RBR Reader Kenneth asks, “Why my legs are always stiff and achy, even after a few days off the bike they are as sore as they would be if I just finished a race. But when I do get back out and ride, after a few strenuous pulls my legs are no longer sore and feel great, but sure enough after the ride and later in the day they are achy again. You would guess that more riding would equal faster recovery and muscle gain so the soreness would decrease as fitness and strength increase. What gives? Thank you.”
Coach Hughes You’re asking an excellent question because what you describe happens to a lot of cyclists so I’ll answer your question more generally.
There are a couple of possible explanations:
- Pain 24 to 48 hours after exercises is fairly common and may persist for 72 hours. It’s called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
- Your legs aren’t fully recovered from prior riding. However, if they aren’t fully recovered then why do you feel great when you get back on the bike?
Misconceptions Lactate is continuously produced in the body. When you ride hard without enough oxygen your muscles’ metabolism produces significantly more lactate (aka lactic acid). We’re all familiar with the burning sensation. However, this metabolism is temporary and as soon as you slow down so that you have enough oxygen, the excess lactate is metabolized and gone. Pain even right after a ride isn’t due to accumulated lactate.
Another common myth is no “no pain, no gain.” Your legs have two different kinds of muscle fibers: fibers that contract relatively slowly (slow-twitch) and fibers than contract faster (fast-twitch). You also have three different energy systems: burning fat with enough oxygen, burning glycogen (from carbs) with enough oxygen and burning glycogen without enough oxygen. Different intensities of training improve different muscle types and different energy systems. Each rider should train at the proper intensities depending on his or her goals. Training at the most common intensities should not hurt! For more see my column on Six Kinds of Intensity Training: Which is Right for You?
Scientists don’t know for sure what causes DOMS and what to do about it. Here is the most common theory.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) DOMS is a side effect of repairing muscle damage. When you ride harder than you are used to riding the results are deep muscle fatigue and micro-tears in your muscles. You don’t have to ride a lot harder to damage your muscles: if you normally ride at an easy conversational pace then climbing at a pace where you can still talk in short sentences is enough to result in muscle damage. I.e., asking your muscles to do more than they are used to doing results in muscle damage.
DOMS is more likely to result from activities that cause the muscle to lengthen under force. The simplest example is the biceps curl when you are lowering the dumbbell. Sitting down in a chair, walking down stairs, jogging and weight lifting are other examples as is riding a fixed gear. DOMS can also result from cycling harder than you are used to riding. (Downloadable PDF: ACSM Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
You experience DOMS because of the muscle damage and also the repair process. Your brain sends more blood to the region, which causes the inflammation. After about 12 to 24 hours white blood cells start to repair the damaged muscle. They release a number of chemicals, which generate muscle pain. New York Times: Workout Now Pain Later.
Symptoms in addition to the sore muscles:
- Swelling of the affected limbs
- Stiffness of the joint and decreased range of motion
- Muscles are tender to the touch
- Temporary muscle weakness
If you have DOMS you may not have all of these symptoms.
Prevention. DOMS results from harder and/or longer exercise so the easiest way to prevent DOMS is to reduce exercise. Neither warming up nor stretching before or after exercise has been shown to prevent DOMS.
Treatment. DOMS symptoms are the result of your body’s natural repair process and you want to aid, not inhibit this process. Inflammation is part of this recovery process. Research is not clear on whether reducing inflammation slows down repair. Here are some examples of potential treatments:
- Increasing the blood flow to the affected region will help with the healing. Active recovery rides or walks help if you are an experienced rider. If you are a fairly new rider then recovery off the bike is better.
Kenneth, this at least partially explains why, “when I do get back out and ride, after a few strenuous pulls my legs are no longer sore and feel great.”
- Gentle (not deep) massage and roller massage also increase the blood flow.
- Consumption of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E may help; however, scientific research hasn’t proved this. Too much vitamin E may be harmful.
- Some studies suggest a cold water bath around 60F (15C) may help; other studies don’t support this. The benefit is from chilling the body, not the cold water itself. Localized icing isn’t as effective as chilling the body.
- Research hasn’t shown that compression garments improve recovery; however, they may reduce pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which reduce inflammation, may or may not be appropriate. These include ibuprofen and naproxen. If you have an important ride then you could ice and take NSAIDs to reduce the pain, recognizing these may delay recovery. (Cutting Edge Cycling.)
According to the ACSM DOMS is neither good nor bad. The occurrence of DOMS doesn’t mean that you’re getting fitter and the absence of DOMS doesn’t mean you aren’t getting fitter.
Kenneth, “You would guess that more riding would equal faster recovery and muscle gain so the soreness would decrease as fitness and strength increase.”
According to Joe Friel, “An athlete should do the least amount of properly timed, specific training that brings about continual improvement.” (Emphasis added) If you are having repeated bouts of painful legs it may be because you’re doing too much riding in general. Your muscles only get stronger when you allow time for recovery. During recovery the deep muscle damage and micro-tears heal and you get fitter. However, if you keep damaging your muscles and don’t allow for repair then the cumulative effect may be increased DOMS.
I’ve written these RBR columns on recovery:
- How Much Recovery Do You Need?
- Importance of Recovery in Your 50s and Beyond: 9 Tips
- Best Recovery Food and Drink
My eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance has detailed information on 10 different recovery techniques including active recovery, post-ride nutrition, how to give yourself a massage, and the possible benefits of stretching, icing and compression garments. The 16-page eArticle illustrated with 14 photos for is $4.99.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes a chapter on recovery. The book’s chapter on recovery covers how to gauge your total stress load from life, how to balance training and recovery, how to improve your recovery and how to avoid overtraining. The book incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond.
The book explains why intensity training is important and the pros and cons of gauging intensity using rate of perceived exertion, heart rate and power. It includes how to do intensity exercise and different intensity workouts. The book explains how to get the most benefit from your endurance rides. It has sample training plans to increase your annual riding miles and to build up to 25-, 50-, 100- and 200-mile rides. It integrates endurance and intensity training into an annual plan for optimal results.
Anti-Aging describes the importance of strength training and includes 28 exercises for lower body, upper body and core strength illustrated with photos. It includes an annual plan to integrate strength training with endurance and intensity training. It also has 14 stretches illustrated with photos.
Anti-Aging includes an annual plan to put together all six of the aspects of aging well: cardiorespiratory exercise, intensity training, strength workouts, weight-bearing exercise, stretching and balance. The book concludes with a chapter on motivation.
Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBook is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.