What Causes Muscle Soreness And How Can Athletes Reduce It?

What Causes Muscle Soreness And How Can Athletes Reduce It?


Exercise induced muscle damage is caused when an athlete is subjected to unusually intense training such has heavy weight training. The athlete will be unaccustomed to the weight training sessions and their body is yet to adapt. The damage results in muscle soreness, stiffness and the sensation of feeling slower during proceeding sessions (Ebbeling & Clarkson, 1989).


What happens to the body after muscle damage is caused from heavy strength sessions?

Physical reactions proceeding heavy strength session vary. Most common is muscle soreness called delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). Athletes will feel pain but have also reported feeling stiff and tight around joint areas (Armstrong, 1984). Muscles can also swell due to the damage caused. Finally power and the reactions of an athlete can be significantly reduced for up to three days after a session (Twist & Eston, 2005).



The mechanisms that cause muscle damage during heavy strength sessions

During training sessions, exercises such as heavy back squats and bench press will be completed. Whilst performing these exercises muscles lengthen (eccentric) and shorten (concentric). Muscle damage primarily comes from muscle lengthening during an exercise (Byrnes & Clarkson, 1986). Fast twitch muscle fibres are more prone to muscle damage than slow twitch (Mchugh, Connolly, Eston, Gleim, 1999). There are several potential reasons why muscle damage occurs, however research is not conclusive.

Some research suggests that primary damage is caused by restricted blood flow or oxygen to the working muscle. The higher the intensity of the running session the greater the muscle damage however, Schwane, Vandenakker, Armstrong, (1983) found that subjects running downhill with a lower metabolic demand had more muscle damage than athletes running uphill with a higher metabolic demand therefore it is unlikely to be the cause. Another potential cause is mechanical damage caused by the forced placed on the muscle when lifting heavy weights. During the muscle lengthening stage, force will damage and overstretch the actual fibres (Gregory, Morgan & Proske, 2004). Lastly some research states that the muscle becomes damaged so much it causes its content to leak out into the blood stream and creates an inflammatory response (Belcastro, Shewchuk & Raj, 1998).

Questioning why an athlete should go through this type of training if it causes a loss in short term performance is understanding. Strength and conditioning coaches continuously try and vary training to elicit reactions like muscle damage, so that the body may recover and importantly adapt to become stronger and more powerful (Hortobagyi, 1996). Only when the body is forced to adapt will an athlete see performance improvements.

Effects on performance

After heavy strength sessions, muscle soreness can reduce aerobic performance between 24-72 hours therefore most heavy lifting will be completed no closer than two-three days before a game. Athletes however need to expect not to be at their optimum for every field based session. It is recommended that strength sessions should be followed by more tactically focused field based sessions that are low in intensity.

Example training week (women’s football), which includes recovery strategies (session based on a high level athlete, in season programming)

Training Week


Strategies to reduced muscle damage post heavy strength workouts

There are many strategies to help recover from heavy strength sessions. None are miracle cures alone, but it is highly recommended that all of the following should be implemented into a daily and weekly training regime. Branch Amino Acids (BCAA) can easily be bought from any health food shop or online. Taken before training they are said to reduce muscle soreness (Leahy & Pintauro, 2013).



Post training massage has also been proven to provide benefits in reducing muscle soreness (Smith, 1994). Ice baths reduce the inflammatory response when muscle fibres are damaged. Recommendations range from immediately post exercise cold water and ice, or just cold water for around 10-15 minutes (Bailey, et al., 2007). More successful studies recommend colder temperatures of around 5° degrees (Eston & Cleak, 1992).

Active recovery, such as a low intensity swimming, has been shown to reduce muscle soreness (Dawson, Gow, Modra, Bishop, & Stewart, 2005). Finally a simple meal, which includes protein and carbohydrate, will help recovering muscles restore damaged cells (Burke, Louks, Broad, 2006). 


Completing training that is novel to the body is essential for adaptation and subsequently performance enhancement. Muscle damage and therefore soreness, loss of short term speed and stiffness is an inevitable part of training during parts of the season. Strength and conditioners will plan sessions with tailored progression over a period of months to develop an athlete. It is important to progress slowly if an athlete is a novice to strength and conditioning to avoid injury.

Recovery from heavy strength sessions is an essential element of an athlete’s programming. Always implement several strategies and do not rely on one method. Make recovery a habit and stick to it!



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