Dealing with the aches of exercise

First figure out if the pain is good or bad for you

Health & Fitness

April 13, 2003|By Judi Sheppard Missett | Judi Sheppard Missett,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

Have you begun a new exercise program, only to find that unwelcome aches and pains slow you down? Are you asking yourself why, and what you can do for relief?

The first step to dealing with exercise-related pain is determining whether it's good or bad. Can any pain be good? Actually, yes. Certain muscle aches are a sign of exertion - an uncomfortable declaration that you are conditioning your body - rather than injury.

We're talking about the burning sensation you feel while trying to complete those last three biceps curls, or the muscle soreness you experience a day or two after a workout. The former type of pain dissipates shortly after you stop doing the exercise. It is triggered by a buildup of lactic acid, and you may be experiencing it now because you've recently increased the weight or number of repetitions for a certain exercise.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness, the official name for aches that surface a day or two later, is your body's response to microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. The tears and corresponding inflammation cause the pain. The good news is that this process of breakdown and repair is how your muscles become stronger.

These two types of pain should be expected, even desired, if your goal is to strengthen your muscles and increase your level of fitness. The best way to deal with them is:

Warm up gradually and go a little lighter on your workout if you're experiencing delayed-onset muscle soreness.

Stop, rest briefly and breathe deeply to replenish the working muscles' supply of oxygen if you're experiencing burning fatigue from a buildup of lactic acid.

Pain caused by injury is a different matter. Injuries can be acute, as with the sudden twisting of an ankle, or they may be chronic, as with a stress fracture or tendonitis that has escalated over time. In either case, it is not advisable to push through the pain. Doing so may cause permanent damage. In these instances, seek diagnosis and treatment from a health professional and take adequate time to heal.

At the outset of an injury, do RICE, the acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. This is an excellent time to cross-train, as long as the new activities don't aggravate your injury.

Of course, it always helps to do whatever you can to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. Here are some tips:

Stretch, stretch, stretch. Working muscles shorten, which leads to injury unless you do something to maintain your flexibility. Always perform stretching exercises for all the major muscles (and any others that you use during your workout) for 10 to 20 minutes after your workout. Stretching is most effective when your muscles are warm.

Give yourself adequate recovery time between workouts. Chronic injuries are usually caused by overuse.

Increase the frequency and duration of your workouts slowly. Your cardiovascular system usually shapes up faster than your musculoskeletal system. In other words, your lungs may be ready to run an extra 10 miles during the week, but your bones and tendons probably aren't.

Cross-train. Doing a variety of exercise activities spreads the workload around and challenges muscles you may not be using in your primary fitness activity. It's a good idea to do at least one low- or non-impact workout per week.

Look after susceptible areas, such as ankles, knees, shoulders, elbows, lower back. Take the time to strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons that support these areas.

The following exercise strengthens the abdominal and other torso muscles for spine stabilization and injury prevention. If a mild strain in one of your limbs has you temporarily sidelined from your regular workout, you can still grab a chair and work on your core strength:

Sit on the front edge of a stable, sturdy chair. Lift your torso tall and place your hands on the sides of the chair, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Without slouching or letting your spine round, tip back slightly as you lift your feet from the floor. Tap your toes back on the floor, and repeat these movements 10 to 15 times, exhaling as you lift your legs. Try to focus on good posture, and don't tense your neck or tuck or lift your chin as you do this exercise.

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