Exercise smarter and eat better to avoid life-limiting muscle aches after workouts

After anyone’s first workout in a long time, there’s likely to be some muscle soreness. And that’s okay, says kinesiologist, personal trainer and strength coach Dr. Joel Seedman. Workouts create a series of microtraumas to the muscles. These microtraumas are tiny tears to the muscle fibers. The resulting healing process helps the muscles come back stronger, and repeating the process increases those gains.

For most people, the soreness will never exceed a day or two, Seedman says. One to two days of soreness is an acceptable level. But there’s a scarier side to muscle damage caused by workouts, and it’s often brought on by working out too much too quickly.

For others, an extreme soreness sets in, the kind of muscle trauma that impairs body function and mobility for days. In the worst cases, the process of breaking down muscle tissue becomes something even more dangerous — rhabdomyolysis. This serious condition takes place when myoglobin leaks away from damaged muscle tissues. It contains toxic materials, but the kidneys can typically process them without incident. However, in extreme events, the kidneys sometimes can’t keep up and the accumulation can cause cell death or worse.

Seedman says rhabdomyolysis is rare, noting one or two extreme cases per year. But the kind of problematic soreness that stops people from moving around much — and often stops them from going back to the gym — is far more common.

“It’s not a pleasant thing. It can take a lot out of you,” he says.

This kind of advanced muscle soreness happens to novices, but it can also occur in serious weightlifters who take a little time off and come back thinking they can push through the pain. Seedman says he sees overwork conditions most frequently immediately following New Year’s resolutions and right before spring break, when people try to get in shape in a hurry.

“They chase that soreness factor. They think it’s helping them,” Seedman says.

In fact, research shows that the damage that creates soreness for more than two days may actually cause atrophy and weaken the muscle tissue.

The good news is these kinds of injuries are preventable with some patience, an emphasis on complementary nutrition and excellent form, Seedman says. The principle behind this fix is called the repeated bout effect. In other words, if a person repeats a motion, and their body knows how to process it, the damaging effects of excess soreness will be limited. Seedman says the best way to build to this level is to spend the first two sessions at the gym after a long time away doing the motions at 60- 70 percent of maximum effort. The scaled-back exercise will build a readiness for further, more intense exercise.

For the nutrition element, Seedman says a balanced diet helps. Carbohydrates from whole grains yield the energy needed in the gym. A bit of healthy fats help regulate hormones, which play a critical role in telling a body when to heal. And proteins provide the materials the body uses to repair damaged muscles.

The third of the elements, the form used to complete the exercise, is only more recently coming into focus. It’s something Seedman is passionate about, and is a focus of his professional research. In short, when someone uses poor mechanics, the wrong parts of the muscle engage, leading to excessive soreness. “The muscles are not in an ideal position to absorb force,” Seedman says.

Together, easing into a routine, eating well and using the correct form go a long way toward protecting against excessive soreness. But in the event someone does hit the weights a little too hard, Seedman recommends something that sounds counterintuitive. He suggests going back to the gym and doing the same soreness-inducing exercises but at 50 percent of the level that caused the muscle breakdown.

“After 10 minutes, you’ll feel the blood flow back, and it will help. One of the worst things you can do is have excessive rest,” Seedman says. Swimming and biking are also good to help get people moving again. Additionally, the application of ice, using a foam roller and drinking lots of water to flush away toxins can aid in recovery.

An hour-long workout should do the trick for those in recovery mode or hoping to move up to heavier weights. The goal is always to allow for adaptation to the new exercise (or new weight threshold), recovery from that session and finally regeneration through rest and nutrition.

There will always be a temptation to try too much, too fast. But pushing too hard is the wrong approach.

“We want to stimulate the body, not annihilate it,” Seedman says.