For anyone starting a new workout routine one of the most frustrating after-effects is the muscle soreness people often feel for a couple of days. Often known as delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), it’s typically caused by starting a new routine or significantly upping the intensity or duration of your workout. Here we’ll look at why muscle soreness happens and what you can do to reduce the effect.
What causes muscle soreness after exercising?
When your muscles are forced to work in a new or a more challenging way it causes microscopic tears in the muscle fibres, which is believed to be the cause of the soreness. One common mistake people make it is thinking that lactic acid is involved in the process, however in the case of DOMS lactic acid is not responsible.
How long does muscle soreness usually last?
It will vary from person to person, but DOMS typically last for between 2-5 days for most people. The most noticeable pain will typically only last for a day or two though, before easing to something far more manageable.
It’s important to recognise the difference between DOMS and an injury so if you feel any acute, sharp pain there’s a chance you’ve pulled a muscle or sprained something. See if the pain goes away after a day or two, and If not then it’s probably worth having your doctor check it out.
Australian research found that lifting light weights on the day following a heavy workout can help reduce DOMS by up to 40%. The light sessions resulted in increased blood flow to the affected areas, which researchers claim may help speed up the recovery process.
To get the desired effects, just perform a variation on the previous day’s lifts with much less weight. If your squats from the day before are killing you try a couple of sets of bodyweight squats. If it was the bench press, try a couple of sets of push-ups. Just remember to keep it light and don’t push to failure or you could end up with an injury.
Making the most of the two hour nutritional ‘sweet spot’ after a workout can help to speed up muscle repair and ultimately muscle soreness. Your body can absorb nutrients incredibly efficiently following a workout, so try to make the most of this opportunity.
You need to get the right mix of protein and carbohydrates and protein in order to give your muscles what they need to repair themselves. Try a protein shake and some oatmeal or brown rice and chicken breast post-workout to help refuel and repair your body.
Your body and your muscles need water, and dehydration can be one of the biggest obstacles to an effective recovery. It’s important to stay well hydrated throughout the day, as well as throughout your workout. How can you tell if you’re well-hydrated? Use the pee test. Your urine should be a very light yellow colour or clear if you’re well-hydrated – any darker and you’ll need some fluids.
A cool-down workout can help with muscle soreness by helping to remove some of the fluids which cause the pain. Other techniques like foam rolling and massage have also been shown to have a positive effect by removing any tight spots or adhesions from muscles. Try using a foam roller after any especially strenuous workouts and aim to have a massage around once a month.
Improve blood flow
Improving the level of blood flow to the affected area can have a positive impact on DOMS. As with calisthenics, other techniques that improve circulation to the muscles can help reduce the soreness. Light cardio, light stretching after the workout, switching between hot and cold every 60 seconds in the shower or an ice bath can all help improve circulation to the affected area.
A recent Spanish study showed that watermelon may help to ease muscle soreness. The men in the study performed a heavy cycling workout, after which they consumed 17oz of liquefied watermelon. The focus of the study was on the amino acid citrulline, which occurs naturally in watermelon but is rarely found in other natural foods.
Those who had consumed the watermelon reported substantially less muscle soreness after 24 hours than those who have not. This should be taken with a pinch of salt (the research, not the watermelon) as there were only 7 people involved in the study and it was self-reported. However, if you have easy access to watermelon and a blender it could be worth a try!
There are several topical ointments available which can help reduce muscle pain and soreness, including DOMS. Most of these creams work by cooling the area and improving blood flow to the affected area, providing a similar effect to the method above. Treatments like Tiger Balm, Ben-Gay or Ralgex are all popular options, and should be used straight after the workout and reapplied until the pain subsides.
Over the counter medications
If you’re really suffering then some over the counter pain relievers can help. Ibuprofen and aspirin have anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce or prevent muscle pain. As with any medication, check with your doctor to see if it’s suitable and safe to take.
Ways to prevent DOMS
The simplest way to prevent DOMS is to gradually ease your way into a new workout, giving your body time to adjust to the new movements. If the muscle is able to adapt gradually to the stress it should help to reduce the post-workout soreness. You should find that it eases substantially the more times you perform the workout in the future.
While there’s no evidence to suggest that a warm-up will reduce DOMS it’s still an important element of injury prevention, so make sure you always warm up properly.
Should you exercise with DOMS?
Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, working out when you have DOMS is fine. Some people notice that the soreness actually diminishes throughout the workout but returns shortly after they finish.
If you’re struggling with mobility or range of movement as a result of DOMS then try to avoid working the affected area. It could cause some issues with proper form and increases your risk of injury. Try workout out another body part until you feel ready to return to your workout.
While it can be uncomfortable and even a little painful at times, DOMS is really nothing to be overly concerned about. Some people actually enjoy the sensation, as it’s a signal from your body that you’ve really pushed yourself to another level. If it’s something you suffer from regularly, give the above methods a try to see if they work for you.