No Pain, No Gain?
You’ve finally started to exercise; you’re full of hope and enthusiasm; and, as expected, you are experiencing some aches and pains after your workout. But you notice, after a few days, the pain is not subsiding and you realise this isn’t the normal delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) normally felt in the days following a hard workout. (It’s day seven and the pain just isn’t going away.) This pain may be a sign that you have an injury and not DOMS. But then, what is the difference between DOMS and pain?
To answer this question we must first look at what actually happens when we exercise. Everywhere we turn we hear that exercise is good for us, helping to regulate glucose, insulin and leptin, improve heart function, mood and sleep; but the process our muscles go through to adapt is often overlooked. Muscles are the structures responsible for movement and posture and therefore a key element to our overall fitness and abilities.
A healthy body requires healthy muscles and exercise is how we achieve the best from our bodies. During exercise there is an increased blood flow to the muscles to help supply oxygen (aerobic) which is required to produce the energy the muscles require to work. When the muscle work exceeds the oxygen supplied, our muscles begin to work anaerobically, which leads to the production and buildup of lactic acid. If the body is not able to keep up with the demands of the muscles, fatigue can set in. Working a muscle can also cause microtrauma (small tears) to the muscle fibres but it is this process that leads to the increase in muscle bulk, as these small tears lead to the formation of new fibres that are larger and stronger.
Delayed onset muscle soreness is an achy painful feeling experienced after vigorous or strenuous exercise and usually lasts between 24-72 hours. Have you ever had that great feeling after exercise, only to wake up unable to move and then, once moving, unable to stop? Pain from an injury may start during a workout or immediately after, often described as a sharp sensation and, although aggravated by movement, can also be present at rest. With an injury you may also be able to pinpoint the area of pain and even notice local swelling but with DOMS, the pain and discomfort may be widespread and felt in the muscles of the arms or legs, and although inflammation may be present, it is not easily observed.
An injury may be the result of a sprain or strain, whereas it is thought that DOMS is the result of small tears in the muscle caused by a workout, but there are those who doubt this explanation. However, we do know that exercising muscles causes small tears and this is how our muscles grow and strengthen. There are many theories that try to explain the presence of pain and stiffness in DOMS: • Microtrauma to the muscles causes the stimulation and activation of the pain sensors in muscles causing the sensation of pain. • Calcium collects in the damaged muscle causing a reaction that leads to inflammation, resulting in pain. • The build-up of lactic acid, a toxic waste product, was once thought to be the reason for DOMS. This theory has been scientifically disproved and it is now known that lactic acid clears from the system within an hour after exercise and therefore has no bearing on pain.
Another significant difference is duration and intensity. Pain from DOMS will gradually decrease and sometimes even eases as we move around, stretch or do a light exercise routine. But pain from an injury can be aggravated and increase when doing these same activities.
As we progress through our exercise programme the DOMS significantly reduces and recovery often takes less time. The key to avoiding this problem is to plan a graduated exercise programme that allows you to adapt slowly. So, don’t give up but err on the side of caution when starting an exercise routine. No pain, no gain is not always the best way.
Are we supposed to hold this position for two seconds or two minutes?