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September 7, 2014

Q: What is an acceptable soreness after a workout?

A: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) typically presents 12-48hrs post-exercise and is an inflammatory response to muscle strain, presenting with tenderness and stiffness during movement (Bompa 2013). DOMS is associated with pain stimuli such as muscle spasm, connective tissue damage, lactic acid, muscle damage, inflammation, and enzyme efflux (Cheung, Hume, and Maxwell 2003). It is a normal bi-product of training, but can be deminished by increasing the frequency of your workouts. The primary limiting factors of whether or not DOMS will occur are:

a)     Time since your last session (Powers and Howley 2009)

b)     Load intensity of your session (Bompa 2013)

c)     Time spent under eccentric (muscle contraction in stretch phase) tension during your session (Cheung, Hume, and Maxwell 2003)

In other words, if you haven’t workout out in a while, or you haven’t targeted that specific muscle in some time, be sure to expect some soreness. If you are lifting 85-100% intensity for a given exercise and you only ever lift 55-65% intensity, expect some soreness. If you did more eccentric work this workout, that is the phase of muscular contraction where your muscle lengthens, make sure you have a superfriend to help you brush your teeth tomorrow.

Soreness is quite subjective, so we will use two criteria to better define what is “acceptable soreness”:

  1. Amplitude: the degree of soreness you experience
    • As long as it is not severely debilitating, acceptable severity of DOMS is whatever you can handle
  2. Duration: the time it takes for soreness to resolve
    • 3-5 days is the average time for discomfort to subside (intensity of soreness will diminish over time)

Delayed soreness, which occurs post-exercise, should not be confused with “acute soreness” which occurs during an exercise (due to poor form, too much load, orthopaedic dysfunction, etc.). As such, DOMS does not generally necessitate the need for medical intervention. If, however, pain and swelling become debilitating or if urine becomes dark, seek medical consultation (ACSM 2011).

Q: How long should I wait before I train the same muscle group again?

A: This will partly depend on what your individual goals are. Do you train for performance, or do you train for hypertrophy (muscle growth)? If you train to improve athletic performance and need to be at your best for each workout, recovery becomes a very important component of your training. Again, to simplify this question let’s examine two training criteria:

  1. Periodization: the balance between training load and recovery
    • Load: Muscle performance adaptations (i.e. strength / hypertrophy) are limited by training volume (sets x reps x load), not muscle damage (Zourdos 2014). So if your goal is to gain lean tissue as well as improve physical performance, you should train as often as you can without impairing your recovery.
    • Recovery:

i.     Physical: Prolonged endurance exercise (60-180min) will typically require 10-48hrs (respectively) to replenish muscle glycogen (stored energy), depending on training volume and secondary factors. A single bout (1 hour) of strength training typically only requires 24hrs rest (Bompa 2013).

ii.     Mental: High intensity workouts create physiological strain and mental or psychological stress. For this reason, low-intensity training days not only aid in recovery and super compensation, but also help prevent overtraining (Bompa 2013).

  1. Secondary Factors Affecting Recovery: age, experience, gender, environment, sleep, nutrition, psychological factors, manual therapy

If an athlete trains intensely, day in and day out, the body never has time to replenish its energy stores and comes closer to exhaustion with every workout. After about 3 or 4 days, every workout begins in a state of residual fatigue. At this stage, both training capacity and growth potential are inhibited. The time between the end of one session and the beginning is the phase of recovery, and is essential for improving muscle size, tone, and definition (Bompa 2013).

According to T. Bompa, the time required for compensation before training adaptations may occur vary according to training style:

Type of training Energy system Time needed for recovery (hours)
Aerobic (cardiorespiratory) Glycogen, fats 6-8
Maximum Strength ATP-PC 24
Hypertrophy, muscle definition Glycogen 36


It is still possible to sufficiently recover after 2 or 3 days of constant overloading. Therefore, training intensely for 2 days followed by 1 day of active rest is likely optimal for most people. Secondary factors such as experience and years of progressive adaptation may permit training more often (e.g. 6 days on, 1 day off) without negative effects, as is evidenced by the training styles of many seasoned strength athletes. However, there is evidence to suggest that 3-4 weeks of constant overload training may benefit from one week of “de-loading” (i.e. training below 70% intensity).

Q: Does caffeine have an effect on my workouts?

A: Caffeine use dates back to the Paleolithic times when the coffee plant (Coffea Arabica) was used to brew a drink with stimulant properties. Caffeine remains the most widely consumed drug in both Europe and the Americas (Curatolo and Robertson 1983), and is used by athletes with the belief that it improves performance. As a matter of fact, prior to January 1, 2004 caffeine was included on the list of banned substances by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) due to its ability to influence exercise performance.

Caffeine is readily absorbed after ingestion, with peak plasma levels occurring after approximately 60 minutes. Its half-life in the blood is ranges from 2 – 10hrs, and is primarily degraded in the liver. Neither habitual usage nor withdrawal seem to influence caffeine’s performance effects (Van Soeren and Graham 1998).

Although not all studies show effects of caffeine on endurance performance, at intensities around 85% VO2 max, improvements in endurance capacity of 10% to 20% prior to exhaustion have been shown. Achieving measureable changes in either performance or capacity are subject to factors such as caffeine dosage, your current fitness level, your habitual caffeine consumption, and the type and duration of exercise.

Some, but not all studies, seem to indicate improved performance and/or capacity during exercise around 100% VO2 max and lasting around 5 minutes, at dosages of around 6 mg / kg b.w. of caffeine (Jackman et al. 1996). The mechanism is unknown but is theorized to be an effect on caffeine’s ability to facilitate recruitment of muscle fibers, muscle ion handling, enhanced anaerobic energy production, or an inhibition on sensory perception of effort (Spriet 1995b). However, caffeine seems to have no effect on overall power output or sprint performance (Williams et al. 1988; Collomp et al. 1991; Greer et al. 1998).

In conclusion, caffeine may not be helpful in increasing the amplitude of your performance, but may prolong its duration. In addition, caffeine (2-3 mg / kg b.w.) has been shown to definitively improve upon all measures of cognitive functioning (attention, psychomotor skills, concentration and memory) which, depending on your sport or focus, may lend to improved performance (Hogervorst et al. 1999).

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