Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is quite literally as it sounds; pain and stiffness that develops in your muscles after exercise. The typical pattern one would experience usually starts several hours after exercise and intensifies with time, peaking at about 32-48 hours post-exercise before slowly beginning to subside.
Let me tell you a quick little story, about the most severe case of DOMS I have ever experienced. It was 8 years ago (yep its that memorable). I joined a 6-week boot camp and our first session included some resistance band-assisted chin-ups. I’d done a fair amount of weights training in my time but I’d never done chin-ups. I got through the session feeling great, when I woke up the next day it was a very different story. I literally couldn’t straighten my arms, my biceps were so tender and sore I could have cried. They got progressively worse over the course of the day, and into the night and the next day. I’m not exaggerating when I say it took a good week for my arms to feel normal again.
I’ve definitely had many subsequent cases of DOMS but none that is etched into my brain quite so firmly!
What Causes DOMS?
People often suffer from DOMS when the exercise is particularly strenuous or if it’s exercise that your body is unaccustomed too. Even the most experienced and conditioned athletes can get a case of DOMS if they train outside their normal range of intensity. The good news is your muscles will adapt to specific stresses so the next time you train to that same high intensity you won’t have nearly as strong a response and eventually that type of exercise won’t trigger a DOMS reaction at all.
The exact scientific cause of DOMS remains a hotly debated one in the medical science world. The most probable theory is microscopic trauma to the muscle fibers that occurs when you work your muscles harder than they are used too. This micro trauma is in the absence of any actual tissue damage. This shouldn’t be confused with muscles tears which happen acutely and result in swelling, bleeding and inflammation due to damage to the muscle tissue itself.
How is DOMS Treated?
There is a bit of a time element when it comes to recovering from DOMS, once you are past that 48-hour window you should begin notice a gradual improvement with symptoms almost completely resolved by the 5-day mark. In the days following the onset of DOMS you may need to alter your training, for example if you ran Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday you may opt for a light cycle or a pool session. Ideally, you don’t want to be intensely training the same muscle group that is causing you pain.
Massage, trigger balls, foam rollers, stretching and sauna sessions all feel great at the time, and may offer very short term relief but none of the above has been shown to actually reduce the severity of DOMS or assist in quicker recovery.
Unfortunately, just as there is no guaranteed cure for DOMS there is also no foolproof way to completely prevent it. I believe that you can potentially reduce the severity of muscle soreness by training smart. Gradually increase the intensity of your workouts via a progressive overload approach. Avoid going from zero to 100 instead start with smaller weights, slowly build up, give your muscles time to adapt to the mechanical stress of training. Complement this with staying hydrated, a balanced nutritional intake and adequate recovery to give yourself the best chance to minimise DOMS.
While DOMS is often not the most pleasant of feelings when it hits me hard I try to remind myself of the only positive thing; I must have done a cracker of a training session!