You might have never heard of DOMS before this morning, when you woke up after a particularly grueling gym session yesterday or the day before and felt it everywhere, all over again. Yeah, that’s “delayed onset muscle soreness,” and it’s something you’re going to get well acquainted with during your fitness journey. But what is DOMS exactly? And why is it such a bother?
The good news is that DOMS might feel like a big deal, but it’s really not. You’re not in danger. In fact, you might want to consider posting a status update about your DOMS, because it’s a badge of honor for killing your workout and making your body think twice before working that hard again.
But let us make one thing very clear: delayed onset muscle soreness shouldn’t be a goal, nor should you always expect it to happen.
Here is everything you need to know about the phenomenon called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, for short.
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
There’s acute soreness that happens upon exercising and then there’s delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that starts anywhere between 12-48 hours after the workout. A common misconception is that DOMS is caused by a build-up of lactic acid within the muscles, but that is not the case. In reality, the reason people experience DOMS is not entirely known.
Research has suggested that DOMS is the result of microscopic damage within the muscles and connective tissues, leading to inflammation as well as a change in fluids and electrolyte balance. Usually, DOMS occurs after an exercise that is too intense, too challenging, or too long. Sometimes, it is merely because your body is no longer attuned to a specific exercise.
For example, if you were once an avid hiker than took a two-year break before deciding to tackle Mt. Fuji, you’re going to feel that climb once you made it back to base camp.
Why Does DOMS Happen?
Although already mentioned, the chance of getting DOMS increases after you do an exercise that you aren’t prepared for. For instance, if you decide to lift a few pounds heavier for a workout, you will probably have DOMS a day or so after that session. DOMS is most common after exercises that require eccentric muscle action. During eccentric contractions, the muscle tissue contracts while lengthening—such as squats, negative pull-ups, downhill running, and plyometric exercises.
In basic terms, eccentric contractions are like brakes for your muscles. When you perform a bicep curl, the bicep muscle will contract during the descent of the curl to decelerate the weight as it is lowered down. When this happens, the muscle fibers in your bicep are getting pulled to the point where damage occurs at a cellular level. This good, because those microscopic tears will be repaired and eventually give you more strength; but it also causes the body to respond with inflammation.
Another marker for DOMS is the presence of the enzyme creatine kinase (CK). Interestingly, research has found that men are more likely to experience worse bouts of DOMS than women. Estrogen in the blood affects the muscle enzymes, resulting in lower levels of creatine kinase. Sorry, guys.
What Does DOMS Feel Like?
The classic symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness include an ache in the muscles that happens between 24-48 hours after doing a new or strenuous exercise. Sometimes, the pain is localized to the muscles that were worked, but other muscles, namely syngeristic or antagonist muscles can also become slightly tender and stiff as a result.
DOMS can also cause a short-term loss of strength in the affected regions of the body, reduced range of motion in the joint, and stiffness after passive stretching.
When Will DOMS Go Away?
With proper treatment, delayed onset muscle soreness won’t be too much of a hindrance in your daily life, and you can get back to doing whatever you need to do quickly. To treat DOMS, you have to ice the affected locations. Ice is anti-inflammatory. With swelling reduced and tenderness numbed, you can effectively deal with the pain. Heat has also been researched as a countermeasure for DOMS in back muscles, which is why IcyHot patches are popular.
You can also use things like menthol rub, tiger balm, and similar measures.
Try to avoid NSAIDs like Advil. In a 2012 study, it was found that these drugs could potentially impair cell regeneration and repair. The study didn’t look solely at the muscles. It also found that bones and tendons regenerate more slowly because of NSAIDs, too. There are myosatellite cells in the muscles that attach to the existing muscle fibers and are responsible for generating new fibers. The research theorized that NSAIDs hinder the spread of the cells, thus lessening recovery and growth.
Massage, foam rolling, acupuncture, and acupressure can also be beneficial. However, don’t do deep tissue massage within the first 24 hours of delayed onset muscle soreness, as this can result in further harm to the muscles. Avoid any excessive stretching and exercise, as well. During DOMS, the muscles have a limited capacity to absorb shock and may resort to altered movement patterns, which will produce more wear and tear—thus worsening the pain and rendering the healing process ineffective.
Foam rolling is an excellent way to reduce the pain of DOMS and shorten recovery time, too. Foam rolling, also known as self-facilitated myofascial release (SMR), can soothe the knots that form in the muscles and release any trigger points within the muscle fibers.
With that all said, remember that DOMS is temporary. Depending on how intense the exercise was that prompted the condition, delayed onset muscle soreness will go away within 2-4 days.
If DOMS doesn’t dissipate within this time frame, you might have overtrained and truly injured yourself. Be sure to contact your physician or physiotherapist to receive a proper diagnosis. There are known cases of a very severe form of DOMS called rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that causes protein myoglobin to be released into the bloodstream and cause kidney damage or kidney failure. Symptoms of this condition include dark urine, significant pain in the muscles, and flu-like symptoms.
Working Out With DOMS
One question that many people have is whether they can workout during DOMS or not. The answer to the question, however, depends on the individual—and the pain DOMS causes. While you are more than welcome to hit the gym while tackling delayed onset muscle soreness, it’s not always the wisest option.
Here’s why: Stressing the muscles that are affected will only inhibit the healing process and create a further breakdown of muscle fibers.
How To Prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Contrary to the popular belief in the fitness world that you need to “go hard or go home” or that “no pain, no gain,” mindset, delayed onset muscle soreness has never once nor will it ever be a prerequisite for gaining muscle or losing fat. There is a very fine line—more like a razor edge, actually—between DOMS and overtraining that so many people cut themselves on because they confuse the pain with growth.
In other words, if you want to prevent DOMS and, more importantly, avoid overtraining, you need a program that is adjusted to a proper intensity level that you can handle.
To minimize the chance of developing DOMS, consider the following:
- Get enough protein. This includes drinking quality protein shakes (either quick digesting whey or casein) to help decrease creatine kinase. BCAAs can help by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown, as well as increasing satellite cell production.
- Always warm-up and cool-down. Have about 10-20 minutes between both sections scheduled to ensure that your muscles are ready for exercise and have enough time to relax after the stress.
- Use the principles of progression in your routine. Don’t just ramp up your workout intensity so suddenly that you push yourself to the point of nausea. Be reasonable with the changes to the workout. When in doubt, have an experienced friend or trainer help you create a program that is unique to your goals and body.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day. On training days, you’re going to need much more than the recommended eight glasses a day.
- Schedule active recovery days that include light exercise like hiking, yoga, swimming, and foam rolling.
- Wear compression socks during and after any intense leg work. Keep the socks on for about 24 hours to aid with circulation. Recent research that was printed in the Brukner & Khan’s Clinical Sports Medicine journal found that wearing compression socks will greatly reduce DOMS.
- Eat nutritious meals. Balanced meals high in vitamins and minerals can help speed up muscle recovery. Ideal foods include spinach, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, red peppers, steak, oranges, bananas, salmon, and so on. Aim for foods that have protein, vitamin E, and vitamin C.
Therefore, while it might be tempting to sit on the couch all day long, you need to keep moving. Yes, give yourself some time off from more intense exercise, but don’t go completely sedentary either.
Everyone is going to feel sore after workouts once in a while, but DOMS is a sign that you worked exceptionally hard. Overtime, the exercises that once caused delayed onset muscle soreness will stop giving you trouble—and you will find new ones that do! But as you get stronger and start incorporating preventative measures into your workout routine, you will find that DOMS happens much less often.
Now that you have learned the basics of delayed onset muscle soreness, what else do you want to know? Gain more knowledge, gain more muscle! Follow our Facebook page to stay in the know with valuable news and advice.