Posted on December 03 2019
Regardless of what type of cyclist you are, muscle soreness can creep in following intense or prolonged exercise and unfamiliar sporting movements. Surprisingly, however, the exact causes of muscle soreness, as well as the best ways to prevent and manage it, are still heavily debated by scientific researchers.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) usually begins 6–12 hours post-exercise, with pain levels peaking 48–72 hours after your workout and lasting up to 5–7 days. In addition to local muscle soreness, physically demanding bouts of cycling can also result in reduced range of motion and impaired function of your joints. DOMS is generally associated with impaired muscle contraction and reduced muscle force capacity, meaning that it is not only uncomfortable, but also detrimental to cycling performance.
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
DOMS is the result of a two-phase physiological process. The first phase occurs during exercise as your body carries out intense and/or repeated muscle contractions. During this phase, microscopic damage to both muscle and connective tissue occurs. At the same time, extensive exercise results in the loss of fluids and electrolyte balance, as well as the depletion of glycogen stores (glycogen provides much of the energy required for muscle contraction).
The second phase of DOMS plays a larger role in the development of inflammation, swelling and muscle pain. Chemical signals from damaged muscle trigger the start of an inflammatory response. As a result, white blood cells and fluid from the bloodstream accumulate in the area surrounding damaged muscles (swelling). Nerve fibres in the area also become more sensitive, leading to muscle pain from the swelling and whenever the muscles are touched.
How to Treat Intense Muscle Soreness
In order to design an effective strategy for reducing muscle soreness it’s important to remember that inflammation is a critical player in the process of muscle growth and repair. With this in mind, it’s best to focus on improving the recovery process rather than simply masking the pain and swelling (such as through the use of anti-inflammatory drugs).
Since enhancing muscle recovery is a modern line of sports science research, there is still no clear-cut method that guarantees better results than others. However, some of the more effective strategies are summarised below.
Diet and Nutritional Supplementation
- Protein & Protein Supplements: When it comes to muscle recovery, protein consumption has been in the spotlight for decades. The reason being that protein consumption enhances protein synthesis, the process by which muscles are built and repaired. While it’s true that supplementing your diet with extra protein helps build muscle, there is limited scientific evidence to suggest that it can reduce muscle damage and muscle soreness after exercise. More studies will be required to determine the beneficial effects of post-race protein intake for cyclists. Nevertheless, consuming protein is considered safe and can, in theory, help you deal with DOMS.
- Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): BCAAs are a form of protein that is mainly used by muscles. Studies have shown that BCAAs can be effective in reducing muscle damage and pain levels in endurance athletes. The ideal dose and timing (pre- or post-race) is still a matter of contention. Like protein supplements, BCAAs are thought to work by increasing protein synthesis.
- Antioxidants: Fruits and vegetables contain a great variety of nutrients with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Blackcurrant extract (containing anthocyanins), tart cherry juice (containing anthocyanins), pomegranate juice (containing ellagitannins), watermelon juice (containing citrulline), bromelain (derived from pineapple) and beetroot juice (containing betalains and nitrates) have all been shown to reduce muscle soreness and/or decrease signs of muscle damage following exercise. These products are all considered safe and may provide beneficial effects when consumed prior to cycling and during post-exercise recovery.
Cold Water Immersion
Cold-water immersion therapy is commonly used by athletes to reduce DOMS. Studies have shown that the best results can be obtained at water temperatures of 11–15°C and with immersion times of 11–15 minutes. Importantly, it appears to be most effective in improving recovery from whole-body endurance exercises, which includes sports like cycling and triathlon. Researchers have suggested that cold-water immersion works through reducing tissue temperature and blood flow, limiting inflammation and cell damage, aiding the removal of waste products and compressing the muscle.
Massage is thought to improve muscle recovery both on a physiological and psychological level. Researchers have proposed that massage can reduce muscle soreness, relieve muscle tension and increase range of motion by elevating muscle temperature, increasing blood and lymphatic flow, and enhancing the activity of parasympathetic nerves (this decreases your heart rate and relaxes involuntary muscles). In turn, massage promotes a psychological state of relaxation and reduces fatigue. The psychological effect may be even greater than the physiological effect when it comes to reducing muscle soreness.
Since massage can become quite expensive and time consuming, the use of foam rollers has gained popularity as an affordable and time-efficient alternative. Foam rolling enables athletes to apply pressure to specific areas of musculature using their own body weight. The combination of “direct” and “sweeping” pressure stretches soft tissue and creates friction (heat) between the skin and the foam roller. Importantly, several lines of research indicate that it is an effective way to reduce the sensation of muscle pain.
The use of compression garments during post-exercise recovery has gained momentum in recent years. Although studies have shown mixed results, beneficial effects have been observed on muscle recovery, muscle strength and muscle function. No consensus has been reached on the ideal design (shape and material) of the compression garment or the optimal application time and pressure, so it comes down to a matter of personal preference.
After high-performance cycling, a low-intensity active recovery is recommended. Researchers have argued that active regeneration may alleviate pain through various mechanisms. These include breaking down adhesions (scar tissue that forms when muscle and connective tissue are injured), removing waste products (for example, lactic acid, which builds up during exercise) through increased blood flow to the muscles, and increasing the level of endorphins in your circulation.
In addition to the fact that adequate sleep is necessary for optimal physical and mental performance, sleep is also vital to the post-exercise recovery process. Sleep deprivation affects your hormone balance and impairs protein synthesis (an important process in muscle repair and growth). Sleep deprivation can result in poorer muscle recovery and the blunting of training adaptations.
Don’t Rely on Pain Relievers
Avoid reliance on anti-inflammatory drugs or other pain relievers to get through a workout in the midst of DOMS recovery. However tempting to reach for the bottle of these drugs to help deal with DOMS, anti-inflammatories can do more harm than good. Instead of solving the problem, these drugs simply mask it, allowing the possibility of more damage.
How to Decide Which Approach is Best For You
As you can see, the best approach to reducing muscle soreness after you cycle depends upon a multitude of factors – there is no one “silver bullet”.
Finally, it’s important to remember that everyone will respond differently to the methods described above. Some people may receive greater benefits from cold-water immersion than others. Some people may not respond well to massage.
The take-home message is that finding the best approach to reducing muscle soreness will require some trial and error. It's also advisable to combine several approaches at the same time.
Support your active lifestyle both on and off the bike.
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About the Author
Jeremy Braude is a health and fitness writer with a PhD in molecular sciences, and has written this article exclusively for Après Vélo. Jeremy explores the evolutionary biology of making better lifestyle choices and optimising exercise performance. You can find more of his work on The Industrial Evolution.