View Full Version : DOMS and muscle repair

Daniel Olmstead
08-29-2008, 12:48 PM
I recently came off a 9-day vacation that I took as a full rest break, my first in nearly a year. It was very nice. I gained about 5-6 pounds, not all of it fat, which I found pretty remarkable as that was about as much as I'd managed to gain in the ~6 weeks before that (I'm skinny and am trying to be less so).

Then I came back to Murph, which is perhaps not the best WOD to welcome you back from a long break. Murph gave me one of the worst cases of DOMS I've had, and it's gotten me thinking (as I totter around) a lot about something Mike O'Donnell and others keep hammering home: don't work too often. Rest more.

Since starting Crossfit, I find I work through soreness a lot. I've just toughed it out, but this morning I was wondering about the physiology of what that's actually doing. Since you guys are the smartest folks I know of when it comes to cellular-level science, I was hoping maybe you could help a layman out.

Now, as I understand it, muscle soreness is due to micro-tears in the muscle fiber, brought on by forcing muscles to do more than they are comfortably capable of. This is ultimately desirable, as it sends the message to the body that more muscle is needed. So is the cycle then workout -> microtrauma -> repair -> growth? If so, what happens if you work through soreness (ie, before the body has finished with "repair" and moved on to "growth")? Are you just tearing and taping the same sheet of paper over and over again, or does the body compensate with a higher quality of muscle fiber (ie, tougher), rather than a higher quantity?

I guess what I'm wondering is this: is there any benefit to pushing through soreness, or is it just plain stupid? Is it good in moderation, bad in excess? What's actually happening when you do it? If it is bad, how long should you wait before stressing the muscles again - until it's completely gone and then some, or just wait until it's abating?

If you could draw a clearer picture, I'd appreciate it. I think I'm finally coming to terms with the need to rest more, but I'm not sure how best to go about it. Thanks.

Steven Low
08-29-2008, 04:32 PM
Now, as I understand it, muscle soreness is due to micro-tears in the muscle fiber, brought on by forcing muscles to do more than they are comfortably capable of. This is ultimately desirable, as it sends the message to the body that more muscle is needed. So is the cycle then workout -> microtrauma -> repair -> growth?

This is true. Now can you figure out the answer for yourself? Well if not, (think about it some first) I'll provide it for ya. ;)

Highlight with mouse for the answerzZZ

Okay, so we know that workout -> trauma to the muscles (specifically disruption of contractile proteins, membranes, etc. as well as various cytokine and hormonal response) -> repair -> growth is true.

There's a few studies (which I can't find the links to anymore unfortunately) where I remember that protein synthesis is elevated approximately 48-72 hours after a workout. Some articles state it takes about 7-14 days for "fatigue" to full dissipate to fully see strength gains from workouts. So compare this to soreness which is generally most prevalent 24 hrs to about 72 hours but can continue on for nearly up to 7-10+ days if it's bad enough. Pretty much near similar.

At the physiological level, if someone works out when the muscles are not fully repaired as you know they tend to have decreased strength and endurance due to such disruptions of said contractile proteins and membranes as they would be concurrently repaired. Thus, more damage would accrue and push the muscles further towards destruction possibly to the point of rhabdo. Now, this can be mitigated for instance by some things like massage (help speed up blood flow and processing of metabolites/cytokines from the area), proper hydration, etc.

Indeed, some types of exercise for example cause more damage than others. Eccentrics, for example, are notably one of the types of exercise that cause more muscular damage than concentric and isometric applications. This is one of the reason why Oly lifting can be trained very often multiple times a day like on a Bulgarian cycle as opposed to other forms of intense exercise. This is most likely one of the large factors in whether workouts can cause enough damage (usually to unconditioned people) to cause rhabdo such as GHD situps or jumping pullups and the like... so be careful with any eccentric work especially when sore or deconditioned.

Basically, to boil it down to a few simple points for you to practically apply I'd say these are the factors you should look at:

1. The workout MAY exceed your body's ability to recover, but not more than would push you into the rhabdo range. This depends pretty much on your conditioning -- if you're coming off a long break or if it's an extremely intense workout above your level it is NOT a good idea. If you're sore in the middle of a PMenu planned cycle but have pretty good conditioning/work capacity it will generally be fine. Thus, your current conditioning level will dictate your ability to perform another workout when sore.

2. If the soreness is fairly debilitating even if you have good conditioning, I would argue that it is not a good idea. Debilitating soreness is generally indicative of pretty extensive muscle disruption/damage bordering rhabdo-like. Therefore, if there is any doubt whether you did too much, it is better to rest than to go. Most people experienced with exercise will be able to know when they need rest or not... but it's mostly the people who cannot discern their body's condition (aka new people just getting into CF) who are the ones that do too much and get rhabdo.

3. If the workout includes extensive use of eccentric movements especially those in a range of motion you have never worked before or have rarely worked. AVOID like the plague. These eccentric movements may be blended into something like GHD situps... so be wary to analyze each movement with care before doing.

4. If the workout involves ONLY strength, I would say that you should generally be able to do it with soreness. There is not much heavy eccentric work that you're going to be damaging your muscles unless you're doing something insanely stupid like 10x10. Most you should be doing is probably 5x5 or less. If it's something high rep metcon/HIIT/tabata I would NOT do that especially in combination with #2 or #3.

And yes, rhabdo can occur over multiple workouts... not just one bad one.


That said, I tend to like to work through the soreness a lot because I know my limits. As you train more you should actively try to push your body so you can determine them (that and what tends to work best for you such as exercises, reps, etc.).. which is why it's important to keep a log.

P.S. Doing Murph after a break = horrible, horrible idea.

Garrett Smith
08-29-2008, 06:05 PM
I personally loved one of Dave's old post quotes on soreness:
Failure like soreness is an overrated element of training. Occasional forays won't kill you but it's not very productive.

Same thing but to a lessor degree with soreness. Soreness is like the weather. Don't pay too much attention to it. Don't pursue it but don't avoid it either.

+1 to this from Steve:
P.S. Doing Murph after a break = horrible, horrible idea.

Some of the CF WODs (like Murph) can be a perfect prescription for extreme soreness and/or rhabdo, particularly after a significant break. Take a well-conditioned person who is accustomed to CF-style exercise discomfort, give them a long exercise break, throw them back into one of the longest WODs around like Murph, you've got a problem on your hands.

To do CF, one has to train through soreness. One cannot run a 10K once every 2-3 months POSE style and then not expect their calves to be shredded for days afterward. Is that good or bad to train through? You make the call.

One last thought. The body only has so many resources for "recovery" to spread around. As Steven was saying in a more technical fashion, if your muscles are always sore (or new sore muscles are constantly overlapping or replacing previously sore muscles, this is common in CF WOD followers) then there are fewer resources to devote to "recovery" in any other part of your body--adrenals, liver, brain, etc. FWIW.

Daniel Olmstead
09-03-2008, 01:30 PM
P.S. Doing Murph after a break = horrible, horrible idea.

I realize that. Now.

Thanks for your responses, they're pretty much in line with what I was thinking.

One week later, I have pretty much recovered from the nightmare few days that came after that Murph. Man, it really messed me up, I think perhaps more than any other single workout I've done. There's a lesson learned.

Most days I have mild soreness somewhere from a recent workout. Usually it's nothing serious and actually kind of pleasant - a reminder that I have a healthy body, and it's working the way it should be. This kind of soreness is typically gone by the time I've completed my warmup, so I work through it.

Debilitating soreness, like the kind I enjoyed late last week - the kind that won't go away, that threatens to knock you down when you try to stand up - is a rare occurrence. I'll be sure to give this the rest it needs in the future, should it come up again (not that it gives me much choice, really).

Garrett Smith
09-03-2008, 04:57 PM
The lesson I learned is to always, always check the ego and scale when returning to full-blown WODs, whether you needed to before or not.

It is not smart to always do things at 100% effort. This became obvious to you, IMO, after this incident.