You have just killed a really hard work out. You upped the load of your training, or you stepped out of your routine and tried a new activity. You feel great – until you wake up the next morning, barely able to move?!!!
Enter delayed onset muscle soreness, better known as DOMS. It’s an acronym that athletes and fitness people wear with pride.
As its name suggests, DOMS is muscle soreness that becomes evident six to eight hours following activity, peaking around 24 to 48 hours post training. While symptoms will often start to diminish at about 72 hours, the precise time course and extent of DOMS is highly variable.
DOMS is most pronounced when you introduce a new training stimulus – a new activity, increased intensity or volume – or if you are new to physical activity in general. Your body is making adaptations to better prepare your muscles to do that activity again. That’s why on Day 1 at the gym, after doing squats or lunges with 10-15 Kg weights, you can be brutally sore the next day. But, as you continue on, you can build up from there, and you won’t be so sore.
While all kinds of muscular contraction can cause soreness, eccentric contraction – where the muscle lengthens as it contracts – is most often associated with DOMS. This includes movements such as running downhill, lowering weights or lowering down into a squat or push up position. There is also some evidence that upper body movement creates more soreness than lower body exercises.
Muscle discomfort is the most common characteristic of DOMS, but there are other symptoms. These may include reduced range of motion and joint stiffness, local swelling and tenderness, and diminished muscle strength. These symptoms appear gradually following exercises (not to be confused with acute pain that may arise during physical activity.)
Muscle Soreness: Myths vs. Facts
No pain, no gain; Lactic acid build – up; an indicator of muscle growth. These are all phrases that we tend to associate with DOMS. While you may think you know everything you need to know about the condition that has you waddling like a duck, you may be surprised by what’s actually happening to your body.
Myth #1: DOMS is caused by the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles
The verdict: Not true! During exercise, your body needs energy, and it breaks down molecules to get that. As a result of this metabolic process, your cells naturally become more acidic, which makes your muscles feel like they’re burning. But this isn’t caused by lactate. Lactate is actually a by-product of the metabolic process and serves as a buffer that slows down the rate at which the cells become acidic. People produce lactate all the time, even at rest. It clears your system 30 minutes to 1 hour after working out.
Studies have found that DOMS is the result of micro-trauma in the muscles and surrounding connective tissues, which causes inflammation. The reason that eccentric muscle contraction (think lowering a dumbbell back down in a bicep curl) is more likely to be the culprit is because it places a higher load on your muscles compared to concentric contraction. It’s the active lengthening of muscle fibres under load. It’s like pulling on a rope, and there’s so much force that the rope starts to tear and pull apart.
Myth #2: It’s not a good workout unless you’re sore the next day.
We often wear our DOMS as a badge of honour and believe that if we’re not sore, we are not doing enough during the workouts. But that’s just not true.
It doesn’t mean that you’re not getting as good of a workout because you’re not crippled the next day. You should feel soreness 24 hours to three days after the activity. If, after three days, you try to do the same exercise and you cannot because you go immediately to muscle failure, you’ve done too much.
Studies have shown that soreness itself (using a scale from 0 to 10 to assess the level of soreness) is poorly correlated as an indicator of muscle adaptation and growth. There are many factors that influence how DOMS presents itself in individuals. There is great variability, even between people with similar genetics and even among highly-trained lifters and athletes. So while comparing notes (and commiserating) is all part of the process, soreness and DOMS isn’t the best gauge of how effective your workout was or who’s in better shape.
Myth #3: The fitter you are, the less susceptible you are to DOMS.
It’s true that you will start to feel less sore as your body adapts to your workouts and learns to distribute the workload across your muscle fibres more effectively. That’s why you should regularly change up your exercise routine.
However, there is also a genetic component to how sensitive we are to pain and soreness. People can be no-responders, low-responders, or high responders. If you’re a high-responder, you will experience DOM more acutely than someone who is a no- or low-responder when given the same training load. While you can’t change your genes, it is important to know where you fall on the spectrum to understand how your body may respond to changes in your workouts.
Myth #4: Muscle damage is a bad thing.
Yes, DOMS appears to be caused by trauma to your muscle fibres, but it’s not a definitive measure of muscle damage. In fact, a certain degree of soreness seems to be necessary. When muscles repair themselves, they get larger and stronger than before so that muscles soreness doesn’t happen again. While these mechanisms are not completely understood, some muscle trauma is needed to stimulate protein production and muscle growth.
Myth #5: Pre- and post-workout stretching is a good way to prevent and treat DOMS.
Unfortunately, No; studies on the effect of stretching before or after exercise on the development of delayed-onset muscle soreness found that pre- and post-workout stretching did not reduce the effects of DOMS in healthy adults. In fact, research has found that static stretching prior to working out does not safeguard you against injury and may actually decrease your power and strength.
While you may not be able to avoid soreness altogether, I would suggest advancing slowly with a new workout, giving your muscles time to adapt and recover. I would recommend always include a proper warm-up (including dynamic stretching) and cool down period as part of your routine.
Stop Waddling: How to Recover from DOMS
There are a number of ways to alleviate those can’t-make-it-up-or-down-the-stairs symptoms. A sports massage is one good way to reduce the effects. A massage will move the fluid and blood around in your body, which can help heal the micro-trauma in your muscles better. Studies have found massage to be beneficial on both gait and feelings of post-workout soreness.
Other common ways to treat DOMS include foam rolling, contrast showers (alternating between hot and cold water), Espom salt baths, increased protein intake (to increase protein synthesis) and omega-3 supplement (to reduce inflammation), and sleep. New research suggests that supplementing with saffron may also help to alleviate DOMS. I would also recommend looking at your diet to make sure you’re taking in nutrients to help your body heal. Find a diet that can really help you feel the best that you can feel.
When It’s More Than Just Soreness
There may be times when you overdo it with your workout and feel bad. Really bad. But when should you be concerned.
If your level of soreness does not go down significantly after 72 hours and into the 96 hours mark, if the pain becomes debilitating, you experience heavy swelling in your limbs or your urine becomes dark in colour, you should see your doctor.
If it’s an injury, you’re more likely to feel it immediately during your workout – something that should never be ignored. Soreness, on the other hand, will appear gradually, often the next day. An injury will likely limit your range of motion and last longer than three days.
When all is said and done, DOMS shouldn’t be avoided or revered, and it shouldn’t be your only gauge of your level of fitness or strength. People think that the only part of their workout that matters is the hard part, but, you can do more of the hard part if you don’t injure yourself.
Long-term, you’ll build up more muscle, strength and endurance if you give your muscles a chance to take a deep breath and recover!!!