Sore muscles: the price to pay for keeping fit?

Sore muscles after sport can affect professionals and beginners alike. If you do new exercises or increase your weights, you’ll feel every movement over the next few days. A few tricks can help avoid – or at least lessen – sore muscles.

Text: Brigitte Wenger; photo: Dave Long Media / Getty Images

On your way back down after the first mountain hike of the year or jogging for longer than usual, you’ll really feel your muscles if you’ve pushed them too hard, for example if your legs aren’t used to the extra exercise. The fine muscle fibres in particular can then be overstrained and tear. These tiny injuries are inflamed, water penetrates the tissue, and your muscles swell up. It hurts. “Muscle soreness is like a cold,” says Hannah Bröcker, physiotherapist and certified sports physiotherapist with Medbase Zurich, “sometimes there’s no getting away from it. It’s not usually too bad, because our body can heal itself.” But what can help ease the pain? Myths abound about the origin and treatment of muscle soreness:

Sore muscles are part and parcel of getting fit

It’s true that we have to challenge our muscles to improve our performance. When we put our muscles under intense strain, they sense that they are not (yet) up to it and strengthen themselves during the subsequent recovery phase. However, our muscles don’t have to hurt to achieve this effect – even if we sometimes can’t avoid it.

If your muscles are sore, you have to do exactly the same workout again

In actual fact, if you continue to train when your muscles are sore, the micro-tears increase. What’s more, during soreness the muscle is particularly susceptible to further injury. That’s why professional sports people often plan a gentle recovery session the day after intensive training. This improves the circulation and can help them recover from sore muscles faster. If you exercise for fun and just to stay fit and healthy, it’s better to take a break than risk more serious injury.

How to keep muscle soreness in check

To avoid sore muscles in the first place, you should adjust the amount and intensity of your training schedule to your personal training level. By all means, challenge your muscles and body, but don’t overburden them. “It’s a tricky balance to achieve,” says Hannah Bröcker, “and the results can’t be accurately predicted by amateur athletes or physiotherapists. The processes in our body are simply too complex.” Regular training, slowly increasing the length and intensity of training sessions and planning plenty of recovery time into your schedule can help prevent muscle soreness.

You only get sore muscles if you’re unfit

Muscle soreness isn’t picky. It happens when your muscles are overworked. Of course, anyone who doesn’t train regularly is more likely to overtax their muscles. But when well-trained or professional athletes push themselves to the limit, they’ll suffer the next day, too.

Muscle soreness is due to lactic acid build-up

Our body produces lactic acid when it converts glucose into energy. For example, when we do sport. In the past, it was assumed that lactate accumulates in the muscles during intense exercise and cannot be broken down quickly enough, so that the muscles “overacidify”. However, research has disproved this theory and shown that muscle soreness is caused by tiny fibre tears.

A vigorous massage helps

It’s easy to imagine what happens when vigorous kneading places further strain on the tiny muscle injuries: any existing tears get bigger and the pain increases. So, be careful when getting a massage.

Stretching after training prevents muscle soreness

Neither stretching before nor after exercise prevents muscle soreness. Stretching before exercising is about preparing the body for the upcoming strain, while stretching after sport is designed to help you wind down and relax your muscles. If you overstretch you risk worsening the tiny tears in the muscles.