Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – the what, when, why and how to reduce it

By Alex Longworth

DOMS is the abbreviation for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and it refers to the pain and stiffness we have all experienced 24 to 48 hours after strenuous exercise. It is often that second day following intense exercise that feels the worst – I am sure we all know that stiff, painful and sluggish feeling.  

DOMS is more common when you first start training or if you increase the intensity or frequency of your training suddenly. There are a number of cellular mechanisms within the muscles that contribute to DOMS. Essentially, when we exercise, this does cause low grade, ‘micro-trauma’ in our muscles and lead to a build up of metabolic waste products like lactic acid. These factors are what contributes to the muscle pain, fatigue and stiffness we experience after exercise.

So, is it ok to train when you are still sore from the last session?

It is important to always listen to your body and make sure you are mixing your training days with rest days throughout the week. If you are feeling sore, you will benefit most from some low intensity exercise as an ‘active recovery’ session (think walking, yoga, swimming) to help improve the flow of blood (and thus nutrients) to your muscles and flush away those metabolites. This is a better option that complete rest in terms of speeding up recovery. Also, when you do train again, try and mix up your workouts – if your legs are particularly sore, try and do an upper body workout.

Remember to take a look at your diet as well – it is particularly important to make sure you are eating enough protein to support your muscle repair and growth. 

How can I tell the difference between DOMS and an actual injury?

This can be tricky but essentially, it all comes down to timing. With DOMS, as the name indicates, the soreness will usually come on 24-36hrs after the effort, last a few days and then fade away. It will also improve with ‘active recovery’. If you have a soft tissue injury, the pain will usually come on straight away or shortly after whatever it was that caused the injury (you may even recall the moment the injury happened), it will be localised to the muscle or joint you have injured (i.e. not a general ache all over). it won’t necessarily improve with movement or time  and you may be able to see or feel swelling or bruising around the area injured.  If in doubt, always seek advice from your GP or physiotherapist. 

Is there any way to prevent DOMS from happening in the first place?

DOMS is a natural response to intensive exercise – as such, it is part of the process of getting fitter and stronger and is almost impossible to avoid completely. In saying this, here are some tips and tricks to try and reduce the severity of any post-exercise muscle soreness and the potential for it to lead to other musculoskeletal issues or injuries:

  1.  Fuel up before you train: eat a pre-workout snack that is low-fat and high-carb with some protein.
  2.  Warm up and cool down: incorporate a little cardio and dynamic stretching to prepare your muscles and joints; make sure you warm down after your workout by gently stretching the main muscle groups you have exercised (as covered in my previous post)
  3.  Make time for an ‘active recovery’ session along the lines of what is mentioned above – walking, swimming, yoga, pilates or foam rolling – getting moving really is the best medicine.
  4.  Drink more water: while you are working out, make sure avoid getting dehydrated as this is known to make DOMS worse.
  5.  If you are sweating a lot, consider having a sports drink to replace those lost electrolytes.
  6.  Consider getting a sports massage semi-regularly. It is unlikely the massage itself will take the DOMS away on its own (and you may feel even worse initially after the massage) but it will help prevent dysfunctional patterns, tightness and muscle adhesions which can follow on from repeated muscle soreness following exercise.
  7.  Take a cold shower post-workout to reduce inflammation within the muscles. There are mixed reviews about using ice post-workout to reduce DOMS but a cold shower might be worth trying.

So next time you are feeling stiff and sore that second day following an intense workout, know that you are not alone! This is part of your ‘normal’ bodily response to training and is a sign that your muscles are adapting, repairing and regenerating.  There are things you can do to reduce the severity and impact of DOMS including ensuring you warm up, cool down and also do some ‘active recovery’ exercise even when you may feel tempted to curl up on the couch and wait for it to pass.

Alex Longworth

Physiotherapist, Program Director and Co-Founder, TRL FIT