Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

You will have all been here before. A day has passed since you were at the gym, doing those squats. Yet now, you feel almost paralysed any time you try to move. Well that is what I mean by DOMS.

That pain and stiffness you feel in your muscles, that is DOMS. It’s what we refer to as a ‘symptom of exercise-induced muscle damage’, the other one being ‘acute muscle soreness’. It’s important not to get the two confused – acute muscle soreness is pain felt immediately after or during strenuous exercise.

The pain is usually felt as a dull pain, causing us to feel tender and stiff. You already know what it feels like though – but what actually causes it?

The cause of DOMS are those exercises where you lengthen contractions, or eccentric exercises. Whereas as the exercises that shorten contractions, or concentric exercises, causes no amount of DOMS.

Where our knowledge is less thorough is in why we feel the pain, what’s actually happening?

Many agree that what we are experiencing is trauma on a very small scale, directly affecting the muscles we exercise. These can be thought of as microscopic lesions on the muscles.

There are other theories out there. One, now largely rejected theory, attributed DOMS to the build up of lactic acid within the blood, which we know causes pain. However we also know that normal levels of lactic acid are returned to normal within one hour, and so couldn’t explain why we feel in bits 48 hours later.

Naturally, some think of this as a warning sign – your body telling you that something is wrong. In fact this isn’t the case. Actually, further activity of the muscle will act to reduce the soreness, even if it does hurt initially.

Once DOMS sets in the muscle is able to adapt in order to receive less damage in future from the same muscle – or, ‘repeated-bout effect’. This means that essentially, the length of time that you experience soreness will reduce.

There are certain ways that we know can prevent DOMS. By repeating new exercises at greater intensities will take advantage of the repeated-bout effect, and will prevent DOMS in the future. You could even theoretically eliminate eccentric exercises to remove DOMS, but this is almost unavoidable, and may only limit the pain a minute amount.

One theory is that if you warm-up correctly and cool-down correctly you won’t experience DOMS. Well it’s a nice thought I guess. Unfortunately this has no effect, and if you over stretch you may only add to the soreness.

Strict nutritional plans can help to prevent DOMS by managing levels of both electrolytes and glycogen. But this is very difficult. Oh, and if you have heard vitamin C will prevent DOMS, again, unfortunately not.

DOMS is simply an indicator that our bodies are adapting to a fitness regime. This can deter a lot of beginners from exercising – they think that their bodies are overworked. Even though this is ‘muscle damage’, it is on a microscopic level and works as a way to train our muscles to fight damage on a larger scale.

It should feel at it’s worst between 24-72 hours after exercise, and that’s when you feel desperate. There are certain ways we can treat DOMS in order to reduce the effects. Ideally we want to increase the blood flow to the muscles, so massages, hot baths and even saunas can reduce the level of pain. Conversely some athletes use ice baths to reduce pain, and although some scientists dispute it, most who try it see benefits.

I wish I could give you a wonderful tip on avoiding DOMS, but really, it’s something we all have to deal with. The little tips mentioned above may prevent or reduce some of the pain, but if your muscles are subject to strenuous exercise, then DOMS is inevitable.

Really, DOMS is the scientific equivalent of that old cliché, ‘No pain, No gain’.

Ollie Lawrence
Latest posts by Ollie Lawrence (see all)