Adequate recovery is key to performance, but what exactly should it involve? And how can you minimise the dreaded post-exercise muscle soreness?
If you've ever felt sore or stiff the next day or the second day after an activity, you are certainly not alone. This is technically known as “delayed onset muscle soreness” or in physio slang “DOMS”. It develops 24-48 hours after unaccustomed high-intensity physical activity and is often worse if your activity involved a lot of eccentric exercises (when the muscles lengthen during load) such as downhill running.
What actually happens to the muscles fibers is they undergo some micro-trauma or micro-tears and hence result in pain/soreness. The muscles act pretty rapidly, as they get worried you are going to do this again to them and start to work to prevent muscle damage. If you train regularly and gradually increase your load, you will start to experience it less.
Back in the day, they used to say that stretching before or after your activity may help decrease DOMS, but current evidence doesn’t support this. There is some evidence though, for the use of compression garments in particular worn after activity in decreasing soreness, you may have even heard of some athletes sleeping in them the night after to assist with recovery.
The best approach to minimise soreness is to wean into increasing your load. As a guideline, we often use the 10% rule, for example, with running increase your distance by 10% only each week. This will not only help decrease your likeliness of DOMS but also help decrease your risk of overuse injuries (see my Injury Prevention blog).
In regard to maximising recovery overall, we still encourage an appropriate warm up/cool down, use of ice or ice baths, massage and adequate rest. In regard to the use of ice, the current evidence reports the main effect of ice is to decrease nerve conduction velocity, which in turns helps decrease pain & swelling and to achieve this we aim for a tissue temperature of 5-10 degrees.
They have found the best way to achieve this temperature is using crushed or cubed ice. The old trick of using a bag frozen peas has been found not quite as effective as they only get the temp down to around 13, but if this is all you have on hand it will, of course, be better than nothing. For recovery, I would recommend applying ice to the specific joints that were loaded during the activity, for example with running- knees & ankles or throwing- shoulder & elbow and I particularly like the LP Support ice bags with wrap that allow you to ice the joint while leaving your hands free to do other things.