Ever felt super sore the day after running, hiking, or throwing up some weights at the gym? You’re not alone. In fact, it’s common to feel stiffness and soreness begin to set in hours after strenuous or unaccustomed activity that can last for up to three days.
Popularly known as “delayed onset muscle soreness” (DOMS), it’s caused by movements where muscles lengthen under tension called eccentric contractions, such as downhill running, walking down stairs, slowly lowering weights, and plyometric exercises.
Luckily, there are techniques to prevent and relieve post-exercise soreness that are well established by science. What may surprise most people is accumulating research suggesting that muscles may not be the source of this common post-workout phenomenon.
Are problems with the muscles the source of post-workout soreness?
As the name implies, most theories attempting to explain DOMS attribute the symptoms to muscles. However, these theories have not been able to adequately link post-workout soreness to the muscles.
For example, one of the oldest theories focuses on the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles during exercise as the source of post-workout soreness. It’s true that soreness can be a result of lactic acid build-up when muscles fatigue during intense exercise. The problem with this theory is that lactic acid levels quickly return to normal after physical activity is stopped, whereas post-workout soreness occurs with a delay and persists for days.
Another theory suggests that the post-workout soreness could result from damage of the muscles as a result of intense exercise. However, experiments that had participants perform eccentric exercises to induce post-workout soreness did not show a correlation between levels of soreness and levels of plasma creatine kinase, a marker of muscle damage in the blood.
If not muscle, what structure could possibly be the source of post-exercise soreness?
Is fascia the true source of post-workout soreness?
Accumulating research suggests that the deep fascia, the connective tissue made mostly of collagen that surrounds our muscles, may be the true source of post-workout soreness.
One study that had participants perform eccentric exercises to induce post-workout soreness showed a 53% increase in urinary hydroxyproline levels, a marker of collagen breakdown, 24 to 72 hours later with no increase in markers of muscle breakdown. In another study, it has been found that fascia appears to have three times more sensory fibers that contribute to pain than compared to muscles.
Although more studies are needed, the available evidence suggests that fascia, rather than muscles, may be the source of post-workout soreness.
Evidence-based ways to prevent or relieve post-workout soreness
Shifting the focus from muscles to connective tissue could open new avenues for preventing and relieving post-workout soreness, which may have important implications for recovery and performance. One study demonstrated that collagen supplementation resulted in less soreness and quicker recovery of physical performance 48 hours after participants performed eccentric exercises.
Established research already shows that self-myofascial release or massage, with the aid of a foam roller or a massage roller, is effective for relieving post-workout soreness. A review that looked at 99 studies to evaluate impact of post-exercise recovery techniques concluded that massage was the most effective method for reducing post-workout soreness and perceived fatigue.
One study that assessed the impact of self-myofascial massage with a foam roller on one leg immediately after performing high-intensity squats found that post-workout soreness decreased by 50% for the massaged leg compared with 20% for the unmassaged leg 24 to 48 hours after exercise.
Self-myofascial massage technique
Self-myofascial massage is easy to perform and doesn’t require expensive equipment. I’d like to share with you my favorite techniques for the legs that require only a rolling pin.
Try performing the following three techniques immediately after any leg exercises, including walking or running. Be sure to check out my YouTube videos for instructions on how to perform these exercises.
Front Thigh Roll and Shake
Sit with your back against the wall and one leg extended straight out in front of you. Take the rolling pin and apply pressure into the middle of your front thigh midway between your kneecap and hip joint. Begin rolling back and forth with the rolling pin for about 30 to 45 seconds while maintaining the pressure. Stop what you’re doing and place both hands on the muscles you’ve been rolling and give them a good shake to the left and right for about 15 seconds.
Back Thigh Roll and Shake
Kneel on the floor or stand with one foot on a chair with your knee bent 90 degrees. Take the rolling pin and apply pressure into the middle of your back thigh midway between your butt and the pit of your knee. Begin rolling back and forth with the rolling pin for about 30 to 45 seconds while maintaining the pressure. Stop what you’re doing and place both hands on the muscles you’ve been rolling and give it a good shake to the left and right for about 15 seconds.
Calf Roll and Shake
Kneel on the floor or stand with one foot on a chair with your knee bent 90 degrees. Place a weight, block, or ball one to three inches thick under your heel. Take the rolling pin and apply pressure into the middle of your calf midway between your heel and the pit of your knee. Begin rolling back and forth with the rolling pin for about 30 to 45 seconds while maintaining the pressure. Stop what you’re doing and place both hands on the muscles you’ve been rolling and give it a good shake to the left and right for about 15 seconds.
5-day self-myofascial massage challenge
Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day self-myofascial massage challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform the self-myofascial massage techniques immediately after any leg exercises including walking or running. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.