There seem to be only two ways to avoid sore muscles. Either never exert yourself or keep every one of the more than 400 skeletal muscles in your body in top condition 365 days in the year. The first prospect is dismal; the second, virtually impossible. So it is just as well to understand what happens and what to do about muscle soreness.
Not so many years ago physiologists vaguely ascribed muscular soreness to slight damage, or simply left it unexplained. Like many commonplace ailments of no great gravity, sore muscles were a long time getting themselves investigated, and even now the entire process of what happens is not clear. But one thing is certain. Soreness from unaccustomed use is an entirely different thing from injury to muscle or tendon and has nothing at all to do with stretching, tearing, knotting, straining or battering a muscle. What makes your out-of-condition muscles feel sore is an upset in their chemistry. What makes them stop hurting is the ability of your body to rise to the occasion and cope with the chemical problem. It usually takes a little determination.
When your muscles go into action, they break down a chemical, impressively named adenosine triphosphate (ATP), to get their energy. The by-products of this wizardry in turn break into other chemicals, in a sort of chain reaction, with lactic acid as the end result. Lactic acid is both a villain and a hero; it recharges the chemical process but it can also stop it. When all is working well, about a fifth of the lactic acid is burned up, providing energy to start the reconversion of the remaining acid back to ATP—and more muscle energy. But when your muscles are called upon for prolonged, unaccustomed effort—36 holes of golf or spading the yard in one afternoon—all does not go well. More lactic acid is produced, and it accumulates faster than it can be used or removed. Eventually the acid "poisons" the muscle, leaving you with that pooped-out feeling. And though you sit down and rest, it takes quite a while for the accumulation of acid to be cleaned out. This is often why real soreness doesn't show up until the next day.
The classic remedy, and still the best one, is to put the sore muscle back to work. This should be done gently. The first few minutes may be tortuous but the soreness gradually lets up. Moreover, with each workout the pain decreases. This is the reason athletes spend weeks getting into shape before the season begins. Their muscles and blood stream gradually adjust and are able to handle the lactic acid output, and it is likely that their muscles, working more efficiently, actually produce less acid. Other measures greatly favored by sufferers include soaking in a hot tub and being rubbed down. Many a weekend sportsman fears that because he is out of condition, the slightest exertion may somehow "strain" a muscle. Muscles of trained athletes sometimes do develop enough force to stretch beyond their limit. But have no fear. The cheerful fact is you will scarcely be capable of this feat if you're out of condition.
TIPS ON HOW TO STAY IN GOOD SHAPE
This week SI introduces a new, occasional feature, KEEP IN THE PINK, a health column devoted to the common run of aches and ailments that harry most men and women, old and young, at play.
All of us, particularly about this time of year when spring and summer are just ahead, turn to the outdoors with great expectations. Although these excursions are exhilarating, they usually produce the first pangs of activity. Hands that comfortably played six sets of tennis last summer now become tender after the first set. Skin that was once tanned and immune to the sun blisters in a few hours. And last year's muscles, for no apparent reason, suddenly seem weak and flabby.
Keep in the pink will specialize in such problems. They seldom warrant a trip to the doctor; but they are undeniably irksome. Emphasizing the medical maxim that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the column will stress precautions. Yet, realizing that even the best of intentions sometimes falter, we will also suggest some remedies—just in case you get in trouble.
This week we scout the most common malaise of all—sore muscles. In coming weeks we will cover ways to outsmart blisters by toughening your hands and feet; the value, both physiological and psychological, of a pregame warm-up; how to strengthen weak ankles and ways to cope with a "trick knee." There will also be columns on commonplace back strain, Charley horse, muscle cramps and bursitis, as well as the specialized problems that affect the professional athlete, including pitcher's arm, glass jaw, baseball finger and athlete's heart.
There is, of course, no one panacea for every reader any more than there is one way to bowl, play golf or soothe a headache. By the same token, many of our readers may already have their own home remedies. To these, the advice in these columns may prove a welcome addition and an aid to understanding. For others, these recommendations based on the experience of team physicians, medical specialists, laboratory researchers, trainers, athletes' doctors and athletes themselves, will help to make their favorite sport that much more enjoyable.