For many, the sign of a solid workout is the presence of the dull throb of next-day soreness and stiffness. This feeling is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and it has been considered a natural component of gym training for years.
Causes of DOMS
This feeling of discomfort (or pain in severe cases) is caused by the repair process required to rebuild muscle fibres after the stress imposed by a tough workout.
Research shows that the source of the majority of pain mainly resides in the connective tissue that binds muscle fibres together, not the actual muscle fibres themselves.
The reason for the pain is the body’s immune response to damage, which results in inflammation, accompanied by the release of various chemicals and other substances. This mainly happens in the chemical environment surrounding the muscle tissue, rather than inside the muscle cell itself.
The combination of these elements will create the sensation of pain as nerve endings in the damaged tissue will become overly stimulated.
Mild to severe DOMS shouldn’t actually be the benchmark for determining if your session has stimulated sufficient muscle growth. It should rather be viewed as a sign of excessive damage to muscle and connective tissue, which means we need to take immediate steps to repair that damage.
The key factors to consider are the severity, intensity and location of DOMS-associated discomfort of pain.
A dull ache in the belly of the muscle and the presence of some degree of discomfort caused through movement is probably the threshold of acceptable next-day soreness, but there shouldn’t be any impairment in muscle function or movement.
If pain and discomfort persists for more than 48 hours and is present throughout the day, whether or not you are contracting the muscle or incorporating it into the act of moving, then you have surpassed the ideal level of muscle damage.
Excessive load and poor training technique can also affect the structural elements around the targeted muscle. This will often present as joint, ligament and/or tendon pain, and will often result in a decrease in range of motion. This is the worst type of next day soreness, as it means that the progression in your programme has not been calculated properly, or that your technique is incorrect. Should you continue to engage in exercise that causes this level of pain and discomfort you will eventually pick up a serious injury.
The repair process can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to complete, so avoid training the affected area for that period of time. However, that doesn’t mean all forms of movement should be avoided. In fact, some light activity such as easy cardio, stretching or mobility work can help to stimulate the area, assisting the lymphatic system to remove metabolites, while oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood is prompted to enter the area to aid repair and recovery.
Other tips to manage DOMS and possibly reduce its duration, include the following techniques:
- Warm up properly before exercise.
- Cool down properly after an intense workout.
- Use best practise with regard to progression, by only increasing one variable in your workout by 10% a week (load, duration, volume or intensity).
- Do some low intensity cardio to improve blood flow.
- Utilise contract baths or showers to promote blood flow and lymphatic drainage.
- Stretch and mobilise the affected area/s, using both static and dynamic stretching and mobility.
The degree and severity of DOMS also tends to decrease with improved conditioning, provided any deviation in important factors such as exercise form, technique and the principle of progressive overload remain within acceptable parameters. This means that the more consistent you are with your training the less likely it is that you will experience severe muscle soreness.
One other thing to keep in mind is the fact that different kinds of exercises are more likely to cause DOMS. Eccentric contractions, where muscles are lengthened under tension, will cause a more pronounced response than normal concentric (muscle shortening) exercises.