All You Need to Know About Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Soreness can be a sign of a good workout, but not all soreness is a good thing. When you first begin an exercise program or get back into it after a long break, experiencing a bit of muscle pain later that day or the next is normal. This specific pain should not be so uncomfortable that it limits being able to move around as usual and should subside within a day or so. If the soreness causes you to not be able to lift your arms or go downstairs without severe pain, and lasts longer than two days, your workout may have caused delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS for short).
Causes and Symptoms
Typically, delayed onset muscle soreness begins within 8 to 12 hours after intense exercise and peaks to its worst symptoms at 24 to 48 hours. The pain from DOMS subsides by around 72 hours, but may last longer for some individuals. This pain is felt with active movement and stretching the muscles. Along with muscle pain, other symptoms that come along with DOMS are a temporary loss in muscle strength, decreased range of motion, and possibly swelling in the muscles involved in the exercise. The sore muscles may feel as if “bruised” when touched with light pressure. This combination of symptoms may last even up to 10 to 14 days in severe cases.
What exactly is the “intense exercise” that can causes DOMS? Studies show that the usual type of exercise that causes this condition is eccentric movements, which is when the muscles lengthen during the contraction. Although this is the most common exercise to cause DOMS, many other forms of workouts can lead to this intense soreness, such as running downhill, high intensity sprinting or plyometrics, and heavy weight lifting. Most of the time, this condition arises after performing new exercises at too high of an intensity that the body is not used to.
In the past, it was believed that delayed onset muscle soreness was the result of the so-called lactic acid buildup in the muscles during exercise. This buildup occurs during any exercise, but returns to normal levels as soon as an hour after the completion of the workout. Therefore, DOMS is not related to the lactic acid accumulation in muscle that occurs during physical activity. Unaccustomed eccentric exercises cause damage beginning at the muscle’s cell membrane, which results in inflammation that expands out to the entire muscle and surrounding areas, creating metabolic waste. This waste product stimulates the nerves surrounding the muscles causing pain. Keep in mind this type of damage occurs with certain forms of exercise as explained above, not with all exercise as with the regular lactic acid buildup.
Although the first line of defense used when feeling this kind if pain is to take an anti-inflammatory pill, it may not be the best option. It may help ease symptoms in most cases, but is shown to have unattractive side effects of stomach issues and can eventually lead to poor healing capabilities in the future. The best initial treatment options are rest and ice—which is a safe, natural anti-inflammatory agent. Another go-to pain reliever sought out by most athletes is massage. Gentle massage helps ease DOMS pain, swelling and tightness in most individuals, reducing the severity and duration of symptoms. Massage has been shown to help decrease the compound in our muscles that cause inflammation. Deep tissue massage that is typically used by athletes for tight muscles is contraindicated for this condition due to the intense pressure that may exacerbate the pain.
Another helpful treatment option is light exercise such as cycling, pool exercises, and gentle stretching. These approaches will help maintain good circulation and keep the muscle warm to be more prepared for the addition of intense exercise once the DOMS has subsided. Intense exercise, especially the type of workout that initially caused the pain, should be avoided, as one of the symptoms of DOMS is a temporary muscle weakness. This decrease in strength causes delayed shock absorption to the exercise, which can lead to injuries such as a muscle strain or tear.
Performing a proper warm-up before any exercise is the first thing that should be done to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness. A warm-up, as in its name, basically increases the temperature of muscle, which improves its elasticity, making it more resilient to tearing. The effects of a proper warm-up lead to improved muscle contractions and better performance during the workout. Research states that warming up for an eccentric-type workout with concentric moves is effective in helping prevent DOMS. A good warm-up for running consists of more dynamic moves such as walking lunges, legs swings, and military marches. Static stretches, where you hold a fixed position for several seconds is not recommended, as this will cause muscles to elongate and remain in a more relaxed state.
If you are beginning a running or exercise program for the first time or after a long break, it is advisable to gradually ease into the intensity and make sure to include a warm-up. It is important to note the difference between DOMS and other causes of muscle pain. If you are experiencing pain during a specific exercise, it is most likely due to improper form, a muscle strain, or other injury. DOMS symptoms occur between 8 and 12 hours after the completion of exercise. You are able to perform lower intensity exercises with DOMS without continued muscle damage, whereas with a muscle strain, further exercise will continue to impair the muscle.
DOMS is not necessarily a bad condition since it involves a natural effect of new exercise, but it should be avoided when possible as it prevents any higher intensity exercise to be performed for several days or weeks. If you want to go “all-out” during your track day with brand new sprint intervals that you have never done, and you develop DOMS, expect to not be able to get your long run done even if it is a couple of days after the track workout. A good rule of thumb when increasing intensity of your workout program is to increase sets, reps, resistance, or mileage by only 10% each week. This is a safer way to prevent the unwanted soreness of DOMS.