At the start of any physical activity or event, we feel excited, anxious, prepared, even nervous. Our bodies are focused on the task at hand. Muscles are primed for movement, strong and resilient. But while our body may be prepared for a long or strenuous workout session, our body also has a way of telling us when we’ve hit out limit.
This takes the form of muscle fatigue, a common result of muscles decreasing their ability to produce force. Muscle fatigue is a common product of prolonged stress or workload that the muscle must overcome. It does not necessarily mean that our muscles are weak (though that can contribute to it), it simply means that our muscles are not producing the same force by the end of a workout as well as they did at the start.
When Do You Experience Muscle Fatigue?
Muscle fatigue is a result of decreased muscular force over time during weight training, cardiovascular endurance, or other strenuous activities. Typically affecting the skeletal muscular system, muscle fatigue can occur in beginners and even seasoned, veteran athletes, regardless of experience. However, muscle fatigue can also be the result of other underlying issues. These can include:
- Inflammatory disease
- Complications due to stroke
- Chronic kidney failure
Symptoms: How Does Muscle Fatigue Feel
While the word fatigue indicates almost a tiredness associated with the decreased function of muscles, there are other symptoms commonly associated with muscle fatigue. These symptoms include:
- Muscle twitching
- Muscle Soreness
- Localized pain
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle cramps
- Decreased muscle contraction
Though muscle fatigue typically affects muscles used in the activity, symptoms of muscle fatigue can occur anywhere on the body. Depending on hydration, nutrition, and endurance of an individual’s muscles, symptoms like muscle cramps, soreness, and twitching can be seen throughout the body, not necessarily only in the muscle groups performing the movements or providing force.
While mental fatigue can harm aspects of performance such as reaction, proprioception, coordination, and focus, muscle fatigue can be exacerbated due to mental fatigue. As your muscles are burning, your lungs are fighting for air, your brain is telling you “this is enough”. This is when exhaustion can set in.
Though you may be able to continue with your workout, your mental state is putting you in an exhausted frame of mind. With the perception of workouts feeling difficult, we tend to perform worse and with less motivation than if we weren’t so mentally exhausted.
Does Training Matter?
Though power trained (weightlifting, interval training) individuals may have produce higher forces of muscle contraction than endurance or beginner athletes, muscle fatigue can still be a common factor in all these populations. For instance, in power training, some sets require the individual to lift “until failure”, effectively lifting weights or performing movements until the muscles have been exhausted and are unable to produce required contraction or force.
In endurance activity, like marathon running, I’m sure you’ve seen marathon runners with wobbly legs trying to finish the race or crawling to the finish line after an exhausting race. In these instances, these runners have exhausted their muscles to the point of such fatigue, normal running gate has been decreased sufficiently. Now, if muscle fatigue can be a common factor even with power and endurance athletes, beginner athletes are just as, if not more, susceptible to its effects.
Look to Prevent Muscle Fatigue
Though muscle fatigue is a common occurrence for anyone during and after physical activity, some steps can be taken to reduce its likelihood and affects. These steps include:
Incorporating a well-balanced diet consisting of proteins and carbohydrates. By increasing carbohydrate intake 5-7 days before the activity, your body will have a greater storage of expendable energy. This will help maintain glycogen levels, which will become depleted during exercise.
Maintaining proper hydration levels before, during, and after activity can help reduce symptoms of muscle fatigue. This can include water intake as well as sports drinks that will replenish nutrients lost in sweat during activity.
Improving your body’s aerobic capacity will help maintain oxygen levels in the cells of the muscles, helping maintain performance for a longer period. This can be done with increasing aerobic activities or even using a breathing device like Airofit which can help you to improve your vital lung capacity.
A proper stretch routine is important before and after physical activity because muscles will become more elastic, flexible, and primed for the upcoming activity.
Performing any physical activity requires proper mechanics of the limbs and muscles involved. If there are weak or imbalanced muscles, this will affect movement and place stresses on the body that can change the mechanics of the movement being performed. Being cognizant of how the body should move to perform a movement can help you reduce the chance of expelling more energy than needed.
Having a proper rest schedule in between workout sessions can help muscle fibers regenerate and recover from activity. Resting in between sets of exercises gives you the chance to catch your breath and slow down your breathing to give your best effort to finish your session. It also gives your muscles a small break to release tension, relax and prepare for future movements.
If muscle fatigue is a cause of strenuous activity, the best course of action is rest until muscles are properly recovered. However, if muscle fatigue occurs spontaneously without strenuous activity, this can be caused by underlying issues. This is a case where it would be wise to consult your doctor for a proper course of treatment. Some symptoms of muscle fatigue like muscle soreness or stiffness can be treated with,
- Warm/cold therapy: Heat packs before activity, ice packs applied to affected muscles after activity
- Massage: soft tissue massage can be greatly therapeutic to individuals suffering from soreness or stiff following activity. This massage can be performed before or even after activity, calming down the muscles and putting them in a more relaxed state.
In terms of maintaining muscular endurance and reduce muscle fatigue, caffeine can be used as a stimulant for athletes can help improve longevity and performance. However, it is important to consult a doctor if this route is best for you. Other supplements can also be recommended that are more naturalistic and promote cardiovascular health.
Bottom Line, Your Muscles Have a Finish Line
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or elite athlete, muscle fatigue can be a common factor associated with physical activity. Our muscles can only do so much, for so long. There is a failure point for muscles that are different for every athlete, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps to reduce the effects of muscle fatigue.
Respecting your body and understanding how you are feeling during physical activity can help you better navigate a proper course of prevention, treatment, and recovery to perform at your best!