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The agony and the ecstasy...

I remember speaking to Arnold Schwarzenegger regarding muscle soreness. He called it "sweet pain". Getting to a point where you work out until that sweet pain kicks in then going beyond it. The average person does not want to go through that because when the body experiences pain it usually is a warning to stop. Muscle soreness is normal after a heavy workout or if you do a workout using different areas of muscle. There is no need to panic -- as you get fitter it will ease off -- just be aware in the beginning to stay on the good side of safe.

Pulled Muscles

A pulled muscle or a strain, is actually a tear within the muscle or at the junction where muscles meet tendons. (Muscles are the living machines that turn chemical energy into mechanical energy. Tendons are fibrous cords of connective tissue that attach muscle to bone.)

The weakest link is at the junction where the muscles and tendon meet and this is where damage is most likely to occur. As we get older the collagen fibres that make up tendons degenerate, becoming less elastic and more susceptible to injury.

Mild Strain

A mild strain will usually not bother you until after you have cooled down. It's sometimes confused with delayed-onset muscular soreness; that painful, aching feeling you get within over-worked muscles. However, a pulled muscle causes very localised pain and can be accompanied by swelling and bruising.

The easiest means of distinguishing these two common problems is a simple stretch. Muscle soreness is often nothing more than muscle spasms. Such pain decreases when a muscle is stretched. However, if a muscle is torn, stretching increases the pain.

Moderate Strain

A partial tear somewhere along the muscle/tendon unit is called a moderate strain. It's more likely to grab your attention immediately with pain, loss of function and a popping or snapping sound. People say that they felt like they had been hit with a ball or stick. Occasionally, a lump or knot will develop at the point of injury.

Cramp

Sometimes people mistake a moderate strain for a cramp but, again, they are quite different. Todd Molnar MD, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, says: "A cramp is when you fatigue the muscle." Dehydration is the leading cause.

"The muscle gets overheated and just gives up," says Dr Molnar. So a cramp is not an injury and there is no damage to the muscle. Stretching will relieve the pain.

Rupture

A complete rupture of part of the muscle or tendon is a severe or third-degree strain. But experts estimate that 80pc of all pulled muscles are preventable.

There are many factors that lead to pulled muscles including inadequate conditioning -- too many people try to make up for a week of inactivity by going wild on the weekends. If you are having problems with injuries consult your doctor or physiotherapist before continuing training.

Insufficient Warm-up

For a few people, their warm up consists of little more than walking outside to run or getting dressed at the spa. Others use a poor warm-up routine, such as calisthenics. Finally, a few people have the right idea, just not enough follow through. These people know a few simple stretches and assume that two quick minutes are better than nothing.

Coldness

When stretching was first popularised as a protector against injury, many reported an increase in muscle injuries. That is because when a muscle is tight, whether because it's cold or simply inflexible, force is more likely to tear that muscle than it is to stretch it. The key? Do a gentle warm-up until you feel yourself break into a sweat. Try running in place or a low-key, comfortable few minutes of the activity you are about to undertake. As body temperature rises, muscles become more elastic and less susceptible to injury. Then you can stop and stretch safely before proceeding to your chosen activity.

Fatigue

There are two physiological factors involved in nearly all pulled muscles: inflexibility and strength. When you are fatigued, strength diminishes. A fatigued muscle also looses its ability to relax and thus has an increased risk of injury. Once the scales tip and the stress of your activity is greater than your strength, look out: you've an accident waiting to happen.

Muscle Imbalance

I know runners whose mileage would take your breath away, but they can't lift and carry a few boxes without getting winded. They're so focused on their chosen activity that they are physical wrecks from the waist up. That is one kind of muscle imbalance and it could get them in real trouble if they decide to play a game of tennis, for example.

However, athletes can also be simultaneously weak and strong in adjoining muscle groups. For example, runners often have strong hamstring muscles but weak quadriceps muscles. Muscles work in pairs and the balance between quads and hams should be about 60:40. If the quads are too weak to balance the hams effectively, a strong contraction of the hams can tear the hamstring muscles.

Prior muscle injury or scarring

If prior injury leads to muscle imbalance, this can be hazardous to muscular health. Likewise, a torn muscle has lost strength and is especially vulnerable to further injury.

Doctors complain that too often patients do not follow their rehabilitation programme and they see the patients a few weeks later after they've re-injured themselves.

Sometimes you must cease activity to recover, but you lose strength at 5pc per week and you lose endurance (your ability to sustain an activity over a period of time) in 54 hours.

Even a week to 10 days off will place you at tremendous risk of injury if you attempt to simply pick up where you left off. A step-wise gradual return to activity is one key to injury prevention.

Finally, injured muscle fibres do not regenerate but heal with inelastic scar tissue. Thus, once injured, flexibility is even more important; your healthy muscles need to be in peak shape to protect their weakened comrade.


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