We’ve all been there: walking slightly bent over, the muscles in our legs/core/back/arms screaming as we try to sit down, reach up, climb the stairs or, worse yet, go the stairs. A result of a new workout plan, extra hard session or “forgetting” to warm up or cool down, delayed onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS) really can feel like a harsh trade-off when it comes to our fitness routines.
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Whether you’re a resistance training regular, Pilates aficionado or circuit training convert, few escape from DOMS pain all the time – although there are some things you can do to mitigate how badly we experience it. Read on for our expert guide to dealing with delayed onset muscle soreness and the best course of action to make it hurt less.
What is delayed onset muscle soreness?
As with a lot of fitness terms (e.g. compound exercises or glute isolation exercises), delayed onset muscle soreness is really ‘does what it says on the tin’, so let’s break it down.
‘Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short, is a condition where your muscles get sore not immediately but a short time after a workout,’ explains P.Volve physiotherapist Dr Amy Hoover. ‘Typically DOMS occurs 24-48 hours after a hard workout.’
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The nature of DOMS pain means that you’ll likely not feel muscle soreness until one to two days after your workout, hence the ‘delayed onset’ element in the name.
What are the causes of delayed onset muscle soreness?
- Trying a new workout or sport
- Lifting more weight than usual
- Performing more reps
- Changing the tempo of your exercise
- Returning to exercise/sport after time off
‘DOMS is caused by stress on the muscle fibres as you work them in excess of what they are used to, or load them with more weight than usual. It can also occur if you are using muscles in a way that your body is not used to, like playing a sport for the first time,’ explains Dr Hoover. ‘It is also more common after eccentric exercise or movements that challenge the muscles to work as they lengthen.’
A quick refresh on eccentric exercises. Every exercise you do will have an eccentric and concentric element. Concentric is when the muscle contracts and shortens, i.e when you bring a weight towards your shoulder during a bicep curl. The eccentric element is when the muscle fibres lengthen again – continuing the example of a bicep curl this would be when you lower the weight back down to your side.
Other eccentric movements include bringing the barbell or dumbbells to your chest during a bench press or lowering down into a squat position with thighs parallel to the floor.
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Is delayed onset muscle soreness normal?
‘Totally normal!’ says Tash Lankester, PT at FLEX Chelsea, explaining why DOMS are not only normal but be a sign your body is building muscle as usual. ‘Progression and muscle growth come after the micro-tears. In response to tears, our bodies produce cells to repair and protect our muscles from tearing in the future – this is what leads to an increase in muscle mass.’
However, she says, ‘if you are sore after every workout, this is a sign you are probably pushing it too hard, not taking effective recovery measures, and it may be time to slow it down, as you won’t actually be making progress.’
How do you treat DOMS pain?
- Ice therapy
- Foam rolling exercises
- Using a muscle gun
- NEAT exercise
Besides muffled shouting every time you get up or down from a surface, there are actionable ways to treat your DOMS pain. From adding in foam roller exercises to your post-workout routine and stretching before and after a workout (save the dynamic stretches for after the workout, though), to walking more and using hot/cold therapy, there are myriad options, all at different price points.
One of the best ways to make sure your body’s in the right place is by making time for proper rest.
‘It’s during the rest days the tissue really heals and grows, resulting in stronger muscles, so make sure you get those rest days and recovery sessions in. Plan your rest days as part of your workout diary, including stretch sessions or restorative yoga classes,’ suggests Maria Eleftheriou, Head of Barre at Psycle. ‘If you commit to this you will feel a difference in your workouts, recharge your batteries and most importantly, you’ll be much less likely to cause injury.’
Is it okay to work out with DOMS?
We get it – you’re in the swing and don’t want to ruin your workout streak because of sore glutes or quads that feel like breeze blocks. Fair enough. But is it a good idea to work out with DOMS pain? We asked the expert.
‘It is fine to work out with DOMS, but you want to avoid heavy resistance training exercise while your sore muscles recover. Varying which muscle groups to focus on day to day can also allow the body to recover before the next intense workout,’ suggests Dr Hoover.
‘DOMS may be a normal part of strength training or new activity, but as your body adjusts to heavier weight or more intense workouts you should experience delayed onset muscle soreness less and less.’
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How to prevent DOMS and reduce DOMS pain post-workout
‘The best way to avoid DOMS is to prevent it in the first place. Slowly and gradually increase your workout load, and properly warm-up and stretch after your workouts,’ says Dr Hoover.
Here’s your play by play guide to swerve DOMS pain before it sets in.
1. Focus on cool down exercises
There shouldn’t be a situation when you’re rushing from your gym workout or spin class without any time to cool down. The same way you wouldn’t regularly emergency brake on the highway (if you can avoid it), you shouldn’t be slamming the brakes on your workout either.
Instead, save 10-20 minutes for cool down exercises, they’ll help your heart rate come back to baseline slowly and prevent muscle tissue from seizing up.
2. Keep moving
Once you’re out of the gym, not to sit down all day. We say try because some days, it feels impossible to get a moment away from the computer – we get it.
However, a light walk back to the office or around the block will keep your body and muscles moving and increase the blood flow to your muscles, aiding in recovery and cutting down the time you’ll be wincing. (This is known as NEAT exercise if you want to find out more about it.)
3. Add in some protein
Protein is a key ingredient to muscle tissue recovery, so don’t skip it. Whilst you don’t need to chug a protein shake the minute you leave the gym, having a diet in which protein is an important part is crucial – especially if you’re strength training or resistance training regularly.
Chicken, tofu, cheese and fish are all great whole food options. Or, if you’re in a rush a protein powder can help you hit your macro goals, too.
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4. Stretch or foam roll
Finally, when you’re in for the night and ready to relax, take 20-30 minutes to stretch or do foam roller exercises. This will help with loosening the fascia (the sticky connective tissue that surrounds your muscles) and helping with feeling a little more loosey-goosey.
Oh, and drink water. No excuses. You need it.
Is it possible to get rid of delayed onset muscle soreness?
Mmmm, no. Not in the way it’s possible to get rid of dry hair with Olaplex or period pains with Myprodol. It possible to mitigate DOMS pain, though.
‘I’m a big fan of active recovery, especially with a foam roller. It can help relieve tightness, reduce inflammation and increase your range of motion. Research also shows that water can help recovery, so swimming or stretching in the water will really have an impact on joint and muscle recovery,’ says Eleftheriou.
‘Healing and repair also require good nutrition. A well-balanced diet of anti-inflammatory foods for example avocado, broccoli, cherries, salmon and turmeric can help ease pain and promote recovery.’
‘Finally, get in your sleep! Without enough physical and mental rest, it can really pull you back on your athletic performance.’