Muscle soreness

Tough workouts promote heightened fitness, but they can also lead to so much muscle soreness that athletes are unable to train effectively during the days after a rigorous session. To promote more consistent training and to limit muscle damage, exercise scientists have searched for ways to prevent excessive post-workout soreness.

One popular anti-soreness recommendation has been for athletes to ingest ample amounts of carbohydrate shortly after a strenuous training session. The idea is that the extra carbohydrate would quickly make its way into muscle cells, providing plenty of fuel to kick-start the repair process which takes place after a workout. The rapid repair would then block muscles from becoming overly inflamed.

 Unfortunately, a new study carried out at California State University suggests that post-workout carbos don’t have much effect on muscle pain. In the California research, 20 males started the muscle-soreness ball rolling by completing eight sets of 10 eccentric muscle contractions on bench press, arm curl, and single leg extension machines. (Eccentric contractions, in which muscles are stretched while they are trying to shorten, are noted for inducing soreness. With weight machines, eccentric contractions generally take place as a weight is being lowered.) During the four hours after the workout, subjects consumed either a placebo or a carbohydrate-containing sports drink which provided .4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight.

Muscle soreness increased appreciably both 24 and 48 hours after the eccentric workout, but there were no differences between the two groups; the carbohydrate-ingesters did NOT have less muscle pain. Likewise, blood levels of creatine kinase (a muscle enzyme used as a marker of muscle damage) were similar in the two groups.

Why didn’t the post-workout carbohydrate limit muscle soreness? The subjects’ muscle membranes may have been damaged by the strenuous weight-training sessions, so carbohydrate might have had a rough time even making it across the membranes into the interiors of the muscle cells. However, it’s also possible that carbohydrate alone can’t cure muscle soreness; it would have been nice if the Cal State researchers had added a third group of athletes to their study – a group which consumed surplus carbohydrate AND protein. The protein might have knitted together damaged muscle areas, while the carbohydrate could have yielded the energy necessary for repair, downplaying overall soreness.

The Cal State study didn’t measure ‘functional recovery‘ in the two groups, so it’s possible that the carbohydrate group might have been stronger than the placebo group following the eccentric workout, even though soreness levels were similar. The Cal State researchers also used relatively untrained subjects; experienced strength trainers might have been able to use the supplemental carbohydrate more effectively.

It’s also important to mention that the Cal State study doesn’t mean that post-training carbohydrate is worthless. In fact, other investigations have shown that taking in carbohydrate after workouts speeds glycogen replacement and suitably prepares athletes for training on subsequent days, even if it doesn’t dampen soreness.

The Effect of Carbohydrate Consumption on Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness and Indices of Damage,’ Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 26(5), Supplement, p. S6, 1994

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