Today started so well. Even after a long yoga workshop I attended yesterday which I knew was really working my body, I woke up with little pain or discomfort. After a 2 hour walk with the dog following by a cuppa tea with a friends the legs started to feel sore, then it was my hips and then my core, we’ve all experienced the love/hate cycle of performing basic tasks the day after, or even the day after the day a great workout:
- Gets out of bed: “Ow, my legs. Yeah, good squat session yesterday!”
- Puts on pants: “Ahh, yep, okay, those deadlifts really did the trick!”
- Sits on toilet: “Those crazy kettlebell swings!”
- Drops keys: “Oh, bloody lunges!”
This is the classic delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which tends to kick in from as soon as six to eight hours post-exercise, and peaks around the 48 hour mark. And while lower body soreness tends to be more inhibiting and memorable, the phenomenon certainly isn’t limited to the legs. DOMS can occur anywhere in the body that has recently been exposed to unfamiliar or intense physical activity.
The good news is by understanding DOMS you can take steps to reduce its intensity and prevent more serious cases. So let’s delve into what DOMS is, why it happens, and how to train through it.
DOMS happens when you work your muscles harder than they are used to working. That’s the simple explanation, but on a biological level there’s a lot more going on. Coach Doug Dupont outlined some of these cellular effects of exercise in his analysis of a fascinating study on they body’s response to exercise.
The researchers who designed the study put the subjects through a rigorous workout, followed by a series of blood tests. The research team found an increase in injury markers, as well as higher levels of neutrophils and lymphocytes, which play an important role in immune response.
“The research team found an increase in injury markers, as well as higher levels of neutrophils and lymphocytes, which play an important role in immune response.”
The results of this study make sense. When we work our bodies harder than they are used to, the response is inflammation (as indicated by the increase in injury markers). The next natural step is an immune response. When our bodies can’t deal with exercise-induced muscle damage, we experience DOMS.
Is It Good or Bad?
Many people see DOMS as a sign of hard work and a job well done. Others avoid it like the plague. So is it good or bad? Coach Will Levy analyzed a research article by Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras that provided interesting insight into what DOMS really means for your training:
While “the exact mechanisms are not well understood,” the paper by Schoenfeld and Contreras explained, “DOMS appears to be a product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements that sensitize nociceptors and thereby heighten the sensations of pain…”
To summarize, let’s just say DOMS appears to occur due to connective tissue microtrauma. 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.
In short, feeling sore and getting swole don’t necessarily go hand in hand. A little muscle damage is good and necessary for growth. But as Levy noted in his article, DOMS: The Good, the Bad, and What It Really Means for Your Training, when DOMS causes a decrease in force production or negatively affects your motivation to work out, the disdvantages outweigh the benefits.
Recovery Is Essential
Smart recovery can prevent DOMS from derailing your training. In her article, Does Aerobic Exercise Help Get Rid of DOMS? coach Katherine Derbyshire reported on a fascinating study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The researchers suggested moderate aerobic exercise after strength training may help reduce DOMS and can even enhance the effects of lifting weights.
“Keeping moving enables the muscles to contract and assists the heart in pumping. It allows the vessels to contract slowly and expire the waste products as carbon dioxide.”
Of course, strength training isn’t the only thing that can cause DOMS. Coach Simon Kidd described how to prevent DOMS after endurance training in his article, The Importance of Cooling Down After a Race or a Workout:
If you stand still, then the heart has to all the work by itself. If you continue to move, then the action of the muscles will assist pumping fluids around the body. Keeping moving enables the muscles to contract and assists the heart in pumping. It allows the vessels to contract slowly and expire the waste products as carbon dioxide.
A good cool down will typically last between five to ten minutes, depending upon the level of activity. Clearly, it is impractical to connect up a breathing mask at the end of an event. However a good guide will be your heart rate. The point when your heart rate starts to stabilize is indicative of your body returning to normal, although it will remain elevated for some time.
5 Tips for Dealing with Post Workout Muscle Soreness
- Gentle Stretching: When muscles are in recovery mode they tend to tighten up, exacerbating feelings of soreness. Slow, gentle stretching of the area will relieve that tight feeling and diffuse the pain.
- Light Massage: Massaging a sore muscle can help reduce tightness while promoting blood flow, which in turn helps speed recovery, thus shortening the duration of DOMS. You could even try using a foam roller.
- Warm Bath: As with massage, warm water will loosen up tight muscles and improve circulation. Better circulation means more oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood coming to the rescue of your aching muscles. Add some epsom salts too.
- Hot/Cold Treatment: Apply an ice pack for 15 minutes, followed by a heat pack for another 15, and back again.
- Increase your antioxidants to combat the inflammation: more fruit and veg, avocados, lemon water (hot or cold) and a post workout smoothie jammed with plant based goodies with phytonutrients is a good thing.
- Ibuprofen: Low-dose, over-the-counter painkillers—and Ibuprofen in particular, which has specifically been shown to decrease muscle soreness—will help take the edge off of severe cases of DOMS.