Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Athlete's Hangover

Several days ago, I decided to do some weight lifting. I hadn't done it regularly for a while, but with visions of my future strong-self plastered on a Wheaties box, I stupidly did (way) too much, too fast. Today is going on the fourth day after this upper body workout, and I'm feeling pain and extreme tenderness in muscles I never even knew existed.

Perhaps you've been in a similar boat, at one time or another. Whether you could barely walk to the alarm clock the morning after those killer squats, or you couldn't reach over to that file on your desk without you entire arm screaming profanity at you, it's safe to say we've all experienced sore muscles. This condition is more technically referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid, which is buffered within 30-60 minutes after exercise, is not to blame for DOMS. This misconception originated from a flawed experiment conducted by physiologist Archibald Hill in 1929, who came to his mistaken conclusion through studies of isolated muscle fibers in frogs. Thus, the wrong accusation lactic acid has long been toting is "so last year."

I am also sad to inform you that cool-downs do not assist in reducing post-exercise soreness. A cool-down merely helps speed up the removal of lactic acid from the muscle. But since lactic acid has been found "not guilty" in the case of DOMS, cool-downs can no longer be looked to as a solution.

If Lactic Acid Isn't the Culprit, What Is?

DOMS, as one can infer from its name, is felt 24 to 48 hours following activity that, according to David O. Draper (director and professor of the sports medicine and athletic training graduate program at Brigham Young University), demands of the muscle "an eccentric or a lengthening contraction." From such said activity results the microscopic tears in muscle fibers and inflammation that causes the pain. Additional blood being carried to the stimulated muscles can also cause swelling and pressure, which is another potential cause of the "Ow!" factor.

However, the good news is, when the DOMS heals and the pain fades, your muscles have gotten stronger. DOMS is just a part of the phase of adaption to certain exercises, and with repetition, it will likely get less pronounced.

How Does One Relieve This Pain?!

Unfortunately, no method has been found to alleviate the pain of DOMS. But, popping some anti-inflammatory pills, massage, ice, rest, and heat can help ease those poor, aching muscles. Performing light activity can also help loosen up any tension. Stretching's effect on soreness has been long debated, and there is no conclusive evidence supporting either its usefulness or uselessness in curbing DOMS. But, many experts can agree, it can't hurt.

Indeed, DOMS is certainly not a pleasant feeling. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But with regular cross-training, athletes can avoid this pain that can impede on everyday activities like brushing teeth, lifting a fork to eat, or even standing up from a chair. Beginning new exercise programs gradually rather than zealously can reduce the soreness that results as well.

With that said, my fellow athletes, exercise responsibly! No one likes a hangover.


  1. I was reallly feeling the DOMS this week after going back to a strength class at the gym for the first time in months. Owwie. Thanks for all the great info!

  2. Good post! I recently read about this topic as I'm studying for my personal training certification. Very interesting.