After a few weeks off from exercise, you hit the gym and work out with gusto, brutally expending all that energy built up from your time away. You push your body as hard as you can and walk out feeling exhausted yet exhilarated at the same time.
Then you wake up the next day, and everything is sore beyond belief.
To you, it’s that “hurts so good in the long run but hurts so bad right now” feeling the next day. The proper term for it, however, is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
What exactly is DOMS, from a physiological standpoint? How does it happen, and more importantly, why does it happen? Are certain people more susceptible to it, and if so, how can you better recover from it, or even prevent it from happening in the first place?
Let us shed some light on all of those questions.
What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Sometimes, the day after a hard workout is even more brutal than the workout itself. Every part of your body is in pain. You feel like you have battery acid running through your joints. Routine tasks and household chores are now an even greater burden because your muscles are thoroughly trashed, and still feeling the effects of the previous day’s workout.
While you might be in agony for the next 24–48 hours, that “agony” is actually a biological process in which your body is healing itself from the physical stress it endured. That process, specifically, is DOMS.
How Does DOMS Take Place?
Anytime you put your body through an exercise routine, or any physical stress that’s greater than the normal range of intensity to which it’s accustomed, you’re very likely to trigger DOMS.
Whenever your muscle contracts, whether it’s running on a treadmill or lifting weights, small microscopic tears occur in your muscle fibers. Naturally, the more contractions that take place, the greater the number of microscopic tears that will take place.
In most cases, tearing your muscle sounds like a bad thing, but remember that the body’s natural healing and immune functions are designed to repair itself from anything negative that’s taken place.
Regardless, this damage and the internal inflammation that takes place because of those tears along with the pain that arises from all of that is what causes the pain.
Is DOMS A Bad Thing Or A Good Thing?
To better understand the importance of DOMS, you need to understand the importance of the muscle tear and repair process that’s taking place.
When your muscles are stressed at levels beyond what they’re used to, there’s an ensuing trauma that takes place to your muscle fibers — i.e., the microscopic tearing mentioned above. When that takes place, your muscle specifically activates a group of cells called satellite cells that go to the damage site and begin fusing the damaged muscle fibers. This fusion process often results in the increase in the number of muscle fibers — simply translated: a slight increase in the size of the muscle overall — which is known as hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy is the “holy grail” of the weightlifting community, because it’s essentially the process of the body healing itself in a way such that it’ll be able to endure a similar level of stress from which the muscle is currently repairing itself, and simultaneously growing in size. In other words: it’s the exact process in which your muscles get stronger and bigger.
Thus, DOMS is effectively a by-product of the body’s recovery process and the associated hypertrophy that takes place. If you want your muscles to get stronger, and maybe even bigger, then DOMS is definitely a good thing.
DOMS And You: Managing Your Soreness From Exercise
If you’re in the early stages of a fitness regimen, you might be tempted to attack your new workout plan with all of your energy. It’s important that you begin to ramp up the intensity and duration of your exercise over the first week to two weeks. Otherwise, you could find yourself in that debilitatingly sore state caused by DOMS.
Conversely, if you’re someone who’s already going to the gym at a fairly regular rate, but find yourself really sore thanks to a brutal workout the day prior, you can still go to the gym and exercise, assuming it is a mild-to-intermediate case of DOMS. When you do so, it’s probably better that you reduce the intensity and duration of your workout for the next day or two.
How To Recover From DOMS
Due to that burning sensation that you get in your muscles as a result of DOMS, you might be inclined to place ice on your tender muscles. If that makes you feel better at that moment, you’re welcome to do so. However, icing a muscle going through DOMS does not have any real benefits. Further, there are many athletic professionals who believe that icing a muscle immediately after it has endured a tough workout or even spending up to a few minutes in an ice bath, could help combat the swelling caused by the muscle tears that have taken place.
A lot of people think that going to your local massage spa after a workout is a good way to recover faster so that you can hit the gym sooner. However, that’s not entirely true, especially the latter part. While massages have shown to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of DOMS by up to 30%, they do not have any impact on how fast your muscles will be ready to endure another high-intensity workout.
In certain scenarios, taking your standard over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs — like Ibuprofen or Naproxen — is a possible method of treating the symptoms of DOMS, although that can vary based on the dosage you take and the time it’s administered; please make sure you consult a medical professional before going down this route.
The only tried and true way to recover from DOMS is some good old “R&R.” We often tell ourselves that the number of days we train shows just how committed we are to improving our body, but the truth is that rest and regeneration is just as much an integral part of your workout regimen as the training itself.
A high-intensity workout will incorporate a high amount of muscle usage, and the greater the amount of that usage is linear to the potential for DOMS. Thus, the harder the workout you go through, the more important it is to let your body recover from that workout.
How To Prevent DOMS From Occurring
There are a few unconventional ways to prevent DOMS, for those who might be willing to give them a try. One study showed that marathon runners who drank tart cherry juice before and after a race showed reduced levels of DOMS. Caffeine consumption can also reduce DOMS-related muscle soreness and fatigue; some exercisers saw as much as a 48% reduction in DOMS thanks to pre-workout caffeine consumption.
While those are certainly interesting, there are two more conventional ways to prevent the effects of DOMS, which we highly recommend.
In your standard community gym, you might have noticed a bunch of people kneading their muscles with a long foam tube known as a “foam roller.” If you haven’t been joining them, and if you’re someone who would like to help prevent DOMS from setting in after a tough workout, then you should probably join them.
In an evaluation of eight physically active males, tests were conducted to determine whether using a foam roller was an effective therapy method for reducing DOMS and enhancing muscle recovery process. The results showed that those males demonstrated “substantial” improvement in their ability to perform high-intensity exercises in the days after an intense exercise regimen and concluded that foam rolling reduces DOMS while allowing you to work out sooner and harder.
The best way to potentially reduce the extent of DOMS you may endure, before it even takes place, is to incorporate a “cool down” session in your workout. For example, a group of women who completed a low-to-medium intensity cycling workout after a DOMS-inducing strength workout not only had less DOMS-related muscle pain after their workout but even showed a slight boost in strength.
According to exercise physiologist Matt Unthank, the increased blood flow from a cool-down session will help your blood flow to your taxed muscles, which will help with your body’s recovery process.
Don’t Let DOMS Be A Roadblock From Reaching Your Goals
While DOMS is definitely not pleasant for someone who’s going through it, think of it as a necessary evil to help you, and your body, reach your fitness goals.
Unthank said it best: “For a fit person who exercises regularly, I would actually view the occasional attack of DOMS as a good thing. It suggests an elevation in intensity and the inclusion of novel movements to a workout program, both of which are extremely good things for a training program.”
Originally published as a freelance opportunity.