So you headed back to the gym last night for the first time since high school. You had a good workout and went to bed feeling a sense of accomplishment. But the next morning you wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus.
Everything hurts; your back, legs, shoulders, even your hair. Getting out of bed is a struggle and getting downstairs is next to impossible.
Why? What is this ungodly pain? And what can you do to make it go away so you can navigate stairs again like a normal human being?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)- that’s why!
DOMS can be described as muscle pain, soreness or stiffness that usually occurs 24-48 hours after working out. It generally peaks around the 24-hour mark and usually last for 3-4 days but in severe cases even up to 6-7 days.
It was once thought that DOMS was caused by latent lactate build-up in the muscles after exercise. But since lactate is cleared from muscle cells within an hour after exercise we now know it does not contribute to soreness.
Although the exact mechanism is not fully understood, it is fairly well excepted that DOMS is due to micro-tears to the muscle fibers and connective tissues, which occur during muscle contractions. These micro-tears or trauma trigger an immune response with the release of histamines and prostaglandins followed by inflammation and pain.
The severity of the pain depends to a large extent on the type of exercise, the duration and the intensity of the workout. It is understood that eccentric muscle contractions can cause the most severe soreness, followed by isometric contractions with the least severe soreness resulting from concentric contractions. It also appears that the lower body seems to be affected more than the upper body.
Along with the pain, there is usually also a decrease in strength and range of motion with possible swelling. The level of pain is not an accurate indication of the amount of damage and therefore not an indication of any resulting repair or growth.
Just because you experience DOMS this does not mean you will also experience muscle growth. If the pain is very severe it can actually inhibit gains as it may be too debilitating and therefore inhibit training.
What can I do to reduce DOMS?
Ok, so yesterday was leg day and now your biggest enemy is a flight of stairs. What can you do to reduce the pain?
• Although it may not seem like it, working out the next day is usually a good idea and can help bring some relief. Activity will force more blood through the affected areas carrying nutrients and removing waste, speeding up repair.
• Dynamic and static stretching can also be very beneficial in relieving the soreness, as can gentle massage to the affected areas.
• Heat, warm water immersion or time in the steam room or sauna can also help soothe the aches and pains. Icing or other cold remedies have not been shown to be of much use in reducing pain.
• Studies have shown a number of foods such as ginger, watermelon, and cherry juice can also help reduce DOMS. As mentioned early post-workout protein consumption can also help.
• Certain supplements such as Coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, and vitamins C & E are thought to reduce the production of free radicals which can contribute to the inflammatory response.
• Over-the-counter NSAID’s such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen may help to reduce inflammation and relieve pain but prolonged or frequent use is associated with negative side effects such as gastrointestinal distress and hypertension.
How can I avoid the dreaded DOMS?
It is very difficult, if not impossible to completely prevent or eliminate feeling some level of soreness upon initiation of an exercise program. Most people will experience some DOMS when beginning a new program or performing an activity that they have not participated in for a while. It is a typical, natural, biological response to increased levels of exertion.
The level of soreness can be limited with the following strategies:
• When beginning a new program start slowly and gradually progressing in small increments to allow the body adapts to these increased levels of exertion.
• Proper nutrition and hydration before and after working out are essential not just for reducing DOMS but also for overall results. This should include supplementation with branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s) and antioxidants.
• Also, protein consumption both during and after exercise has been shown to help decrease post-exercise muscle damage.
• Performing an adequate warm up followed by some light sets before the work sets have also been shown to reduce the extent of DOMS.
So is DOMS good or bad for you?
A lot of people associate DOMS with progress and expect to feel stiff and sore after every workout. While in the beginning feeling some level of soreness is a sign that you are making gains, the level of soreness should diminish over time. After a few weeks of regular exercise, you should not continue to experience DOMS. The old saying of “no pain, no gain” is really not something you should follow.
Not feeling sore after a workout doesn’t mean you are not working hard enough or that you have plateaued. It just means that you are adapting to a level of exertion and also to the pain response related to exertion. It is normal and okay not to feel stiff or sore after every workout.
If you do continue to feel DOMS after every workout, this may be an indication that you are overtraining and not allowing adequate rest and recovery between workout sessions.
If you change your program or start something completely different you may experience a certain amount of soreness but not the same levels as when you first began exercising.
Think of DOMS a rite of passage for every exerciser. It is something we will all experience at least a few times in our life. For some, it is pleasurable pain spurs them on to bigger and better things in the gym. Unfortunately for others, it spells a quick end to their fleeting exercise lifestyles and a return to the couch life.
Don’t let a few bouts of DOMS robs you of a lifetime of working out. Follow the tips above on how to reduce the initial soreness you will experience and also how to avoid experiencing DOMS after the first week or two of your exercise program.
Hyperwear Director of Education