind muscle soreness. I’ll bust the myth that you must be sore to make progress and teach you ways to treat it so you can show up to LYT daily ready to move and get LYT up! 

In scientific literature, muscle soreness is termed DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It’s an exercise-induced phenomenon that leads to a sensation of pain and stiffness with the intensity of symptoms peaking after one to three days. It is more common after unaccustomed physical activity and is specifically caused by eccentric loading. There are several theories in literature of specific physiological mechanisms that cause DOMS but there are three general ideas you need to know. One, there is an inflammatory response occurring. Two, it’s not just happening in your muscles. Fascia is the higher pain generator in this experience. Third, hormone fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle affect DOMS. This means if you are a female in your reproductive years, you need to train differently through different phases of your cycle. P.S. DOMS has nothing to do with lactic acid buildup. That’s been debunked! 

In addition to causing discomfort and pain, research has shown DOMS to decrease joint mobility, alter joint kinematics (the way your joints move), decrease strength and power, alter muscle recruitment patterns, and reduce our capacity to efficiently absorb forces such as when running or jumping. To sum it up, being sore is negatively impacting your ability to perform and train well. Therefore, we want to avoid soreness when possible or, at the very least, modify our training when we are sore so that we minimize the risk of injury. 

So, what do we do to treat it? DOMS is simple to treat. If you are not a professional athlete who is required to train two or more times per day, you could wait for your soreness to decrease and then start training again. But we’re #thrivingin2022 and want to minimize the DOMS effect on us so we can keep showing up to the mat every day, right?! This community does what we can to keep our bodies healthy and ready for movement. Here’s what the literature says about treating DOMS. 

Our fascia is rich with sensory receptors and highly sensitive to pain and inflammation, playing a key role in our perception of soreness. Self-myofascial release is one of the most supported treatments to reduce pain and address fascial alterations after strenuous exercise. Methods such as foam rolling, vibration tools, and self-massage are great post-exercise recovery tools. Also, try out the fascia section of LYT daily! Compression garments have been shown to reduce DOMS, likely by reducing the space available for swelling and edema. Contrast water therapy (alternating between hot and cold) and cold-water immersion have moderate evidence for reducing DOMS. Although not as effective as massage, active recovery will decrease soreness, but the effects are temporary. You won’t feel sore for a short time during and after you move but soreness will likely return afterwards. Stretching and icepacks or ice massages have no evidence to support their use for treating the effects of DOMS. Prophylactic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been supported, although I would not recommend this due to other side effects. There are a variety of supplements that are shown to reduce inflammation that you can try instead such as curcumin or tart cherry juice. For women, lower your training load or add longer recovery periods during the early follicular phase. This is where sex hormone concentrations are low and women are more vulnerable to muscle damage. Mid-luteal phase, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone reach peak concentrations so this is a great time to increase your strength training as DOMS effects will be minimal. 

Muscle soreness can range from quite mild to intensely irritating. Try the recovery tools mentioned above and see how they help mitigate soreness and keep you fresh for your next yoga practice. Personally, I take a preventative approach to DOMS with supplementation, foam rolling after I train (even if I don’t feel sore at the time), and adjusting my training intensity according to my menstrual cycle. If you liked this article, DM me and let me know what your favorite recovery routine is. I’d love to hear from you. 


Thalia Wynne, DPT, PT, AT 

IG: @thalialovee 

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