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Muscle Soreness


QUESTION:

I did too much gardening yesterday and I am getting very sore and stiff in my leg muscles.  Is this a normal response?

ANSWER:

Ah - a fellow gardener!  Yes, muscles can become sore and stiff if you use them in ways that they are not accustomed to being used.  This is especially true if you do activities that repeatedly lower your body with gravity.  Such muscle contractions almost always involve muscle lengthening, and are called eccentric contractions.

When you are routinely active by walking, running, or squatting, you expose your leg muscles to eccentric contractions.  Such exposure helps your muscles adapt in a way that prevents muscle soreness the next time that you perform similar movements.

The problem occurs when you do not perform these movements for several weeks or longer.  During this time your muscles lose their tolerance for eccentric contractions.  Thus, when you eventually perform these movements after a long break, slight tears occur in the affected muscles and surrounding tissues.  These microscopic injuries cause white blood cells to migrate to the area.  This process may take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.  The resulting pain is caused by a combination of pressure and chemicals released by the white blood cells.  The net result is that 24 to 72 hours after eccentric contractions, there is profound soreness and a limited ability to stretch and contract the involved muscles.

Thankfully, within 48 hours after peak soreness and restricted motion, there is a rapid recovery.  The added good news is that this one excessive bout of exercise (gardening in your case), provides remarkable protection against similar soreness for 1 to 2 weeks.

The take-home message is that you can avoid extreme muscle soreness by performing regular eccentric exercise of the muscles concerned.  Weight training and jogging can provide mildly eccentric movements.  However, nothing beats the exact movements that caused the soreness, which in this cause is gardening.  Therefore, keep gardening on a consistent basis to avoid future episodes of this pain and restricted movement.  Both you and your garden will benefit!

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Our expert, Dr. Sharon E. Griffin, holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in the areas of exercise science/physiology.  She also holds a second M.S. degree in Nutrition and is a licensed nutritionist and an ACSM certified health and fitness instructor.
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