You know the feeling when you wake up a day or two after exercising and you are so sore you can’t even walk or lift your arms? I think we’ve all been there! This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS.
What Happens During DOMS?
There had been speculation that lactic acid buildup in the muscles was responsible for muscle soreness; however, that is not true.
At this point, researchers agree that microscopic tears in your muscles are to blame for post-exercise soreness. Of course this then begs the question: why do I feel sore 24-48 hours later?
It seems that the soreness is a result of the repair process; however, the details of that repair process are still unclear. We do know that during the repair process:
Seems pretty clear, right?
Here is an excerpt from Physiology of Sport and Exercise, Fifth Edition, by W. Larry Kenney, Jack Wilmore, and David Costill.
“We now are confident that muscle soreness results from injury or damage to the muscle itself, generally the muscle fiber and possibly the plasmalemma.1, 4 This damage sets up a chain of events that includes the release of intracellular proteins and an increase in muscle protein turnover. The damage and repair process involves calcium ions, lysosomes, connective tissue, free radicals, energy sources, inflammatory reactions, and intracellular and myofibrillar proteins. But the precise cause of skeletal muscle damage and the mechanisms of repair are not well understood. As we have discussed previously, some evidence suggests that this process is an important step in muscle hypertrophy.
Up to this point, our discussion of DOMS has focused on muscle injury. Edema, or the accumulation of fluids in the muscular compartment, also can lead to DOMS. This edema is likely the result of muscle injury but could occur independently of muscle injury. An accumulation of interstitial or intracellular fluid increases the tissue fluid pressure within the muscle compartment, which in turn activates pain receptors within the muscle.” (Kennedy et al., 2012).
Causes of DOMS
You’re most likely to experience delayed onset muscles soreness when you have started a new exercise regimen after not having performed physical activity, or after introducing new training variables such as a new activity, or increased intensity, load, or volume. There is one particular type of muscular contraction that most often leads to DOMS - eccentric contraction. An eccentric contraction is the “negative” portion of a movement that occurs when the muscle fibers lengthen. For example, lowering the weight in a bicep curl, lowering your weight into a squat, running downhill.
One of the best things you can do to reduce DOMS is to progress slowly into a new exercise program. You’ll notice that in an advanced program, the first few weeks will basically be a preparation phase for your body to adapt to new stimuli. Also, repeating new exercises in subsequent sessions can decrease DOMS. I call the first phase of my programs, the foundation phase, which serves the same purpose, among other things.
Studies have shown that cryotherapy may be effective in reducing symptoms of DOMS for about 24-96 hours after treatment. Cryotherapy is a cold-water immersion (CWI) method that relieves pain and decreases inflammation. You can do this at home by filling a bath tub or bin with water and ice or even by applying ice packs to sore areas on the body. According to research the mean cooling temperature of the studies was 10°C (50 degrees F with a range of 5°C to 13°C or 41-55 degrees F). The reported and suggested cooling time for alleviating the subjective symptoms is 13 min (range: 10 min to 24 min). It is suggested that CWI or ice be applied immediately following exercise (Hohenauer et al., 2015).
Massage is thought to decrease inflammation and increase blood flow and circulation, bringing more nutrients to the affected area and removing the byproducts of muscle damage so recovery occurs faster. It has also been suggested that massage might decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of neurotransmitters that reduce pain and affect mood.
In terms of the effectiveness of massage for reducing DOMS, the results have been mixed. Most studies have found that massage reduces perceived levels of soreness but other studies have found that massage wasn’t effective, and there’s a lot of variation in the methods of the studies performed. A review of the effect of massage on DOMS concluded that massage received between 2-3 hours after exercise seems to be the most effective treatment time, but that the optimal dose and type of massage isn’t clear (Nelson, 2013). If you can get a massage, use a massage chair or use some other self-massage tool like a foam roller, within a few hours after exercising, you may experience lower levels of DOMS. You can experiment with different types and lengths of massage and see what works best for you!
No need to fret if you are not sore after exercise. Soreness isn’t necessarily an indication of a good workout and the lack of soreness is not necessarily an indicator of an ineffective workout. In many cases the presence of DOMS can actually decrease exercise motivation and interfere with performance.
The good news is that once the muscle is damaged and repaired, it comes back stronger! Your goal should be to find a balance - create enough microscopic muscle tears that you are stimulating adaptation without creating so much muscle damage that you are too sore to do anything for days. As you repeat exercises and strengthen your muscle fibers, you will become less and less susceptible to DOMS. Muscle damage is just one contributing factor to muscle growth; however, there are two other factors, including mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Point being, it is possible to increase muscle growth without large amounts of muscular damage and soreness.
Kenney, W. L., Wilmore, J. H., Costill, D. L., & Wilmore, J. H. (2012). Physiology of sport and exercise (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Hohenauer, E., Taeymans, J., Baeyens, J., Clarys, P., & Clijsen, R. (2015). The Effect of Post-Exercise Cryotherapy on Recovery Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Plos One, 10(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139028
Nelson, N. (2013, October). Delayed onset muscle soreness: is massage effective? Retrieved January 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24139006
Candice Canace Rulnick has been a NASM certified personal trainer since 2014. She specializes in women's fitness, weight loss, and overall health and wellness. Candice offers personal training to women in Charlotte, NC and also provides home and gym workouts through her online training app.
Candice Canace Rulnick has been a NASM certified personal trainer since 2014. She specializes in women's fitness, weight loss, functional anatomy and overall health and wellness. Candice offers one-on-one personal training and small group training to women in Charlotte, NC. She also provides home and gym workouts through her online training app.