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Why Am I Sore? The Mysteries & Myths of Acute Muscle Soreness

We’ve all been there - an intense workout the previous day has you achy and sore the next. Unfortunately, this can sometimes defer us from returning to the gym; however, getting into a  regular exercise routine can actually help alleviate some of this soreness in the long run. 

So what exactly causes soreness?

A common thought is that it is caused by a build up of lactic acid; however, research has indicated that this is nothing more than a myth. Lactate, which causes the sensation of “burning” during your workout, is simply a by-product of energy breakdown that helps prevent your muscles from becoming too acidic. Although the thought is that it stays in your system for days, it is actually cleared out within a 30 - 60 minute period.

Research suggests that muscle soreness is caused by microtears in the muscles, which triggers inflammation. This may seem harmful, but the breakdown of muscle fibers is what leads to the rebuilding of stronger, leaner muscles that are more resilient against later soreness. The more you perform certain exercises, the more your body can adapt to these movement patterns and learn how to distribute the load across your muscular system. 

Muscle soreness is not always an indictor of how often you exercise and/or what kind of shape you are in, however. According to Jon Mike, there is a strong genetic component to how we react to a training stimulus. Some people, referred to as “high-responders”, experience more acute pain and soreness post-workout, while others, referred to to as “no or low-responders”, will experience less. Although you cannot change your genes, it is important to know how susceptible you are to post-workout soreness.

Another common myth is that static stretching (lengthening the muscle and holding for 20-60 seconds) can help alleviate some of this pain. While stretching can aid in flexibility/mobility gains, research has indicated that pre and post exercise stretching has not been found to reduce the effects of muscle soreness. In fact, pre-workout static stretching may actually decrease muscular power/strength. 

In conclusion, soreness is a normal part of exercise; however, it is not always your best gauge of how effective your workout is. High responders who have just began a new exercise routine/activity will most likely experience more soreness than no or low-responders who have been performing the same routine continuously. Changing your routine up often can help challenge new muscle groups and bring about soreness that will eventually create stronger and more resilient muscles. 

Moral of the story? 1.) Begin at a lower intensity when beginning a new routine/activity. 2.) If your soreness is excessive, give your body a few days of rest. 3.) Don’t be afraid of soreness - it a natural process that will lead to a stronger, healthier you!

Stephanie Spoto, CSCS

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