What are DOMS?
Muscle soreness after exercising is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Soreness can range range from a mild ache to severe muscular pain that almost debilitates you. In the most severe cases people wake up unable to get out of bed due to every muscle screaming in agony.
Generally the first cases of DOMS are the worse, and the worse cases are generally in people that have trained before but taken a break from exercise. They have still the strength the train hard but the muscles have become unaccustomed which results in more severe muscle damage.
The delayed in muscle soreness varies between individuals and depends on genetics, fitness and how accustomed they are to a particular exercise routine. Generally soreness starts at around 8 hours after exercise and peaks at 24-72 hours, then subsides. It can take up to a week before soreness completely clears.
What Causes DOMS?
The biological cause is still not understood completely. What is known is that DOMS result from ultrastructural damage to myofilaments in the muscles (damage on the cellular level to filaments of myofibrils that are made from protein), especially the Z-disc. Also the muscle’s connective tissue is damaged. The pain may not actually be caused by the damaged muscles, but could be the result of the inflammation of the muscles during the recovery phase.
DOMS are not equal in all people. Researchers have found that generally the severity of muscle pain is not related directly to the amount of muscle damage. This is the first suggestion that you may actually be OK to train again while still suffering from DOMS as the muscles may recover before the DOMS subsides. This could be due to the inflammation causing DOMS and taking longer to subside than muscle repair.
Eccentric Weight Lifting Causes DOMS
DOMS are caused by eccentric damage to muscles. Isometric and concentric exercise does not cause severe DOMS, in fact concentric exercise rarely results in muscle soreness. Part of the muscle recovery involves adaptation to specific training to lessen the severity of DOMS in future workouts. This is why DOMS are always worse after the first sessions and lessen as you become more accustomed to a particular exercise.
How to Prevent DOMS
One way to prevent DOMS is to maintain regular exercise. Muscles become accustomed to a particular movement during the recovery process and they become better equipped after each workout. The protective effect of regular exercise can last for weeks, maybe in some people a few months. However, within a year of the last workout the protection will disappear completely meaning that you start over again. This is why the first workout after a long break can be very painful.
To reduce the effect of DOMS you should always build up your workouts slowly to start with, as this allows you to train on a more regular basis. Although training with DOMS is not always a bad idea (see below) the physiological impact of suffering from muscle pain is often enough to prevent people performing an adequately intensive workout.
If you are performing high intensity weight training then splitting your workouts up so that you do not need to perform the same eccentric exercises in the same week is the best option.
Stretching before or after exercise does not help treat muscle soreness. Some people claim coffee helps, although there is nothing concrete on this.
Training With DOMS is OK
The reasoning for not training when suffering from DOMS is that it will lead to further injury and overtraining. However, it is thought that training with DOMS does not actually cause more injury or slow down recovery. Continued use of the muscle actually helps to reduce soreness in the short term, although it may be uncomfortable to exercise to start with. You may hear some fitness instructors saying “work through the pain“. They are probably on the right track.
Of course, you may still be overtraining if you train with DOMS simply because if you have DOMS you may still be in the muscle recovery stage. But it you train different muscle groups or perform concentric and isometric exercises then you will not be overworking the muscles that were damaged previously. This is essentially why split routines are recommended in any form of fitness training, so that you can allow recovery in one set of muscles while continuing to work others.
How To Treat DOMS
Rest. Some people respond well to massage or hot baths. Low intensity work helps too. If you are suffering from a heavy weight training sessions then it could be a good opportunity to do some lighter exercises, get on the cross trainer or rower, or perform callisthenics or isometrics.
One last thing to consider is that the effect of light exercise seems to vary depending on the type of exercise that is performed that leads to DOMS. Endurance athletes often respond better to a gentle job to “run it off” than bodybuilders.
Managing Your Muscle Soreness and DOMS
To conclude, it really is a personal matter. People suffer differently, degrees and duration of pain vary according to gender, age, types of exercise performed, fitness and experience. Training with DOMS will not slow down recovery, however the additional damage may put a greater toll on your body and slow overall recovery.
Ensuring that you are getting adequate rest and are well nourished is vital. Aim for 8 hours sleep a night and ensure that your are supplying your muscles with plenty of proteins. The muscle damage is caused by protein structures being broken down and essential amino-acids (dietary sources) are required to repair the muscle.
If DOMS are preventing you from performing a good workout then it may be wise to take a rest or do something different. If you can work through the pain then you should not suffer more as a result though. There is not really a need to rest until all aching has gone – this would mean only exercising once a week for some people.
If you log your progress well you should be able to determine if you are overtraining. If working with DOMS seems to be resulting in you not progressing, i.e. not lifting heavier weights or improving running times, then it could well be a sign that you are indeed overtraining. Improving nutrition and sleep could quicken recovery this allowing more frequent training, so before you decide to slow down your training, increase sleep and nutrition first.
References and Further Reading
- Kokkinos, Peter (2009). Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Disease Prevention. Jones & Bartlett Learning. pp. 111–112. ISBN 9780763756123. Full text available on Google Books
- Postexercise Muscle Soreness by Divakara Kedlaya, MBBS.