Sometimes the aches and pains we feel after exercise are a healthy burn. Like some kind of reassuring afterglow; you can bask in the feeling that you’re getting stronger and fitter.
Other times (usually when you’ve overdone it), the pain is just downright agony. If you’ve ever literally hobbled around like the walking-wounded, struggled to sit down comfortably, or woken up wondering how on earth you’re going to raise yourself from your bed, you know what I’m talking about. In this article, we’re going to look at why this happens and what you can do to stop aching as soon as possible
Why am I aching after doing sport?
The reason that you ache is due to something called delayed onset muscle soreness (‘DOMS’), which is common when you’re doing a new exercise program, changing your routine, or just overdoing it trying to play the sport of your choice.
Technically, what happens is that by pushing your muscles beyond their usual workload, you cause microscopic damage to the muscle fibres, which results in soreness or stiffness. This microscopic damage is nothing to worry about; it’s just the process by which we build and strengthen our muscles. It’s the classic “no pain, no gain” in action.
The problem with DOMS is that at the moment you’re doing the exercise you won’t feel it striking (hence the ‘delayed’ part of the name) . In many cases, you might feel magnificent right after the game, but DOMS will be lurking nearby, ambushing you the next morning when you wake up feeling like you’ve been the subject of a nasty physical assault.
Why recovery is important
Most obviously, the faster you can recover the sooner the pain is going to go away. If you’ve really overdone it, you’re going to be in a considerable amount of pain over the next 2 or 3 days as you gently sob into your hands and mutter “make it stop, make it stop” (or is that just me?).
Recovery is really important: it is the process where muscle and tissue repair takes place. It’s where strength builds and you fortify yourself for your next attempt. If you don’t recover properly before exerting yourself again, this can lead to tissue breakdown and possible injury. For a full guide on recovery, check out this article on maximising your rest and recovery.
There are two things you need to concentrate on in your post-game eating:
- Carbohydrates: these replace your glycogen (energy) stores that will have been used during the game. They can be replaced with simple carbohydrates (more sugary carbs, like sports drinks, sweets, fruit) as these are quickly absorbed by the body. You should take on at least 50g of carbohydrate in the 1-2 hours post exercise, beginning as soon as possible.
- Protein: This is essential to repair your muscles. FIFA’s own nutritional guidelines* suggest that an intake of small amounts, approximately 20-25g of high quality protein, enhances your body’s growth and repair during the recovery period.
If you want to know exactly how you can do that, simply, easily and affordably, check out our guide to post-game nutrition.
Your body will have lost fluid through sweat, so it is important that you top-up after exercise. Water removes toxins from the body and improves every bodily function so it’s important that you get properly hydrated.
Roughly, for every kg of weight lost in a game, you would need to drink between 1.2-1.5 litres of fluid as replacement. Assuming you’re not going to go to the trouble of weighing yourself before and after, just drink what feels comfortable – when your urine runs almost clear, you’re hydrated again.
A muscle needs anything between 24 and 48 hours of rest in order to repair its self. Your body is capable of some amazing repair jobs, so back off, let it do its thing and don’t stress it out.
That means not launching back into exercising too soon – definitely not within 72 hours if you’re really aching. When you’re in a lot of pain, playing isn’t even going to be an option, but it’s not the only thing you need to watch out for. Avoid anything too strenuous, even if it’s just running for your train the next morning (trust me, it doesn’t do you any good).
4. Active Recovery
Some moderate movement can help the healing process. You might think this contradicts the advice given to rest, but we’re talking here about gentle movement, which simply helps improve circulation, promotes nutrient and waste product transport through the body and could help muscles repair sooner.
What you do as your ‘active recovery’ will depend on what sort of pain you’re in, but think low intensity: so, that’s activities like swimming, walking or jogging. Professional football teams have been known to do active recovery days where they take a leisurely cycle, for example.
While you’re sleeping your body is busy completing cycles of muscle repair and recovery. During sleep your body creates natural spikes of human growth hormone, testosterone and melatonin, all of which help with the reproduction and regeneration of cells within the body. Tissue repairs faster when we’re asleep than at any other time.
One of the most common misunderstandings about recovery is thinking that a cool-down including some stretching will help reduce your aching. In fact there is no evidence for this.
But just hold on a minute there, that’s not just an excuse to run straight to the bar after a game. There is still a lot of value in doing a cool-down, including some stretching. It might not help ease the aches from the damage that has already been done, but stretching helps reduce muscle tension and reduced imbalances which may help you avoid problems in the future. Check out this article for an easy cool-down routine with 5 simple stretches.
7. Cut Alcohol
Speaking of heading to the bar after a game, the reality is that alcohol can impair your body’s ability to recover. If you’re having more than one or two drinks then the research suggests that this is going to delay your recovery. Still, there’ s no need to miss out on the all-important social aspect of having a drink after the game, it just might mean that yours is an orange juice this time around.
Professional players will have massages after the game. This removes tension, improves circulation and allows them to fully relax – all helpful to the healing process.
If you can afford a sports massage then great. If, however, you’re on more of a budget then it’s well worth checking out the joys of self-massage (no, that’s not a smutty euphemism, behave). All you need to get is a foam roller, equip yourself with a few exercises then away you go. Check out this list for a basic intro and list of self-massage techniques if it sounds like it could be for you.
9. Ice bath / contrast therapy
Again, another tip that is popularly practice by the pros is taking an ice (or at least very cold) bath. It’s backed by science and explained well, including how you can do it in your own home, in this article on Runnersconnect.
Another technique that you might come across is ‘contrast water therapy’ (CWT). This one is quite tough to do, but studies have showed that CWT resulted in significantly greater improvements in muscle soreness and reduced strength loss compared to passive recovery (see Bieuzen, Bleakley, and Joseph, 2013). Check out this page if you want to know how you can do CWT in your own home (courtesy of painscience.com).
Studies have shown that compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage (see Hill et al 2013). These days you can get affordable compression garments in anything from focussed calf compression sleeves* to full length compression tights*. Wearing these after exercise could help you recover sooner, even if it’s not doing anything for your look.
11. Stay within your limits
Heavy aching comes from instances of overexerting yourself. Most often this happens when you have had a period of not playing football for a while, then you enthusiastically return for your first game resulting in a lot of aching over the following days. If you can, try to ease yourself in gently, bit by bit. However, the fact that you’ve come to this page for advice probably means that it’s too late for that.
But there’s good news for you. The aching you’re feeling now is your muscles getting used to the new demands you’re putting on them. Over time, as your body adjusts and strengthens to these requirements, the aching should reduce significantly in future.
What’s your top tip for reducing aching after exercise?