It's Not About the Lactic Acid: Why You're Still Sore After Yesterday's Ride

Whatever the precise mechanism, current scientific research points toward muscle damage as the culprit of muscle soreness. The nerve supply to the muscles perceive this abnormal state and send messages of pain to your brain as soon as you move them the next morning.

By moving the sore muscles, you gradually begin to restore them to a normal state, but you will not be able to exercise to your full potential, because the damaged muscles have lost some strength.

Typical recommendations for short-term treatments include stretching, topical application of sports balms, creams, and submersion in a hot tub or time in a sauna. Some athletes also turn to aspirin and anti-inflammatory medication to reduce the pain and inflammation.

The cure for muscle soreness is relatively simple: If you gradually increase the strength and endurance of your muscles and you stretch and warm up properly before the activity you will be engaging in, they will not get as sore.

Remember that cycling uses certain muscles that are not used regularly in your daily life. It all comes down to something called specificity of training, where your muscles, tendons and ligaments adapt to a particular sport, activity or movement pattern over a period of time.

In addition, as we grow older, our muscles and surrounding tissues also have less elasticity, so we tend to feel soreness and tightness more quickly than we did in high school. An individual who stays in shape throughout the year—even athletes in their 30s and 40s—should be able to exercise with minimal muscular soreness.

After a very hard day on the bike or in the weight room, you may feel somewhat stiff, but with a little stretching and proper warm-up, this feeling should go away quickly.

Sore muscles are usually damaged muscles. As with any injury, sore muscles must be given time to heal. This may require a few easy days of cycling, or another light workout. After a few days you can begin to push harder again.

But don't go too hard or too fast, because you'll wind up back on the sidelines again. Remember, the best way to prevent or reduce muscle damage is prior physical conditioning.


Dr. Edmund R. Burke was among the pioneers in applying scientific principles to endurance sports training, especially cycling. As an exercise physiologist, he was responsible for several advances in sports drink formulation and almost single-handedly developed the subcategory of performance recovery drinks. A former director of the Center for Science, Medicine and Technology at the U.S. Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs, he worked with the U.S. Olympic cycling team during the 1980 and '84 Games. Dr. Burke is the author of 17 books on fitness, training and physiology, including the best-selling Optimal Muscle Recovery.

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