On CrossFit Soreness:
You know that feeling when you roll out of bed and your legs say, “Nope!”
Or the feeling you get right before you sit down and your glutes are like, “Take That!”How about when you reach for the top shelf and your shoulders smirk, “Too soon, Junior!”
Athletes are no stranger to CrossFit soreness. Frankly speaking, any type of exercise can cause soreness. But when your preferred method of training is based on “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity”, you can be sure the pain cave is not too far away.
CrossFit soreness is a double edged sword. It’s great because it typically correlates with the muscles rebuilding themselves stronger than before. Yet it’s not so great because it can be annoying and sometimes makes you want to skip your next WOD.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the most common type of soreness we suffer from. It’s that super tight feeling you get in your calves for a whole week after knocking out a WOD with 250 double unders. Or that tense feeling in your abs the morning after messing around on the GHD. DOMS usually sets in around 24-36 hours after a good training session.
Think of DOMS as a tax you have to pay for exercising well. The more gains you make, the bigger the tax bill.
“But what if I’m not sore?”, you ask? That’s OK! That doesn’t necessarily mean your workout was bad or you didn’t achieve any growth. The relationship between soreness and impactfulness of exercise is not binary, it’s simply indicative.
The best way I can explain CrossFit soreness is this: Strenuous exercise, or any activity for that matter, causes micro-tears in the stressed muscle. As a result, white blood cells rush to the damaged area and start hammering away on renovation. It’s the intensity of the renovation process that causes soreness.
Before we get into the causes and remedies for soreness, I want to admit I'm not an expert on the topic. I’m writing from a position of experience, rather than scientific knowledge. Suffering from Rhabdomyolysis back in 2015 piqued my interest in this topic, to say the least. My intention is to share what I’ve learned with as many people as possible. All the while, hoping no one else has to also suffer what I went through (6 days in the hospital, friends and family worrying about me, $40K+ in medical bills, and last but not least: a good slice of humble pie).
Let’s jump into it.
CrossFit Soreness: What causes DOMS?
1. Eccentric contraction:
This is when you’re elongating and contracting a muscle at the same time. Here are some examples functional fitness athletes can identify with:
- Pull Ups: Elongates a contracted bicep on the way down
- Double Unders: Elongates a contracted gastrocnemius (calf)
- Hang Power Cleans: Elongates a contracted trapezius
- Squats: Elongates a contracted hamstring
- GHDs: Elongates a contracted abdomen
I don’t mean to say these movements aren’t safe. However, if done to exhaustion or above normal capacity, soreness is inevitable. We can all accept that.
2. Malnutrition / Dehydration:
In hindsight, this one is obvious. Have you ever done heavy strength work first thing in the morning, basically fasted? I have. Too many times to count. It almost always results in soreness. But I prefer to WOD fasted at 5:30 AM and be sore for a day or two, rather than miss my chance to WOD after work altogether.
3. Rest, Relaxation, & Recovery (lack thereof)
Burn out. Fatigue. Plain old tiredness. If you’re suffering from a lack of proper rest and recovery, soreness will be the least of your concerns. Brain fog can cause a mindless injury that sidelines you for weeks. If you’re not well rested and alert, skip the session and catch some Z’s.
How Can We Avoid DOMS?
The short and sweet answer is, you can’t! If you push your body through the amount of stress it needs to change, DOMS is inevitable.
Once the soreness from CrossFit kicks in, you have to hang on and weather the storm. You can drink a ton of water to help speed along the process, but not by much. You can drop $60 on a massage, but it’s probably going to hurt more than it helps. You can stretch, roll out, blah, blah, blah. The point is, it’s too late.
When it comes to DOMS, you have to play offense. Front load the work, reap the benefit later. So instead of doing nothing, take a proactive approach and practice the following three tenets to resist, not avoid, DOMS.
Defeating CrossFit Soreness: Rest
Type A Personalities:
I’ve always felt like CrossFit athletes tend to be high achievers. We’re a group of people motivated by “getting things done”. My 5:30 AM class alone has three lawyers, a couple nurses, a sales guy or two, stay-at-home moms, and multiple small business owners. These are people that thrive on accomplishment. In our world, it’s almost taboo to “take a break”.
The box I’ve been a member of since 2011 had to stop programming WODs on Thursdays. They literally forced a rest day on us. Too many of our athletes were burning the candle on both ends, resulting in minor injuries across the entire membership base. It wasn’t just the hardcore athletes getting hurt either... soccer moms and dad bods were getting bent out of shape too. It was simply too much load. The lesson learned here is that it’s OK to take a day off. In fact, take 2! My preferred days off are Thursday and Sunday.
Defeating CrossFit Soreness: Sleep
The major key component to rest is your sleep. There are a countless articles on the web on optimizing sleep. If I could refer only one resource on this topic, it’d be the book Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stephenson.
Here’s what you need to know:
- One full sleep cycle is ~90 minutes. Get at least 4 of these per night (~6 hours).
- Each additional cycle thereafter is marginal benefit.
- If you don’t know what marginal benefit is, it’s like the last few sips of a gatorade bottle. The first few sips are amazing; everything you ever wanted in that moment. Then when it’s down to the last few sips, you don’t really want it or need it. You just drink it anyway because you’re not wasteful. You could do without it, but yeah, it’s whatever.
- The only thing in your bedroom should be a bed. There’s only two things you can do in a bed. Sleep and... sleep (with another person).
- No TV, No Phone, No Reading Chairs, No Night Light. Just a bed. When you walk into your bedroom, your body should be conditioned to think: “Finally, Sleep Time!”
- Other sleep environment tips: blackout curtains & 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Human Growth Hormone releases during sleep. This helps your body repair and maintain muscles.
- Sleep debt is a myth. You can’t “catch up” on sleep on the weekends.
Defeating CrossFit Soreness: Nutrition
“Aim for 5 clear urinations a day.” – Lyle McDonald of BodyRecomposition.com
“Aim to be pissing clear by noon.” – Andy Morgan of RippedBody.com
Andy Morgan taught me that using a ratio of “#X ounces of water per pound of body weight” is a flawed approach because larger people will be drinking way too much and skinny people will likely drink too little. Just drink enough to 1) urinate clear by noon and 2) urinate 5 times a day. K.I.S.S.
I defer to the smash hit guest post article written by Andy Morgan on the WODprep blog: “The Only Nutrition Article You’ll Ever Need”. Read this article if you haven’t already (but finish this one first).
If you can get your caloric intake and macronutrient ratios on point, the rest of it is a downhill battle. Andy gives us the no fluff, distilled version of need-to-know basics on results based dieting ( ← BTW, I loathe the word “diet”. It has such a negative connotation, and can really benefit from a serious rebranding. Holla if ya hear me).
Here are a few important clips from Andy’s article:
“Adequate protein intake ensures that we have the building blocks for recovery, growth, and to prevent muscle breakdown.”
“Carbs and fats fuel the body. Fat is essential for hormonal regulation. Carbohydrates, though not essential, help fuel our training which is the key weapon we have in our arsenal to tell the body to hang on to muscle when dieting. It's also the spark for muscle growth when in a weight gain phase. So, we don’t want to go too low in either.“
SMFR (Self Myofascial Release)
Skip The Massage & Short Term Tactics:
Unfortunately, DOMS cannot be treated with a massage. If you’re already sore, only time will make you feel better.
There’s a zero percent chance you’re going to go from wanting to chop your legs off to ready to run a 5K because of a massage from the local cookie cutter spa. Save your $60 and apply the hour towards more sleep.
If you’re already sore, try not to overuse a foam roller or similar device. Also, don’t force yourself to hold painful stretches. Both of these practices can derail your body’s natural recovery span.
As we mentioned earlier, soreness is a result of white blood cells rushing to the micro-tears in your muscles that are created during strenuous exercise. If you start mashing and over stretching those same torn muscles, you may further the damage and delay your body’s natural recovery plan.
Play the recovery long-game: Be Proactive
To resist CrossFit soreness, you need to take a long term, proactive approach. In addition to proper rest and nutrition, pay attention to your mobility. After all, we know that elongated contraction of the muscle is the #1 reason for soreness. So the logical next step is to work on increasing our mobility: which we lovingly refer to as “strength in flexibility”.
Another way to play the long game is to stay active on your rest days. If you wake up sore on a rest day, no one would blame you for being a couch potato. However, building some “active recovery” into your rest day can go a long way. That can mean a 10-15 minute bike / row / run session at a low - moderate intensity.
Here are a few things I routinely practice to help my mobility.
- I take my warm up seriously. I try to get 10 - 15 minutes of intentional stretching and movement preparation in before the WOD. So while some of my classmates coast through the samson stretch, pigeon stretch, butterfly holds, toe touches, straddle stretch, hurdler’s stretch, etc, I’m sweating already.
- I like to pause at full depth on compound movements with light weights (60% of 1RM or less). So when I’m building up to my bench or squat weight for reps, I always use 95# to really explore the range of motion fully, with a pause in a deep position.
- I have a “mobility routine” during my TV time at night. I only spend about a minute on each body part.
- I start by rolling out my feet
- Then I roll out my calves
- Then I mash my hamstrings
- To finish off the lower half of my body, I mash by glutes
- Then I mash my pecs
- My last mash is the lats
- I finish by rolling out my forearms.
I use the WODprep Massage Ball Set for this. I use the double lacrosse ball peanut to roll, and the mobility ball to mash. When I say roll, I mean rolling in a parallel direction to the muscle fibers. When I say mash, that means one of two things. Either rolling perpendicularly along the muscle fibers. Or letting the muscle go through a full range of motion (contraction and extension) while the ball stays in a static position.
When rolling or mashing, I try to stay as close to the center of the muscle belly as possible. I want to stay away from the connective tissue near the joints. If I aggravate the connective tissue, it can take up to 90 days for the cells to fully regenerate and feel 100% again. The cells of the muscle belly only take 21-30 days to regenerate.
Moral of the Soreness Story:
At the beginning of this article, I referred to DOMS as the tax we pay for the gains we acquire. Honestly, it feels kind of good to know you put in the work to deserve that pain. A sense of accomplishment, if you will. Which bodes well for a group of athletes that get high off achievement.
At WODprep, we want to help our athletes get the most out of their training - and to do so, you have to take care of your bodies. So hit it hard, but get some well-deserved rest. Fuel yourself well, and of course, grab yourself a Massage Ball Set to proactively resist DOMS.