You’re sore, achy, and you can barely get out of bed, let alone up and down the stairs, or off the toilet. This must be good… right?
When it comes to physical activity, we often associate being sore with a good workout. What exactly is happening within our body? Even though it may feel like you’re dying, you’re not. It’s called DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Stiffness, and for good reason. DOMS typically sets in 6-8 hours after an exercise session, particularly in beginners, or following intense training, and peaks around 48 hours after training (why you can be sore for up to 72 hours following an exercise session).
DOMS is caused by tiny microscopic tears within the muscle, which occur with unfamiliar movements or heavy loads; causing inflammation in the connective tissues, which ultimately heightens the sensations of pain. There are numerous attributes of DOMS including swelling of affected muscles, joint stiffness, decreased range of motion, tenderness to the touch, and temporary reduction in strength.
Does it ever go away?
While it never goes away in the sense that all individuals are susceptible to DOMS, even after years of training, the body does adapt to it. Even just one bout of exercise that causes stiffness causes a protective mechanism within the body, preventing or reducing the chance of developing soreness with the same activity for weeks or even months into the future.
If I’m not sore, did I not work hard enough?
This doesn’t necessarily mean that because you are not sore that you didn’t work hard enough. Particularly when following a consistent exercise regime. As your body begins to adapt to the work it performs, you can still work at the same capacity without being sore. This means that you’re making progress, even if you don’t necessarily ‘feel’ it. It is easy to think that we should be sore following each workout.
How to decrease DOMS:
The best way to decrease DOMS, particularly for beginners or those re-starting an exercise program is to ease into it. While rest is the best solution for resolving the pain, you don’t need to avoid exercise altogether. Ensure you warm up well with a dynamic warm up before your next bout of exercise, and the DOMS should subside during the actual activity (however it may return afterwards).
While DOMS can’t necessarily be avoided, you can alleviate some of the pain by applying an ice pack to the area, taking oral pain relief agents, or bathing in Epsom salts (hot/cold contrast baths work even better). While these methods wont speed the recovery process, they can reduce the pain associated with DOMS. The best recovery? Rest, and then easing into your routine again.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness vs Acute Pain:
We’ve talked a lot about delayed onset muscle soreness, which sets in following exercise – but what about pain during exercise? DOMS typically subsides during exercise, and sets back in following the session. Pain during exercise however is identified as ‘acute’ pain and should not be avoided. Acute pain is typically caused by a structural joint or muscle injury and can be irritated by overuse, incorrect form, or exercise that is too intense. Acute pain can lead to long term muscle or joint damage when left untreated. With acute injury it is best to take it easy, and seek the advice of a medical professional such as physiotherapist, chiropractor, or doctor to begin treating the injury.
The Good News:
As you continue to exercise and make fitness a consistent part of your life you will continue to reap the benefits of exercise, and decrease the prevalence of DOMS; particularly if you follow a well structured training program or training protocol. While DOMS can trick us to believing that we have to be sore to be making progress, remind yourself that as long as you are putting in full effort and continuing to improve your performance, you are making progress, regardless of how your body ‘feels’.
1. Brad J. Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, “Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 35 No. 5 pp. 16-21 (2013)
2. Brad J. Schoenfeld “The Mechanisms for Muscle Hypertrophy, and Their Application to Resistance Training” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24(10) (2010)