A hard workout can be exhilarating and do wonders to increase your strength and endurance, but the post-workout muscle “burn,” which typically peaks at between 24 and 72 hours after exercise can have an impact on your workout routine.  Sore muscles are an inevitable result of exercising strenuously enough to build muscle.

Contrary to what many people believe, lactic acid is not the culprit in post-workout muscle soreness.  Lactic acid is what is produced during the workout itself when you feel that burning sensation in your muscles.  When your body is working at its greatest capacity, your muscles are not able to get enough oxygen to convert food to energy, causing lactic acid to be produced and built up in the muscle, leading to that burning feeling.  However, tests done on the lactic acid content in muscles immediately after exercise has ceased shows that the lactic acid is quickly cleared from the system, so this is not what causes the soreness after your workout.

Instead, post-workout soreness is due to many small micro-tears in the muscle itself.  This is a natural process that the body undergoes in order to build more muscle.  The technical term for this muscle tenderness is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).  For the two or three days it takes for your body to repair the muscle (and in the process build more muscle), you are likely to feel sore and less able to work out to your greatest capacity.  This is why endurance athletes often design a workout routine where they have one vigorous workout interspersed with a couple of days of rest or light workouts.  This gives their muscles adequate time to heal and build.

Although stretching before a workout is a good idea, it will not reduce your likelihood of experiencing DOMS.  The best way to reduce post-workout muscle soreness is to build up gradually to a higher workout level.  In most cases, however, it’s unfortunately a “no pain, no gain” situation, and it is only by causing some minor muscle damage that you can really build muscle.

Some ways in which you can minimize the pain from your strenuous workout include treating yourself to a massage, icing the muscles, stretching, doing yoga and taking anti-inflammatory pain relievers such as ibuprofen.  It is also important to stay active between strenuous workouts.  Complete rest will only put you back at square one and you will lose the benefits you worked so hard to gain.  Light exercise such as walking or swimming for no more than 30 minutes a day will improve circulation to your muscles, allowing them to recover more quickly.