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Muscle Soreness and Recovery

Muscle soreness will be a familiar feeling for anyone who has tried to push the edge of their physical limit. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or brand new to the gym, the soreness you can experience in your muscles after exercise can be off putting and serves as a mental and physical barrier to engaging in the physical activities you love. Understanding why muscle soreness occurs and what you can do to counteract it is a great way to support your exercise routines, and can also help prevent injury and help maintain a healthy body. In this week’s blog, I’d like to explore the science behind muscle soreness and the most effective strategies to mitigate the soreness that comes with physical activity and exercise.

Understanding muscle soreness

The driving factor behind post-workout soreness is a phenomenon known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), a sensation that can cause anything between moderate to debilitating levels of pain. DOMS will typically manifest between 24 to 72 hours after exercise and is characterised by soreness, tenderness and reduced range of motion in the muscles. Despite popular belief DOMS is not simply caused by the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles but is caused by a complex series of interactions including microscopic damage to muscle fibres, inflammation, and the activation of pain receptors. Learning to recognise this acute soreness which is a natural part of the exercise, and chronic soreness which may indicate overtraining or underlying issues, is crucial for devising an effective exercise and recovery plan.

The science behind recovery

The recovery process from exercise is a dynamic and intricate set of responses from your body to help repair and rebuild your muscles, allowing them to adapt and grow stronger. The recovery process can be divided into phases beginning with the inflammatory phase. During this inflammatory stage; damaged muscle fibres trigger an immune response characterised by swelling and the release of cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins that are crucial in controlling the growth and activity of other immune system cells and blood cells. Cytokines affect the growth of all blood cells and other cells that help the body’s immune and inflammation responses. The next stage of recovery involves the activation of satellite cells, specialized muscle stem cells that fuse to repair the injured fibres. This is finally followed by the remodelling phase, where the newly formed muscle tissue develops.

Active recovery methods

There are several things you can do to speed up and make recovery from exercise less uncomfortable, and there is no “one size fits all” approach. There are passive and active strategies that can both be applied to your recovery each with its own benefits to relieve muscle soreness. Active methods to alleviate muscle tension involve engaging in light exercises such as walking or cycling which enhance blood flow to your muscles. By increasing your blood flow, we facilitate the removal of metabolic byproducts and help provide our muscles with the nutrients and oxygen they need to recover effectively. Stretching can also help you target specific areas of muscle soreness and can alleviate stiffness and improve flexibility. If you are particularly suffering in one area, targeted muscle therapy or a sports massage can help release tension in your muscles and stimulate tissue healing.

Passive recovery methods

Alongside these active modalities for aiding recovery, there are passive methods you can employ to help your muscles recover. Hot and cold therapies can have a deep impact on your muscle recovery, especially when used in an alternating fashion. Heat therapy works by stimulating the release of endorphins. Endorphins don’t just help to improve our mood but are also part of your body’s natural pain reduction system. When you apply heat to your muscles it causes your blood vessels to widen allowing more oxygen and nutrients to flow to your muscles, aiding repair and speeding up recovery. Cold therapies are also helpful in aiding muscle recovery. By applying cold to an area of muscles you can help reduce inflammation in the affected area Cold therapy also slows down metabolic activity in the tissues, which can help reduce tissue damage and decrease the production of waste products that contribute to muscle soreness. If you’d like to learn more about the advantages of hot and cold therapies, please check out our blog on this topic.

Acute Soreness vs Chronic Soreness

If you are new to the world of fitness the pain and discomfort post-exercise can raise questions about what is “normal” pain and what isn’t. We should all expect a level of muscle soreness after exercise, especially if you are new to a workout routine. Acute muscle soreness will typically come on quickly and disperse quickly, unlike DOMS. This is due to the buildup of metabolic byproducts, such as lactic acid, during intense or prolonged exercise. As the body works to meet the increased demand for energy, anaerobic metabolism produces lactic acid as a byproduct, leading to a temporary decrease in pH levels within the muscle tissue.

Chronic Sorness refers to persistent discomfort in the muscles that extends beyond the immediate post-exercise period, often lasting for days or even weeks. Unlike acute soreness, which is largely attributed to metabolic factors, chronic soreness may stem from a variety of underlying causes, including overuse, muscle imbalances, or underlying musculoskeletal conditions. Chronic soreness is often characterized by a dull, achy sensation, accompanied by stiffness, tenderness, and reduced range of motion in the affected muscles. It may be indicative of ongoing tissue damage, inflammation, or overloading of the musculoskeletal system. If you begin suffering from chronic muscle soreness it’s best to consult with a doctor or medical professional.

Conclusion

By understanding the root cause of muscle soreness, hopefully, this will make you better equipped to recover quicker and get back to exercising faster. Using a combination of active and passive recovery methods you can tailor your recovery process to whichever part of your body feels sore and your exercise routine. Getting sore after exercise is perfectly normal, but with a bit of preparation and perseverance, you can make sure that your body recovers as quickly and comfortably as possible.

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