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Proven Ways To Minimize Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

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We’ve all been there. You tackle a couple of extra sets of jumping lunges and weighted squats during a strength training session and, bam! Two days later you can’t walk down the stairs without wincing in pain. Hello, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)!

And while sore muscles are certainly no fun to deal with, there’s a pretty good reason why DOMS kicks in after a hard training session. In short, and if handled correctly, it forms part of a process that can help your muscles get stronger for the next round of exercise.

So is it inevitable, then, to hobble around with sore muscles after every hard workout? Not necessarily. Because even though DOMS is an indication of progress, there are ways in which to better prepare your body for an increased workload. Which ultimately could minimize the post-workout agony.

What exactly is DOMS?

But before we get to ways in which to minimize DOMS, let’s remind ourselves what it is and how it happens. Contrary to popular belief, DOMS is not caused by an accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles. According to Dr. David J. Szymanski, chair of the Kinesiology Department of Louisiana Tech University, the “…lactate concentration [in muscles] will go back down to resting levels within 20–40 minutes after exercise”. He adds that “because of that, the pain that somebody associated with delayed onset muscle soreness 24–72 hours later cannot be because of that lactate that was built up while they were running”.

So what is the cause of DOMS? In short, when performing a high-intensity exercise, it can actually cause significant damage to muscle cells. This damage can lead to microscopic tears in the fibers of the muscles, which, in turn, can lead to inflammation, soreness, and inability to move your body as intended.

This soreness usually kicks in about 24 hours after completing a particularly hard exercise session and can last anything from two to four days. Which means that the painful, heavy feeling in your legs immediately after completing a marathon is not caused by DOMS. But hobbling down the stairs like a cowboy the morning after a marathon certainly is.

Proven ways to minimize DOMS

So what can you do to minimize DOMS, while still allowing your body to benefit from an increased workload? Here are a few tips and tricks from the experts:

1. Always do a proper warm-up

While conventional wisdom touts a proper cool-down as the best way to minimize DOMS, recent research findings confirmed that a good warm-up is actually more important. “If you already have the muscle warmed up and prepared, it is better able to handle the activity,” Dr. Szymanski clarifies. In addition, you also need to lubricate your joints, tendons, and ligaments so that your body is prepared and ready for your workout.

Dr. Priscilla Clarkson, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, agrees. Through her research, she has shown that increasing muscle temperature by as little as 1 degree Celcius before eccentric training can noticeably reduce the level of muscle soreness experienced after a workout.

2. Gradually increase your workload

For beginner runners, the excitement of starting with a running program often leads to doing too much too soon. And while starting a new fitness journey (with the blessing of your physician) is always a good thing, overdoing it early on can easily lead to soreness, frustration and ultimately giving up.

So resist the temptation to do too much too soon by sticking to a good, structured training program and gradually easing into it. This will give your body a chance to get used to the higher workload, thereby allowing it to adapt and get stronger without giving up.

3. Fuel like a pro

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2007 found that cyclists who consumed a carbohydrate-protein beverage during and immediately after an exhaustive cycling workout suffered 83% less muscle damage than cyclists who consumed a carb-only drink. As a result, study participants who consumed the carbohydrate-protein beverage were also able to perform 40% better in a workout the next day when compared to members of the carb-only group.

So keep in mind that nutrition also plays a vital role in recovering from hard workouts. Be sure to include both carbohydrates and protein in your fuelling strategy in order to help your body to recover optimally.

4. Familiarize yourself with the “repeated bout effect”

According to Dr. Szymanski the “repeated bout effect”, which sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, is another way in which to minimize DOMS. The principle is simple: The body adapts to repeated activity. So if you plan on running a race containing brutal downhills, incorporate downhills into your training. “The more times you repeat the activity, the less pain you’ll feel because your body will continually adapt to it,” Dr. Szymanski explains. Simple, right?

Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean that you should zoom in on one aspect of training and forget about the rest. In the long term, gradually and continually challenging your body in a variety of ways (without overdoing it) will turn you into a balanced, well-rounded athlete.

And what about NSAIDs?

But isn’t it easier to simply pop an ibuprofen to prevent or treat DOMS? According to nutritionist and sports writer, Matt Fitzgerald, “you should never train so hard that you must resort to it [pain medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen]”. He adds that “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs] actually impede muscle tissue repair, so you wouldn’t want to rely on them daily, anyway. What’s more, exercise itself is analgesic, so on those days when you find your muscles sore from your last workout you will probably actually get some relief from a light recovery session”.

Train smart

So get clever with your training. Instead of launching yourself into a new training routine head first, and then sitting out for a few days on account of sore, stiff muscles, play around with these tips and tricks instead. Not only will you spare yourself a great deal of discomfort, but you’ll also end up fast-tracking your fitness gains as a result of taking less time off.

Happy training!