Recovering from post-exercise muscle ache

Anyone and everyone who has exercised at one point or another in their life has experienced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS for short. It’s that achey feeling you feel in your muscles 2-3 days post exercise, and it can often be quite painful – limiting your movement to a point where stairs seems like Everest, or you find yourself looking for a toilet with grab rails to help you into position!

Some people actively look for DOMS, and feel they haven’t worked hard enough unless they experience it. Other people, on the other hand, refuse to workout for the next week if they get any soreness after a workout. So who is right – is DOMS something to be afraid of or encouraged? And what the hell is it anyway? And what is the best way to get over it so that we can go again?

The science behind what exactly causes DOMS is not 100% clear, but most people agree that it is caused by microtears to the muscles, which leads to inflammation as they heal, causing the pain. What we know for certain is that DOMS arises in the first 24 hours post-exercise, and typically peaks 48 hours after exercise. It leads to a temporary decrease in force production for the first 48 hours post-exercise. What is clear is that lactic acid accumulation is not a component of this process, and should not be blamed for your DOMS. Eccentric training (lengthening the muscle with tension applied - for example the lowering phase of a bicep curl or on the way down in a squat) definitely leads to a lot more DOMS than fast, concentric weight training.  

So is it bad for you? In a word, no. However, it will limit your effectiveness in any subsequent exercise or sport sessions over the next two to three days, which will limit the amount of work you can get through. Importantly, it has been linked with an increased chance of injury within this 48 period, through its inhibition of certain muscles and reduction in range of movement - so try to avoid playing a football match the day after doing a heavy legs squatting session!

Recent research coming out of Japan (Murase et al, 2010) actually points to the ‘repair’ process your muscles are undergoing as the source of the pain. As your muscles are repairing themselves, they release a substance called bradykinin along with other enzymes to create growth, which causes blood vessels to enlarge and nerves to become more sensitive. The combination of the sensitized nerve endings and the increased fluid in the area lead to the pain and ‘stiffness’ felt within the muscles.

The good news is that this ‘pain’ you feel is a sign you are getting stronger, and you are getting some benefits from the training you are doing as the body goes through the damage-repair cycle. A word of caution – more DOMS does not necessarily mean you are working harder, it can just mean that you are not training very smartly, and have overloaded a particularly weak area.

So what can you do to reduce DOMS quickly to get back into the gym? Here are a few tips:

  1. Warm-up and cool down before and after your session. Having an effective warmup and cool down has been shown to reduce DOMS in untrained individuals versus individuals who received neither. Your warmup should include the areas of your body you are about to workout, and you should be at least breathless by the end of it. Cool down should involve stretching, and a lot of:

  2. Foam Rolling: If you don’t know what a foam roller is, find out. Buy one, and make it your friend. Foam rolling has consistently shown to be effective at improving range of movement in tight athletes the day after high intensity workouts, and reduce DOMS. The more recent research points to a neuro-physiological affect on your muscles (desensitization of the nerve endings in your muscles) as the mechanism behind foam rolling, which may be why it is effective on DOMS.

  3. Manual therapy/Massage/Acupuncture: If your DOMS is particularly bad, speak to your friendly local physio about manual treatment and acupuncture to hasten your recovery. Both are effective.

  4. Active Recovery: Research has shown that lightly exercising the area the day after a heavy session can reduce the recovery time. For example, after a heavy squatting day, jump on a stationary bike the next day for a gentle 20minute cycle. Your legs will thank you!

  5. Nutrition and Hydration: Being well hydrated, and feeding your working muscles with good fuel should be the cornerstone of any workout program. Don’t waste your time in the gym if you are not paying attention to this outside of the gym. You will recover quicker, and you will make more progress if you do!

Final Word

It is unlikely you will avoid DOMS altogether when you start a new strength program. It is not something that you should be afraid of, or that should keep you away from the gym. However, pain does not need to be present in order for you to achieve progress in your conditioning. If anything, intentionally causing DOMS will only limit the amount of work that you can do in subsequent sessions, potentially slowing down your progress.

The ultimate goal of any training program is to find the optimal balance between work and recovery. The key to a great training program is to find that sweet spot where you are doing enough micro ‘damage’ to create a muscle adaptation, without crippling you for the next two days and making you miss your next session!

Recover well!

Declan


About the author

Declan is Clinic Director for the UFIT Clinic and a fully qualified, registered physiotherapist. He is passionate about helping his patients achieve their long term goals through identifying their weaknesses and imbalances, and developing a strategy to eradicate them. 

Find out more about Declan right here.