If you are like me, there is something about the summer season that really makes you want to get outside.
You get these grandiose ideas about riding your bike, which you haven’t ridden all year, to some far away destination. You decide to turn your backyard into a garden or put on those roller skates you haven’t worn since you were 12.
The only problem with this, as with any activity that you haven’t participated in for a while, is the consequence of muscle soreness.
That nagging, achy, stiff feeling that occurs eight to 48 hours after exercise is typically felt any time you decide to perform a new activity or change your exercise routine.
As in my case, when I put on those old roller skates, I will end up with sore muscles. Although this achy feeling can be bothersome or even alarming to new exercisers, it is actually a good thing. That soreness is telling you that your body is using muscles it hasn’t used in quite some time, and it is part of the normal adaptation process which leads to stronger, healthier muscles.
So, what causes muscle soreness? A muscle is a tension-producing tissue that contains sarcomeres, the units that allow a muscle to contract. These sarcomeres are composed of fibers that overlap one another to produce a contraction. Soreness occurs most frequently when performing eccentric, or lengthening part of muscle contractions. These include activities such as walking downhill, the down portion of a push-up, or sitting down into a chair.
Eccentric contractions are a normal part of joint movement and everyday living. But these contractions or movements stretch a sarcomere to the point where the fibers experience strain or damage, which then appear as microscopic tears in the muscle. After this damage occurs, your body will repair itself by sending in healing cells that cause inflammation and pour a collagenous glue over the muscles. This glue spreads over the entire muscle and can leave you feeling stiff and achy.
What can you do to prevent and manage muscle soreness? The first thing is to realize that the discomfort of changing your exercise routine or activity is letting your body know that it is repairing itself to be bigger and stronger. It is a good thing.
Second, there is no concrete way of preventing the soreness from occurring, but there are ways to minimize the discomfort. Here are just a few:
Warm up before exercising. Do gentle stretching and full range of motion activities, which can greatly help in managing muscle discomfort.
Cool down after your exercise with light activity such as going for a walk, a light jog or practicing dynamic movements such as lunges or squats.
Rest is essential in ensuring your body heals and repairs itself. Listen to your body when it is sore and don’t continue doing activities that might cause additional soreness without allowing your body to recover first. Oh, and when I say rest, I don’t mean lying on the couch until the ache goes away. It is important to move through a full range of motion in your joints.
Foam rolling and massage have also been shown to decrease muscle soreness.
Lastly, if you are feeling muscular soreness or pain that does not go away for a prolonged period of time, seven days or more, consult your physician.
So the next time you decide to get out those roller skates or ride a bike to Touchet and back, remember to warm up before your adventure and stretch when you get back. Your body will thank you for it.
Theresa Osborne is the Wellness Program director at the Walla Walla YMCA. She has a master’s in exercise science and several certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, including certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist. She can be reached at email@example.com.