You’ve worked extra hard on the turbo trainer, really pushed it on those hill sprints or tried a new strength training routine at the gym, and in the days following, everything hurts.
Your quads refuse to go upstairs – and let’s not even talk about going down again – your triceps shake when you hold the hairdryer, and you have to lower yourself onto the toilet like you’ve suddenly aged 50 years.
Welcome to the wonderful world of delayed onset muscle soreness, aka DOMS.
A normal after-effect of hard exercise, DOMS can hit anyone regardless of fitness level and typically happens when you try something new or switch up your workout routine.
The good news is that it usually only lasts a couple of days and, while it may not feel like it at the time, that sore, achy stiffness is actually a good thing. DOMS is a sign your body is adapting to exercise and getting fitter. In the long-term, things should feel much less painful when you repeat the same workout again.
Even so, it’d be nice if you could shortcut the worst of those day-two aches. So can you reduce the impact? And what about exercising with DOMS, is that a good idea? Here’s everything you need to know about the dreaded post-training aches...
What is DOMS?
DOMS refers to the muscle stiffness, tenderness and reduced mobility you encounter after exercising. The pain can vary from mild (a slight, satisfying ache) to severe (loss of strength and even some swelling) depending on a number of factors including how hard you worked out and how fit you were to start with. Genetics may even play a role in how sore you feel.
How long does DOMS last?
Most people start to feel the effects of DOMS around eight hours after a workout, although it can be earlier. The soreness usually peaks 24-48 hours after exercise – hello second-day muscle pain. According to the NHS, DOMS typically lasts between three and five days in total, although you should find the stiffness starts to ease after the first few days.
Why exercise can make muscles feel sore
While there’s still some research to be done in the area, DOMS isn’t caused by lactic acid as was once thought, instead, the main culprit behind those post-workout aches is microscopic damage to your muscles.
This happens when your muscles are required to work harder or in a different way than they’re used to. For example, when you smash out those sprint intervals after a period of longer slow runs, hit the weights after a two-week holiday, or go for a particularly hard turbo trainer workout.
The soreness is caused by a temporary inflammation around micro muscle tears. When the damage heals, your muscles rebuild stronger and more conditioned to the exercise or intensity that caused them.
While most forms of physical activity can cause DOMS you’re more likely to feel sore after a workout that involves eccentric muscle contractions – when your muscle contracts as it lengthens. This could be running downhill, doing deep squats, lowering yourself into a push up or lowering weights in a controlled manner.
Will I always get DOMS after every session?
Ever wondered why some workouts cause DOMS and other days you can work out for hours and feel as fresh as a particularly flexible daisy?
DOMS usually occurs when you switch things up, so after you try a new workout, if you’re new to exercising, have had a bit of time off, or if you dial up the intensity or duration of your usual routine.
Luckily muscles quickly adapt and build strength and stamina. As your body gets used to a specific stress the same workout should cause less muscle damage meaning less soreness and a speedier recovery next time. Though, if you want to keep getting stronger, faster and fitter, repeating this cycle of ‘stress, rest and recover’ is essential.
Does everyone get DOMS?
DOMS can affect absolutely anyone. Yep, even Olympians struggle to walk down the street after their first session back following the off-season.
DOMS isn’t a sign of how fit you are it’s just your body adapting to a different type of physical demand.
That said, if you’re new to exercise, DOMS may hit you harder as your muscles aren’t used to working out but don’t let it put you off, it does get better, we promise!
Should I work out with DOMS?
As long as the pain you’re feeling is DOMS and not something more serious, such as a muscle tear or sprain, then you should be good to keep exercising. There are a few caveats though:
- Make sure you do a warm-up first as this will help ease any soreness (but you do this before every workout already, right?)
- Try a different form of exercise or work different muscle groups, both for comfort and to give those muscles the time they need to recover. So if your legs are aching, do an arm workout, or choose a low-impact option like swimming or cycling. In most cases, back-to-back tough workouts are best avoided to give your body time to rest and repair.
- Keep an eye on your pain levels. If the discomfort and stiffness don’t ease after a few minutes of warming up and working out then it may be time to take a rain check.
Exercising with DOMS for endurance athletes
When you’re training for a long-distance event such as a marathon or sportive you’ve probably got workouts scheduled for most days of the week. So what to do when DOMS hits? Should you skip that workout?
If you’re due a rest day, go ahead, put your feet up. If not, some people find that some active recovery such as a gentle jog or spinning it out with an easy ride can actually help lessen the pain. A DOMS day isn’t the time to go chasing Strava segments though, keep it easy and allow your muscles time to repair.
Weight training with DOMS
If weights are a big part of your exercise routine the best way to keep training with DOMS is to split your workouts up across the week so that you’re working on legs one day, arms the next to avoid training overworked muscles. You can also use lighter weights and fewer reps for a less intense workout.
What can you do to treat DOMS?
If you’ve ever experienced it, you’ll definitely have wanted to know how to get rid of DOMS.
The best DOMS treatment is time and patience – not what you wanted to hear right? Luckily, while the options below won’t necessarily reduce the recovery period, there are things you can do to alleviate the symptoms of DOMS.
Six top tips to relieve DOMS
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that anti-inflammatory drugs such as Ibuprofen can help relieve muscle soreness, although they have no effect on recovery time sadly. You might also find topical treatments such as Deep Heat and Tiger Balm provide some relief.
2. Ice pack
The NHS recommend an ice pack for treating DOMS as ice helps combat muscle inflammation and can numb nerve endings to reduce pain. Ice is best used in the 48 hours after a workout as it won’t have much effect on older soreness.
3. Self-massage, foam rolling or gentle sports massage
A gentle massage can help flush out toxins and increase blood flow providing relief from the pain of DOMS. Avoid deep tissue massage, however, particularly in the first 24 hours, as this can cause more pain and irritation to the muscles.
4. Compression clothing
Lots of athletes swear by compression clothing for recovery. It can increase blood flow to the muscles and help flush out toxins, which could reduce DOMS pain.
5. Hot baths
A hot bath promotes blood flow which helps sore muscles relax. It feels super-lovely in winter too. There are a lot of mineral muscle soaks such as Epsom Salts out there which claim to reduce muscle soreness when added to bathwater but there’s little evidence to support this. There’s no harm in adding a couple of cupfuls though, even if just to make the water feel nice. Opt for magnesium bath salts and this can help promote sleep too.
6. Contrast heat and cold treatments
Another treatment for DOMS is contrasting hot and cold. This can be achieved by applying an ice pack for 20 minutes followed by a heat pack for 20 minutes.
The brave might want to try contrast hydrotherapy – alternating between hot and freezing showers or baths. The heat expands your blood vessels filling them with blood while the cold constricts the vessels so the blood moves on to other parts of the body increasing blood flow, which could, in turn, reduce inflammation. It is torture though.
Is it possible to eat to reduce DOMS?
Good news if you like your food, eating well can help reduce the pain of DOMS. Regularly eating protein – an essential nutrient which helps muscles repair – and carbohydrates – which replace the muscle glycogen depleted during exercise – will ensure your body’s fuelled for recovery and help those damaged muscles repair.
Taking on a carbohydrate and protein snack such as a bagel with peanut butter, a sports nutrition bar or shake within 30 minutes of exercise is a particularly good strategy as this is when your muscles are primed to take on nutrients.
The vegan Veloforte Zenzero is another great option after a tough workout. Designed to help recovery each bar contains 3.5g of stem and dried ginger. Studies show that just 2g of ginger taken immediately after exercise may help reduce inflammation and the pain of DOMS in the 24-48 hours following.
And don’t forget to stay hydrated. Muscles contain a high concentration of water and even slight dehydration can make DOMS pain feel worse.
When should I be concerned about DOMS?
The occasional case of DOMS after you’ve mixed up your training or done a really hard session is nothing to worry about. If you’re frequently suffering from muscle soreness and stiffness though, you probably need to add more rest days or look at reducing the intensity or duration of your training. Working too hard too often means you could be at risk of overtraining and – as you’re not giving your muscles time to repair – you’ll be more susceptible to injury.
You should also monitor post-exercise soreness if it comes on immediately. DOMS usually takes a few hours to make itself known whereas pain in a muscle straight after or during exercise could be a sign of something more sinister.
The test: With DOMS your muscles usually feel achy and tight whereas an injury pain is more likely to be sharp or stabbing.
If the pain of DOMS doesn’t lessen or go away after a few days it could also be a sign of something more serious. DOMS could have been masking the pain of an injury so if you’re struggling it might be worth booking an appointment with the physio.
The NHS also recommend seeing a medical professional if DOMS pain becomes unbearable, you experience heavy swelling or your urine becomes dark.
What can I do to prevent DOMS?
This is the million-dollar question. While it’s impossible to prevent DOMS completely there are things you can do to reduce the chances of getting that wooden-limbed feeling in the first place.
- Take it slow: The best way is to build up the intensity and length of your workouts gradually so your muscles have time to get used to the additional strain being placed on them.
- Warm-up first: It’s also important to warm up. Warming up won’t cure DOMS but it will deliver more blood to your muscles so they’re ready to exercise. Some small studies also suggest a decent warm-up could reduce the amount of soreness experienced 48 hours after a workout.
- Try post-workout stretching or an active cool-down: As for stretching, the jury’s still out on whether it can help prevent DOMS but an active cool-down could have some effect. One study found that people who did a 10-20 minute low-medium intensity cycle after a strength workout reported less muscle pain than those who sat down to rest.