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Why Exercise Makes You Sore

Updated: Jul 2, 2020


Anyone that exercises regularly is certainly familiar with the muscle and joint soreness that accompanies tough workouts, particularly a day or two afterwards. So what’s going on here in the body that causes the onset of sore and stiff muscles? The simplest answer is tissue inflammation. By better understanding inflammation and learning ways to control the symptoms can lead to faster recovery times, fitness gains, and most importantly avoiding injuries.

To get started, let’s look at what inflammation actually is, in simple terms. It is an immune system response to damage that’s occurred to the tissues. Exercise causes damage to the tissues by causing microscopic tears to the muscle fibers. As a result of this damage, inflammation occurs around the site of the tears….which is actually the body’s way of repairing the damage. In turn, once the tears have healed the muscles become stronger, so in this sense, inflammation is a good thing. Yet inflammation, while it repairs muscle damage, actually in turn causes further damage to the tissues. This secondary damage is caused by the release of free radicals, which we’ll look at more in depth a bit later. This secondary damage is the culprit behind that soreness one to two days after a hard workout, which actually has a name of its own…. Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is where the risk of injury comes in to play. When we do not allow for adequate recovery from this tissue damage and jump back into hard exercise, joints and muscles can become chronically inflamed or lead to serious injury. This is how overuse injuries occur, such as IT Band syndrome or Runner’s Knee which can literally take months to recover from.

So how can we limit the amount of inflammation and tissue damage that occurs from exercise? Well in terms of exercise, by using the process of progression, you can make sure that the body is adequately trained for the amount of work you are putting it through. In terms of endurance training, the rule of thumb is not to increase workouts by more than 10% in distance or duration per week for 3 weeks out of the month, then engaging in a recovery week every fourth week, in which you reduce total workout duration by 20-40%. We can also manage inflammation in the body to some degree through diet. Foods high in antioxidants have been show to assist in both preventing inflammation and in repairing tissue damage associated with it. It is important that we understand what antioxidants are in order to see how they can benefits us in this regard. Antioxidants are substances that inhibit the destructive effects of oxidation. Oxidation is a process that occurs in the body in which free radicals are produced, which in turn can lead to cellular damage or destruction. Antioxidants also assist in circulation and digestion. Foods which are rich in antioxidants are dark green vegetables such as greens and broccoli. Brightly colored fruits are also high in antioxidants such as cherries, berries, and mangos. It is important to eat these raw as often as possible, as cooking can cause a breakdown of the vitamins and nutrients.

Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce inflammation. Fatty, cold water fish such as salmon and mackerel are high in Omega-3. Non meat sources are hemp and flax seeds and avocado. Certain spices have anti-inflammation characteristics such as ginger, black pepper, garlic and turmeric.

Other ways to deal with inflammation include the R.I.C.E. method of treatment which stands for Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. Pretty self-explanatory stuff there. NSAID's are also medications that many people choose to use (Ibuprofin) which have anti-inflammatory effects, to help control swelling and the pain associated with inflammation.

Hopefully this sheds a bit of light on inflammation and ways to prevent and manage some of its symptoms. In many ways, it really is just a part of hard workouts, yet by knowing a little more about what's actually occurring in the body, we are better prepared to handle it, move on, and avoid injuries.


In Wellness and Love,

Dr. Chris

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