Muscle soreness is the bane of all athletes because it is connected with low muscular power outputs and an inability to carry out high-quality workouts and competitions. The exact cause of the soreness is unknown, but there are three key ways to prevent it: 1) Avoiding sudden upswings in training intensity or quantity; 2) Maintaining good muscle flexibility; and 3) Periodically forcing your muscles to complete increased amounts of 'eccentric' work.
This doesn't mean asking your muscles to behave in a deviant manner-eccentric activity involves shortening (contracting) your muscles while they are simultaneously being stretched. A classic example is running downhill; the force of gravity stretches your quadriceps muscles at the same time as they are contracting vigorously in an effort to stop you falling forward on your face.
Although eccentric contractions themselves can initially produce muscle soreness, a single bout of eccentric exercise will often inoculate muscles against pain for several weeks. It's not clear why eccentric training has this protective effect but it's possible that an eccentric workout 'teaches' the nervous system to redistribute potentially damaging forces over a larger number of fibres within a muscle, lessening the stress and strain on individual muscle cells. Alternatively, an eccentric workout may destroy the weakest fibres in a muscle, which are subsequently replaced by more resilient cells.
Fortunately, workouts which emphasise eccentric contractions are easy to carry out, and-in addition to providing immunity to muscle soreness-they usually improve an athlete's coordination and muscle power too. Good examples of eccentric workouts would be running downhill for 10-15 minutes (watch out! The first time you do this, you may get very sore), bounding up hills with exaggerated knee lifts, or the more traditional plyometric exercises
, which include: (1) Lightning hops: Staying mainly on your toes, try to hop off the ground as many times as you can in 20-30 seconds. Barely get off the ground with each hop, and minimise contact time between your feet and the ground. Stay off your heels.
(2) One-leg hops: Hop in a forward direction from one foot to the other, landing on one foot only and holding yourself motionless in place for 6-10 seconds after each landing before hopping ahead to the other foot.
(3) Double-leg hops: Jump forward explosively and continuously until you've gone at least 20 metres. (4) Step hops: Hop up a flight of stairs using only your right foot, and then do the same with your left one. (5) Skipping: Skip for 50 metres while trying to raise the knee as high as possible on each skip.
These exercises will reduce soreness and improve the coordination and power of runners, triathletes, skiers, football players, and tennis and squash players. ('Exercise-lnduced Muscle Damage', International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 15(3), pp 132- 135, 1994)