For my 55th birthday fitness challenge, my 13 year old nephew joined me in performing 10 sets of 10 pushups and 20 squats, for a total of 100 pushups and 200 squats. He finished the 10th set 10 minutes before I did, but the next day he could barely walk, whereas I only felt mild soreness in my quads. Multiple factors explain our different experiences but it provided an opportunity to do some research on how to alleviate muscle soreness as quickly as possible.

Until now, my understanding was that muscle soreness resulted from excess lactic acid produced by strenuous use of a muscle. However, while that was the scientific explanation in the past, it is no longer regarded as true.

In The Truth about Lactic Acid, Dr. Mike Todorovic (PhD) explains that lactic acid has never actually been proven to exist. A letter to the editor of the journal Physiology calls lactic acid “an outdated construct (non-empirically supported concept assumed to be fact)”.

Physical Therapists Bob Schrupp and Brad Heineck explain that when a muscle is lengthened under tension (i.e. the negative portion of a exercise), micro-tears in the muscle occur. As the body works to repair the damage, there is an inflammatory response (sometimes called “muscle fever”). The inflammatory response within a few hours results in DOMS. Applying ice and stretching can alleviate some discomfort but they don’t accelerate healing. The pain of DOMS is not due to lactic acid build up, but rather the microtrauma to the muscle. The key to accelerating healing is to increase blood flow to the muscle. This is done via “active recovery“, i.e. on the day after the muscle experiences microtrauma, perform very low intensity exercise (heart rate should not rise into the aerobic range). A second alternative is gentle massage of the muscle, again to increase the blood flow to the muscle.

So, the day after the fitness challenge, I slowly performed the three routines from 6 Degree Flow (Pitch and Surge, Roll and Sway, Yaw and Heave). Actually, I did this for several consecutive days. After 2 or 3 days, I was unaware of any muscle discomfort. This reinforced to me the principle that performing intense exercise is a process of breaking the muscle down, while growth occurs during recovery.