(published in Medium Dec 3, 2019)
The Joy of Sore Muscles
I don’t feel right if something isn’t just a little stiff or sore.
Some people complain about sore muscles. I love them! Having sore muscles means I did something good for my body. It means I can eat what I want right now because my metabolism has been increased. It means I’m getting firmer and looking better. When various muscles are stiff or sore, I feel tight, toned, and confident about how I look.
When I can’t feel any tight or stiff muscles, I feel physically blah. I feel looser and less in shape. Eating a big meal isn’t as enjoyable. Also, at my age, if I don’t exercise a good amount, my cells will turn to fat easier than they did years ago.
The best way to keep our metabolism high is to use variety in our workouts. The idea is to change things up so your body doesn’t get too used to one activity. Just like in superficial relationships, our bodies are fickle in that they get too comfortable when something becomes predictable. Metabolism gets lazy and performs at lower and lower levels.
Changing up our workouts means we have more risk of muscle soreness, which I like but others may or may not. The regular kind of soreness from a new activity, that doesn’t involve injury or overuse, is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). In addition to changing your workout, starting a new one or increasing the intensity of an existing one can also bring on the soreness or stiffness, which is basically just microscopic damage to muscle fibers.
Part of the reason this mild soreness feels good to people like me is that it’s just the process of your body adapting to the activity and giving you more strength and stamina. Every time the muscles recover, they build up and get stronger and more efficient. As our muscles get stronger and more efficient, there’s less room on our bodies for fat and flab. That’s probably part of the reason soreness and stiffness can actually feel kind of good to people who enjoy being in shape.
There is a difference between good and bad muscle soreness. Soreness that begins 6-8 hours post-workout and lasts 24-48 hours after the activity is the good kind; the kind that shows you’re becoming stronger. It happens because with exercise that is new, different, or more strenuous than you’re used to, muscle fibers break down and then repair stronger than before. If you can’t wait for it to go away on its own, there are a few things you can try to minimize the soreness: walking, ice application, getting a massage, or just waiting a day or two and doing the same workout again. Or you can just suck it up, like me, and bask in the feeling of tightness, strength, and accomplishment it gives.
Muscle soreness caused by misuse or injury is the bad kind of muscle soreness. It keeps you from performing normal daily activities or chores, begins during or immediately after exercise, and in extreme cases can even cause kidney damage. Call the doctor’s office if you experience unbearable pain, severe swelling, or dark urine during or after the workout.
Normal, “good” soreness gets better within one to three days with either rest or another similar workout. If it doesn’t ease up the next day when you start using the same muscles after they’re warmed up, it might be an injury or overuse rather than regular soreness.
Keeping the same muscles engaged on a regular basis will keep the post-exercise tightness in the comfortable range. Gradually varying your workouts to use different muscles keeps everything on a level plane so you can enjoy a happy medium between comfortable, satisfying post-workout tightness and soreness from using new muscles.
Doing a warm-up before exercise, while preventing injuries, doesn’t seem to decrease the risk of regular DOMS, or the good kind of soreness. Some muscle soreness is inevitable when increasing intensity or starting a new workout, but it’s so worth it. It’s still important to warm up, or do some gentle moves that also incorporate stretching after the muscles heat up, because that keeps you from getting injured.
Keeping hydrated while working out keeps your muscles healthy and reduces the risk of overuse injury. Muscles need moisture in order to maintain their suppleness and range of motion. When our bodies don’t get enough water and electrolytes to fuel both vital organs and muscles, the vital organs will win, muscles will go without, and cramps will most likely ensue. I think part of the reason I tore an Achilles tendon, which connects muscle to bone, playing tennis is that I hadn’t drank any water yet that day.
The risk of muscle injuries increases as we age, so the older you get the better off you might be if you get used to at least a little of the “good kind” of muscle soreness. It’s important to keep active as we get older, and the way to do that is through a multi-faceted workout program that keeps you on your toes and all your muscle groups engaged with both regularity and variety.
Embrace the soreness! It means you are taking care of your body and making it more likely that you’ll age well and feel and look younger than you are. It also means you’ll be much less likely to be overweight. A muscle that’s not being engaged can’t experience delayed onset muscle soreness. It also can’t look strong and nicely toned, or keep you powerful and vibrant.