Why do I ache so much after exercise?
Aah January. At this time of year, we feel our love/hate relationship with exercise more than ever. The feeling of desperately needing to move after two weeks of doing nothing but eating selection boxes and binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race is real—for our sanity, if nothing else—is firmly setting in, but the struggle of getting back on the bike or in the pool is real. Whether you’re a regular gym bunny or it’s your first time on the track, if it’s been a while you’re bound to feel the burn after that first workout—or any tough workout, for that matter. Which is all the more off-putting. But what actually causes it, and where’s the line between pain and gain?
Well, the official medical term for it is DOMS, aka Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It’s cause by the tearing of tiny fibres in your muscles, which might feel like a bad thing, but it’s actually what makes you stronger. As the fibres repair themselves they naturally strengthen, which is what builds endurance. Muscles also have a kind of ‘memory’ which means the more you move and exert yourself in a certain way, the quicker the fibres will be to repair themselves as your body gets used to the activity, a bit like a sped-up version of evolution: the more you do something, the more your body adapts to enable you to do it. It’s why your fitness increases—and rapidly, if you’re usually a couch potato. Which is pretty cool, right?
But it’s hard to remember that when you find yourself struggling to walk down the stairs the day after a tough workout. While it’s totally normal to feel a dull ache after using a muscle you maybe haven’t in a while and usually goes away after a few days on its own, there are things you can do to help alleviate the pain. Have a nice hot bath to help ease aching muscles (the heat literally loosens them up, following contraction during exercise), and be sure to get lots of rest and drink plenty of water to rehydrate—drink plenty of water before and during exercise too, for that matter.
While it may be the last thing you want to do, doing some light exercise can actually relieve soreness and help loosen you up, so if you’re up to it definitely go for that walk or swim. Like anything, though, prevention is better than cure. Eating the right foods before and after exercise helps, too.
If you’re like me, you don’t need to be told to eat something carb-y a few hours before exercise—I literally feel like passing out if I don’t (and am an absolute pasta monster anyway)—but it is a good idea. Unless you’re running a half marathon I’m not suggesting you eat a tray of pasta bake, tempting though it may be, but having a banana or a handful of nuts ensures your body has the energy and capability to get through it. Post-exercise, it’s all about protein, which helps those fibres repair, so tucking into lean meats such as chicken or fish, or even cooking up some eggs on toast, is a good idea. Making sure you warm up and down properly, and not pushing yourself too much too quickly, is important too.
Like anything, if your pain is intense (ie seriously restricts your movement) or doesn’t go after a week, you should probably see your doctor. Listen to your body; you know when something’s not right, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. That said, don’t let it put you off—remember, the more you do it, the easier it will get!