Within minutes of a good workout you feel great. Endorphins surge through your body and you feel pumped, elated. The following day, all of that changes; and, come day two, you’re miserable, because all you feel now is sore.
DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, is no joke.
Why does it happen, and is there really a correlation between a good training session and the level of stiffness you feel in the days that follow?
Let’s get right into answering these questions, and - more importantly - what you can do about it!
Why do you get DOMS?
While there’s not a lot of scientific evidence to show what really causes DOMS, research shows that it’s associated with eccentric muscle movements1, which are those that require the muscle to contract while at the same time lengthening. Examples include downhill and long-distance running and plyometric exercises like jumps and side shuffles.
After doing these types of exercises, some people feel like their level of DOMS is an indication of whether they had a good workout or not. If they’re not in pain two days later, they feel like they should have pushed harder - but, this is really not the case.
The truth is, whenever a new routine is undertaken, and those muscle groups are not trained to withstand the stress placed on them, the muscles react poorly to that stress. Studies in mice show that DOMS is not immediately associated with inflammation2, however, that micro-tears and inflammation in the muscles does take place in the process of DOMS occurring3.
When you begin to build strength in those muscles, and the body adapts to that particular form of stress, the muscles can withstand a significantly higher load, and so the occurrence of DOMS and the arising inflammation decreases. It’s therefore more of an indication of a good training routine overall when you begin to experience less DOMS and not more.
That being said, it’s also why you need to change up your routine and perform a variety of different exercises to increase the strength in all muscles groups, while slowly increasing the stress you place on them to build them even stronger.
Preventing DOMS: Can you or can’t you?
Experts aren’t clear on some of the factors that are involved in why DOMS does or does not occur in individuals. Some people are believed to be more prone to it than others due to changes in hormones, the effectiveness of their immune systems and inflammatory response, and other chemical reactions within an individual’s body often related to genetics4.
If you do frequently experience DOMS which just doesn’t seem to be letting up and is interfering with progression in your training routine, the worst thing you can do is to keep doing that routine. It could mean that you’re not allowing your muscles and body the time it needs to repair or that you have taken on an exercise routine that’s too strenuous starting out.
Take a step back and think about what you want to achieve: is the pain and risk worth it, or could you take some time to allow repair to take place? The risk of injury increases significantly, even to the muscles that aren’t as sore; particularly because you’ll want to compensate with other parts of the body to spare those that are sore.
While there appears to be no concrete evidence that supports the prevention of DOMS entirely, there are actions you can take to build strength and reduce stress on your muscles to reduce the rate of DOMS.
One of the best is to take part in low-impact exercise, such as swimming, and to ensure gently stretching those sore muscles out after a training session. Stretching helps to keep the blood flowing to those injured muscles5 and, along with proper nutrition, can help with their repair.
Additionally, it’s important to remember to rehydrate. Muscles hold a large amount of water, and allowing even slight states of dehydration after an intense workout, can hamper the healing process of the muscle. While it’s not a ‘cure’ for DOMS, hydration is a key component of an effective training regime and reducing post-workout consequences6.
The foods you eat can also play a huge role in your post-workout experience. High sugar, highly refined carbohydrate-heavy foods can be detrimental, as they promote inflammation which can worsen DOMS. On the other hand, eating the correct foods can can enhance your body’s ability to strengthen and repair, along prevent and reduce inflammation.
Here’s how to nourish your body to deal better with intensive exercise
- Reduce inflammation. All-natural, unprocessed foods that contain natural anti-inflammatories like quercetin from onions and apples7, curcumin from turmeric8, anthocyanins from berries9, omega-3 fatty acids from fish10,11 and ellagitannins from pomegranates12 have shown to reduce exercise-induced inflammation.
- Tackle free radicals. The body naturally produces harmful free radicals when placed under stress13, and antioxidant molecules are needed to mop them up and render them harmless. Antioxidant nutrients like vitamin A and E can help, and are found in vegetables, and nuts and seeds.
- Get enough protein. Muscles are made up of proteins, and resistance training may increase the demand of protein building blocks, known as amino acids. To meet these requirements, include protein in each meal, or use a high quality protein powder to supplement your intake14.
To cope with DOMS, it’s important to make sure your body is able to withstand the added pressures of exercise by including the nutrients it needs to repair and strengthen your muscles overall.
Follow these recommendations to ensure your body is getting the most out of your training routine!
- Cheung, K., et al. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine. 2003. 33(2):145-164.
- Mizumura K, Taguchi T. Delayed onset muscle soreness: Involvement of neurotrophic factors. J Physiol Sci. 2016 Jan;66(1):43–52.
- Teixeira, A., et al. Different Pathways Leading up to the Same Futsal Competition: Individual and Inter-Team Variability in Loading Patterns and Preseason Training Adaptations. 2019. 7(1):7.
- Pollak, K., et al. Exogenously applied muscle metabolites synergistically evoke sensations of muscle fatigue and pain in human subjects. Exp Physiol. 2014. 99(2):368–80.
- Hotta, K., et al. Daily muscle stretching enhances blood flow, endothelial function, capillarity, vascular volume and connectivity in aged skeletal muscle.Journal of Physiology. 2019. 596(10):1903-1917.
- Shirreffs, S. The Importance of Good Hydration for Work and Exercise Performance. Nutrition Reviews. 2005. 63(1):S14-S21.
- Goa, C., et al. Myocardial mitochondrial oxidative stress and dysfunction in intense exercise: regulatory effects of quercetin. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2014. 114(4):695-705.
- Davis, J., et al. Curcumin effects on inflammation and performance recovery following eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. American Journal of Physiology. 2007.
- Bell, P. G., McHugh, M. P., Stevenson, E., & Howatson, G. (2013). The role of cherries in exercise and health. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(3), 477–490.
- Jouris, K., et al. The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2011. 10(3):432-438.
- Baum K, Telford RD, Cunningham RB. Marine oil dietary supplementation reduces delayed onset muscle soreness after a 30 km run. Open Access J Sports Med. 2013; 4:109-15.
- Trombold, J., et al. The Effect of Pomegranate Juice Supplementation on Strength and Soreness after Eccentric Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 25(7):1782-1788.
- Close GL, Ashton T, Cable T, et al. Eccentric exercise, isokinetic muscle torque and delayed onset muscle soreness: the role of reactive oxygen species. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2004 May:615–21.
- Kreider, R. B. (1999). Dietary Supplements and the Promotion of Muscle Growth with Resistance Exercise. Sports Medicine, 27(2), 97–110.