Oh, those achy, stiff muscles! The pain you feel every time you move is a gentle reminder that you worked your muscles harder than they are accustomed to. Despite its unpleasant nature, some people consider muscle soreness after a workout as a badge of honor, a sign they’ve worked their muscles hard and they’re one workout closer to being in shape. However you see it, we’d like to make that discomfort a little more bearable!
Post-workout muscle soreness is referred to as DOMS, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness. Most people develop it only after a workout their muscles are unaccustomed to. For example, you increase the resistance or volume of the exercises you do or add new ones. Most beginners experience it when they first start working out.
DOMS is more common after a workout that emphasizes eccentric muscle contractions, those that involve lengthening the muscle against resistance. The braking action the muscle is forced to use seems to damage the muscle fibers more than concentric contractions, those that involve shortening the muscle against resistance.
The symptoms of DOMS come on usually 24 to 48 hours after an unaccustomed workout and last for 3 to 4 days, sometimes up to a week. At that point, you won’t experience it again until you change your workout in some way. The way muscles adapt to repetitive exercise is called the repeated bout effect. The first time you do a new workout or increase the intensity, your muscles become sore, but when you repeat that same workout, you don’t develop soreness because your muscles have adapted.
There’s some evidence that certain dietary components may reduce the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness. For example, some herbs, like ginger and turmeric, may reign in post-workout muscle soreness, based on some studies, due to their anti-inflammatory effect. Caffeine, too, seems to lessen DOMS. But what about hydration? Can staying hydrated help reduce the severity of muscle soreness after a workout?
Does Mild Dehydration Worsen the Symptoms of DOMS?
Why might dehydration worsen DOMS? Research suggests that even mild dehydration can denature or alter the structure of proteins.
What does science say about dehydration and DOMS? In one study, researchers asked participants to walk on a treadmill in a hot, humid environment for 45 minutes. Then, the subjects rested for 45 minutes and did a 45-minute downhill run. Running downhill is a form of eccentric exercise, the type most likely to cause delayed onset muscle soreness. As expected, the participants experienced DOMS. However, the soreness was similar in those who were adequately hydrated and those with mild dehydration, equivalent to 2.7% loss of body mass.
But You Still Need to Hydrate!
Although it’s questionable whether mild dehydration worsens delayed onset muscle soreness when exercising in a relatively cool environment, hydration is critical for other reasons. Even mild dehydration, equivalent to a 2% loss of body mass, makes exercise feel harder. When you’re even mildly volume depleted, your heart has to work harder to pump blood and oxygen to your muscles and remove metabolic waste. Mild dehydration may also contribute to muscle cramps, although scientific evidence is sketchy on this, and lightheadedness or dizziness after a workout. You won’t feel or perform your best if you’re even mildly volume depleted.
What’s more, not rehydrating after a workout can lead to fatigue and headache that lingers for hours after a workout is over. The best way to monitor whether you’ve adequately replaced the fluids you lost during exercise is to weigh yourself before and after a workout. For every pound you’re down post-workout, drink 24 ounces of fluids to help your body recover.
You can also gauge whether you’re dehydrated by looking at the color of your urine. It should be no darker than pale yellow. Darker urine suggests dehydration. If you want more precise information, you can buy a urine test strip at a local pharmacy. Look for one that gives you specific gravity. If your urine specific gravity, when you dip it, is 1.025 or greater, you’re dehydrated.
Just don’t count on thirst to be a reliable indicator. Thirst is a subjective sensation and studies show it isn’t a reliable indicator of hydration status in athletes. It can lead you astray.
The Bottom Line
It doesn’t appear that mild dehydration worsens delayed onset muscle soreness, although whether more severe dehydration does hasn’t been adequately studied. But, there are other drawbacks to being mildly dehydrated and you have to keep tabs on it since thirst isn’t a reliable indicator. If you feel excessively fatigued after a workout, have a headache or brain fog or feel slight dizziness or lightheadedness, it may be that you’re not drinking enough. Sometimes, we don’t place enough importance on hydration. When you’re in a hurry, it’s easy to forget to bring along a water bottle. Then, you get busy after your workout and fail to make up for fluid shortfalls. Drinking more fluids may not ward off delayed onset muscle soreness as much as you’d like but it can help you avoid feeling excessively tired and unmotivated.
When you hydrate after a workout, there is one type of beverage that may help you weather DOMS better. Studies suggest caffeine may modestly reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. The amount needed, based on the current research, is between 3 and 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For most people, around 2 cups of coffee is enough to offer benefits. Furthermore, if you drink caffeine before a workout, you may get modest performance benefits as well, especially for endurance exercise. So, if you enjoy coffee, have a cup or two after a workout. It might help reduce the achiness that goes along with a tough workout. Another reason to head to Starbucks!
· J Athl Train. 2006; 41(1): 36–45.
· J Athl Train. 2005 Oct-Dec; 40(4): 288–297.
· Sports Med Open. 2019 Dec; 5: 1. Published online 2019 Jan 7. doi: 10.1186/s40798-018-0176-6
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