Fast Relief

exhausted athlete A woman in a gym, apparently having just completed a workout, says, "Fast: that's just the kind of relief my muscles need." Or something like that. It was the beginning of a commercial, and don't ask me for what (other than some pain relief drug, obviously) since it was switched off after that line. Perhaps it was a good commercial, though, since it did get me thinking.

First of all, why is she sore immediately after working out? Sounds like she needs a new workout. (Or a good trainer!) Immediately after a hard workout, muscles experience fatigue, often in the extreme. As in "I can't get up" extreme. But that's different from pain, and no pain-relief product will put a stop to that. The muscular pain associated with a hard workout typically shows up 24-48 hours afterwards and is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS.

Of course, everyone knows this is caused by a buildup of lactic acid. Except that it's not. When your body needs more energy than it can produce aerobically (with oxygen), such as while lifting heavy weights, it switches to a different form of energy production that does not require oxygen (anaerobic) and one of the byproducts of this process is lactate. Buildup of lactate leads to muscle fatigue and possibly the "burn" most weightlifters know all too well. A side-effect of the lactate is increased acidity in muscle cells; hence, the "lactic acid" story. But the fatigue causes the effort to subside or cease (e.g., you stop lifting the weight) and that allows the lactate to be cleared so the process can repeat with the next set. Fun stuff, right?

But the lactate and resulting acidity clear rather quickly, usually within an hour. So what causes the DOMS? The correct answer is: Nobody knows for sure. But we do know it's not lactic acid buildup because there is evidence to refute that theory. One of the more promising theories today is the presence of microscopic tears in the muscle. But again, no one knows for sure.

So anyway, getting back to the woman with the muscles that need fast relief, what the heck is she talking about? Well, maybe her muscles are sore from yesterday's workout. But one of the best "cures" for DOMS is muscular activity. You know, because it flushes out the lactic acid. Hah! Not really. Just checking to see if you're paying attention. No, once again no one knows why the activity reduces DOMS. And the relief doesn't last; that is, it's not a "cure" so much as a remedy. Or maybe "temporary relief". That sounds like it could be in a pain-reliever commercial!

drugsAnd that leads to my second persistent thought about the woman in the gym: why are drugs always the first solution? The reason in this case, of course, is because that's what makes money for the company that made the commercial. Another reason is that it's easy. Much easier than doing another workout (which can be quite uncomfortable in the beginning), although with no negative side-effects and plenty of potential long-term benefits. But what are some other potential solutions?

Massage is often cited as a remedy, and that includes Self-Myofascial Release (SMR), usually using foam rollers. If you can afford it, a real massage from a massage therapist is even better; at least, it feels better. But like working out to relieve the soreness, massage can hurt at first. (If you ask for a "sports massage", it will probably hurt for the full hour!) But
a few minutes of foam rolling after a workout usually feels pretty good and, in my experience, can definitely help reduce soreness.

If you're particularly bold (or crazy) and can do so safely (this is a "check with your doctor" kind of thing), you can try ice baths. If you do, let us know how it goes; I don't ride that train.

And from the "ounce of prevention", instead of going all out with a new exercise regimen, ease yourself into it. This will minimize the early soreness, and repeated efforts help prevent future soreness as the body adapts. That's also a good reason to keep exercising: if you do, the DOMS will eventually stop occurring, but if you stop for a while and start again, you'll have to go through the adaptation process (the "ouch!" part) all over again.

So there you have it. All this from the beginning of a TV commercial. (And all I was trying to do was load up a DVD of Doctor Who.) To recap:

  1. Avoid soreness by easing into a new exercise routine. (Usual tip from the trainer applies: get a trainer.)
  2. Potentially reduce soreness with a post-workout massage, even if you do it yourself. (That doesn't sound quite right, but you know what I mean.)
  3. A great way to alleviate soreness, and reap rewards, is to exercise. It'll hurt at first but is well worth the effort.
  4. Skip the drugs. They have their uses, but DOMS isn't one of them.
  5. Tom Baker will always be the best Doctor Who.

Be seeing you.

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