Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) - What is it and what do you do about it?

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Have you ever done a new workout or activity and woken up the next day needing a crane to get you out of bed because you're so sore?

If so, you've experience DOMS - Delay Onset of Muscle Soreness, soreness that happens between 12-48 hours after your workout and, boy, can it hurt.  

Soreness isn't a bad thing, really and it can be a necessary part of growth.  But, if even your hair hurts, you've probably gone too far.

What Is DOMS?

As the name suggests, this kind of muscle soreness happens well after your workout, sometimes peaking on the second day which, I know, is a little weird.

The thing about DOMS is that you can't really tell if you're going to get sore or how sore you'll get.  If you do something totally new that you've never done before, there's a very good chance you'll experience DOMS.

How bad will it be?  That is tougher to predict, but anytime you challenge your muscles in a new way, you're bound to feel some affects.

Some symptoms:

What Causes DOMS?

So, you've probably experienced DOMS if you've ever done any kind of activity, whether it's exercise or shoveling snow, but what is it that makes us sore?

Researchers believe it's when all of these factors are present:

  • Unaccustomed exercise - So any time you do something new and different
  • Eccentric contractions - No, it doesn't mean you're doing something peculiar, it actually describes a type of contraction your muscles make during different exercises.  An eccentric contraction means that you're contracting the muscle as it is lengthening.  Think of the lowering phase of a biceps curl
  • Exhaustive exercise - What that means is just that you're challenging your muscles with more resistance than they're used to handling.  So, if you're a beginner, anything you do is exhaustive, since your body isn't used to exercise.  If you're more advanced, you might get sore by lifting heavier weights or doing a new exercise with heavy weights.

    All of these things cause what experts believe are microscopic tears in your muscle fibers as they respond to new challenges.

    How Can You Minimize DOMS?

    It's normal to experience some soreness when you first start exercising, but you can reduce your chances of getting very sore by:

    • Warming up before your workouts - Schedule at least 5 minutes for your warm up, more if it's cold or your body takes a little longer to get things going
    • Easing into your program - Start with light exercise, allowing your body to build strength and endurance gradually
    • Dynamic stretching -  Some studies show that dynamic stretching, which means you're moving through active motions rather than holding a static stretch, may help with DOMS.  In one study, researchers found that exercises who did dynamic stretches for the calf muscle at various times after a strenuous calf workout had higher pain thresholds and significantly better movement than the static stretch group and the control group
    • Make slow, gradual changes to your program

      Treating DOMS

      If you do get sore, you can treat it with

      • Rest - If you really overdid it, you won't want to move anyway, but your body may need extra time to repair and recover, so rest an extra day before you workout
      • Take a hot bath - Of course, the relief is temporary, but a good hot bath can make you feel better, at least for a little while
      • Get a massage - This one is a bit controversial, just because there are conflicting studies about whether this actually works.  Either way, massage is always a good thing in my book
      • Take an anti-inflammatory (such as ibuprofen) - Part of DOMS is that your muscles are inflamed so some people might get some relief with a painkiller.  You should, of course, talk to your doc about that if you have any issues with those kinds of meds
      • A gentler version of the workout that made you sore - Some people find that doing a lighter version of the same workout actually makes them feel better.  I don't know the research on this (though I'm still looking!) but my feeling is that contracting the muscles that are sore seems to, perhaps, help them heal...as in the study I mentioned about with the dynamic stretching.  Just a theory

      Sources:

      Hasson S, Barnes W, Hunter M and Williams J. Therapeutic effect of high speed voluntary muscle contractions on muscle soreness and muscle performance. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1989;10(12):499-507.

      Tiidus PM. Manual massage and recovery of muscle function following exercise: a literature review. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1997 Feb;25(2):107-12.

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