Written by guest author Rawiya Bikhazi
Whether getting back to working out, starting a new routine, or pushing harder than usual, we have all experienced post-exercise soreness. What you experience is called DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. It shows up 6 to 8 hours after exercising and peaks in at 48-hours and can affect anyone, regardless of fitness level. This type of delayed muscle stiffness is normal, lasts for a couple of days, and in studies have shown that it is actually a sign of your improving fitness.
So what Causes DOMS?
Exercise is a voluntary form of stress. When you are working out you're forcing your muscle fibers to work in ways they're not used to. This stress can cause microtrauma to your connective tissues, which ultimately leads to inflammation and pain. DOMS, not to be confused with the burning sensation experienced mid-workout which is induced by lactic acid quickly dissipating out of the muscles, is an inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements that sensitize nociceptors and thereby heighten the sensations of pain. It’s also worth mentioning that while most exercise can induce some DOMS, exercise with a greater emphasis on the eccentric phase (the lengthening or stretching phase) plays the most significant role in the manifestation of DOMS.
OK, so soreness is basically my muscles adapting, but is DOMS an indicator that my muscle fibers are getting stronger?
Actually Yes. Developing and growing muscle is caused by the repeated breakdown and build-up of over time. DOMS is an indicator of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD), which, in turn, is associated with the strengthening of muscle tissue and hypertrophy.
In other words that soreness you feel after a workout is a pretty good indicator that your muscle fibers are getting stronger and more efficient. Providing you're fueling yourself with adequate amounts of protein the next time you ask your muscles to do the same workout, they'll be better prepared for the stress.
Is there a way to limit or reduce the symptoms of DOMS?
There's no quick fix to make it simply go away. If you want to see steady improvements in the gym, you're going to have to resign yourself to the occasional discomfort of DOMS. Sorry.
But here are some tried and tested tips to reduce the effect of DOMS:
1. Compression Tights
Research found that marathoners who wore compression gear in the 24 hours after a race reported less soreness.
2. Submit To The Foam Roller
It is ridiculously low-tech, but a cylinder of foam can ease tightness and tension between your muscles and fascia (the connective tissue). Using your bodyweight, you roll major muscle groups (glutes, quads, upper back, calves) over the foam, applying pressure to tight areas and trigger points to smooth out knots and increase blood flow. Foam rolling can be painful, but it shouldn’t be unbearable – if it is, get yourself to the physio.
3. Try Topical Menthols
Balms like VICKS and VapoRub have a pronounced cooling sensation on the skin that reduces muscle pain. The menthol causes calcium ions to affect neurons that sense temperature, which in turn causes a cooling sensation and inhibits the brain/pain connection.
4. Pre-Condition Your Muscles
Ensuring that you warm up before exercising by lightly working the same muscles that you are going to train can go a long way to reducing DOMS. Bodyweight exercises or using light weights to do the moves you’re about to perform can be good for this.
5. Blow Hot And Cold In The Bath Or Shower
Blood flow transporting nutrients to the muscles and clear metabolites are an important aspect of reducing DOMS. Physiotherapists often advise switching between cold and hot while in the shower. This causes alternating vasodilatation and vasoconstriction of the blood vessels in the affected area.
6. Scoff Cherries
Eat a couple of handfuls of cherries after your workout to halt the onset of DOMS. Cherries are packed with anthocyanins, which help to increase the rate that oxygen travels to your ailing muscles. This will ensure less pain the day after your workout and a quicker recovery.
7. Coffee Can Do More Than Keep You Awake
While the benefits of caffeine on training and endurance are well documented, caffeine’s ability to reduce DOMS is not so well known – even though it’s one of the most effective ways to do it.
8. Lube Up With Joint Lubrication Therapy
Smeared on the soft tissue around aching joints, Joint Gels reduce pain and stiffness. Used morning and evening on already painful joints, or half an hour before exercise, the gel contains microscopic spheres which are absorbed through the skin to lubricate damaged joints. Research shows it’s as effective as a prescription painkiller and clears DOMS 12 hours faster.
9. Make Your Recovery Active
Active recovery is a great way to help to reduce the inflammation and pain that comes with DOMS. Aim to perform some low-impact aerobic exercise both immediately after an intense workout and in the days following
So should I exercise through DOMS?
Try it: you’ll find you can handle more volume than you think. While the muscle will mostly recover within 48 hours, soreness can linger for longer. After 48 hours your performance should be back up to, or beyond what it was – even if it still hurts a little. Don’t believe the nonsense about ‘not training on a sore muscle’. You can handle it.
So What is 'good pain’ and when is it too much?
Getting DOMS does not always translate into building more muscle and could cause more harm than good. A little post-workout soreness is a good thing, but a lot of soreness isn’t necessarily better, and in some cases, it’s straight-up bad. DOMS shouldn't leave you laid up in bed for a week. It shouldn't prevent you from heading back to the gym for another workout. And it certainly shouldn't send you to the hospital for rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that can occur when muscle tissue has been damaged excessively. The best way to deal with post-workout soreness is to prevent excessive soreness from taking place. This means you should ease your way into new workouts, and go light when you alter your usual routine. Progress slowly and continue increasing your effort. You’ll notice you get less sore with more effort.