Thursday, April 28, 2011

Questions for Chris - DOMS and muscle soreness

"I heat up, the ice cubes. It's the best of both worlds!"

Q: Hi Chris - certain wods seem to cause an unusually high amount of soreness afterwards (Nicole and arm/back issues for example). What do you think are the WODs to watch out for and what can you do (stretching, nutrition, icing etc) to minimize the pain and speed recovery. Thanks, Sam B.

A: Sam, great question! At first, folks who start CrossFit with no recent physical exertion will be sore no matter what. This makes sense. This transition period might be a few weeks or even a few months before one's body will adapt and recover quicker. But what about people who have CrossFitting for awhile? Some workouts you can walk away from a bit winded or even muscles on fire, but the next day you're fine. Other workouts, you feel that DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) 24-48 hours later and it's painful to even raise your arm to put on a shirt. The soreness is going to occur from tears in the muscle tissue from eccentric movement. Eccentric (vs. concentric) is the lengthening of the muscle fiber, usually by lowering the body in a controlled manner. Let's take Nicole for instance. In 20 minutes, run 400m and do max rep pull ups (every time you drop from the bar, run the next 400m and go for another max pull ups). Here you are working your body in an eccentric manner (pull ups) to the point of literally falling off the bar. It seems that WODs with eccentric movements plus max repetitions are the usual suspects for DOMS. (max pull ups, max back squats)

Now what can you do to remedy muscle soreness? Reduce inflammation and promote healing. 

Sam, you're spot on when you say that nutrition plays a big part in recovery. There is no surprise here: stay away from inflammatory foods aka grains and dairy for most/all folks and heavy omega-6 fats like olive oil and nuts/seeds for folks with their nutrition relatively dialed in. Depending on your goals, you may also consider a post WOD snack or meal. Foods with good omega-3 fatty acids (grass-fed beef, fish, etc) will keep inflammation down.

Immediately after the workout, cool down by stretching and massaging the affected muscles. Invest in a good, high density foam roller and/or The Stick. Once you get home get in a cold shower, bath, or if you're brave enough, ice bath. This will reduce inflammation in the most effective way.

TIP: You can also combine ice and massage by freezing water in little dixie cups. Once frozen, peel away some paper and use the ice to rub any particularly sore spots. "It's the best of both worlds!"

DO NOT rely on NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen. Although these reduce inflammation, taking them regularly and relying on them can contribute to making tendons and ligaments weaker. Check out this sweet link from CF San Francisco about NSAIDs. Also, things like IcyHot or Bengay may feel like you're getting that contrasting heat/cold, but they are nowhere near effective as actual contrast showers/baths.

Over the next days, be sure to:
- foam roll/massage
- stretch
- hydrate to promote blood flow
- take contrast showers/baths (the heat will promote blood flow to heal, the cold will reduce inflammation)
- sleep (this is huge as the body uses sleep as a way and time to heal)

*supplements that may help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness include fish oil, L-glutamine, protein powder, BCAA's (branch chained amino acids), etc. However, don't take them just to take them. Do your research and see if these supplements are right for you. For instance, if you are reactive to dairy like I am, taking protein powder is probably not a good idea. Here is my post on fish oil and here's a CF discussion thread on BCAA's/whey protein. At the end of the day, you can obtain the same benefits from eating real food, but supplements offer concentrated doses of the "good stuff."

Following these steps will not give you a total cure for muscle soreness, but it will definitely help. I also find that doing a light or scaled workout will help promote blood flow and recovery. A half hour walk, a light jog, some double unders, etc. After the first few minutes of "ugh, I can't move anything" most folks feel better and looser. Just remember that the adaptation your body will go through is worth being stronger and faster in the long run.

Do you have any tips for promoting healing and reducing muscle soreness?


  1. Chris, can you clarify your thoughts on the non-inflammatory foods? I thought grains, dairy and omega-6 fatty acids were pro-inflammatory, is this correct? Thanks!

  2. Jeff, you're right, that was just a typo with my mind thinking of two things at once. I can't type as fast as I think apparently. thanks for the early pick up.

  3. Thanks for this! My abs are just feeling better after doing a workout almost a week ago of 12 GHD, 25 double unders, 24 GHD, 50 DU, 36 GHD, and 75 DU, 48 GHD, and 100 DU. Stretching and a cold bath would have been a really good decision that night and one that I won't forget again!


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