Healthy Outlook: Coping with aches and pains of muscle gains
If you’ve ever strength trained, you might know the sweet satisfaction that comes with perfecting your form on a particularly challenging workout. Something just clicks, and it feels so right. (Why yes, I did just finally master the deadlift. Thanks for asking.)
You probably also know the sweet symphony of soreness your muscles sing by the next morning. Although it’s a natural phenomenon, and in general it’s a good thing, it might not be your favorite feeling in the world. There are some ways to handle that soreness and minimize its intensity.
We’ll take a quick field trip back to our anatomy, physiology and biology classes. Chris Dellasega, owner of the Athletic Strength Institute at 720 E. Ninth St. No. 3, offers some lessons in Muscle Soreness 101.
When you strength train, Dellasega said, you’re basically tearing and creating microtrauma to the muscle fibers, which then begin to repair.
“Your body, more or less, realizes that in order to withstand the form of stress that you’re applying to it in the future, such as strength training, the fibers have to get stronger and bigger, if that’s what you’re training for,” he said.
A little bit of soreness is a good thing, “because it means you’re applying a stimulus to the body that the body has not experienced,” Dellasega said.
A lot of it — so much that you have trouble functioning — is an indicator that you’ve probably overdone it. At the same time, he said, soreness shouldn’t necessarily always be an indicator of a good workout.
Over time, the more you repeat a workout, the less effective it becomes.
“A workout is only as good as the length of time that it takes the body to adapt to it, so it’s kind of like the law of diminishing returns,” Dellasega said.
That’s when it’s necessary to change the exercises or change the “intensity zone” you’re working in, he said, meaning lifting heavier or lighter weights for more or fewer repetitions. You can also manipulate how much rest you take between sets of an exercise or between exercises.
As you’re becoming accustomed, though, you might have a day or two aboard the struggle bus.
Here are some ways to lessen the severity of soreness and to help your body recover more quickly:
• Protein is key. Dellasega said although it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of all your macronutrients — carbs, fats and proteins — the latter is what’s going to help rebuild your muscle tissue after it’s been broken down.
• Hydration is also essential. “If you’re chronically dehydrated, that makes your blood and your plasma more viscous, which makes it a little bit harder for your body to clear the metabolites that are created when you strength train,” Dellasega said. “So ensuring proper hydration more or less ensures that you’re giving your body what it needs in order to flush all the metabolites out that accumulate when you train,” and it can help pre-empt some of that soreness.
• Get the blood flowing. Foam rolling, stretching, massages and cardio, such as taking a brisk walk, can get blood and nutrients rushing into the sore areas, thus expediting healing.
• Don’t jump in too quickly. “You want to be sure that you don’t jump into a new training program with both feet if you’re not prepared for it or if you’ve not been active up to a particular point, or you’ve been sedentary for a long period of time,” Dellasega said. “It’s best advice not to jump right into a training program because you will essentially make yourself so sore that it will be hard to function.”
• What about OTC meds? Ibuprofen, Tylenol and similar over-the-counter pain relievers are OK if you’re really sore, Dellasega said, but he personally prefers to avoid them. Before turning to the meds, “I would definitely implore them to be sure they’re drinking enough water,” he said.
Some supplements can also help to boost your workouts and quell the soreness:
• Creatine is a supplement that “has been shown pretty repeatedly in the scientific research to work quite well,” Dellasega said. “It’s not a performance enhancer or anything like that,” but it helps your body to replenish its adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Put simply, ATP is muscle fuel — a chemical that your body makes as it processes food. So creatine “reduces the amount of time that your muscles need to repolarize, to get ready to work hard again,” Dellasega said. “So if it takes less time for them to prepare to work hard again, your workouts become more efficient.”
Also, it kind of tastes like Kool-Aid.
“I don’t really think it’s necessary to take it daily (including on nonworkout days, as the packaging may suggest) because the benefits of using a supplement like creatine are seen with moderate to long-term use and aren’t acutely dose dependent,” Dellasega said.
• Glutamine is another supplement aimed at improving recovery. “Under extreme stress, your body uses up its glutamine stores relatively quickly, and then your performance kind of starts to diminish from there,” Dellasega said. “So glutamine is a really good one for helping to repair your muscles between workouts, as well.”
I have found glutamine to be very helpful for reducing soreness, in my own experience. Often, before and after workouts, I put a little bit in a smoothie. It does not taste like Kool-Aid.
• Fish oil can reduce inflammation. Inflammation is important because it triggers the body’s repair process, Dellasega said, but taking the right amount of a high-quality fish oil supplement can help take the edge off your soreness.
However, Dellasega said oftentimes people want to jump straight into supplements before they evaluate the nutrition they’re getting — or missing — from food they eat, which is an important first step.
The road to getting ripped is long and winding. Here’s to manageable soreness, raising the bar and learning to love that fleeting agony.