DOMS is not a bad thing, and some folks even say it’s a good thing. If you are a regular exerciser chances are that you have experienced it. If you have taken some time off or been on vacation, you likely had it when you did your first hard workout. If you felt the soreness and didn’t know what it was, well now you do and know it’s completely normal, even though painful.
The soreness usually comes about 24 hours post-exercise and lasts anywhere between two and four days. When your legs hurt immediately after a marathon, it’s not DOMS. However, when you roll out of bed the next morning and find yourself unable to descend the front steps to retrieve the morning paper, you’re experiencing DOMS.
As a result of the fact that nearly every athlete has experienced this type of soreness, much research has been devoted to the prevention and treatment of this side effect. Massage, microtherapy, icing, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, fish oil and i.Tonic whole body vibration are just a few methods that have been tried with varying degrees of success.
Where does DOMS originate?
According to Dr. David J. Szymanski, assistant professor and the director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at Louisiana Tech University, there is currently a lot of misinformation floating around about DOMS — namely, the assertion that the accumulation of lactic acid causes it. While DOMS results from new, higher intensity workouts and an increase in lactate comes along with such activity, the soreness felt the next morning is not related. “That lactate concentration will go back down to resting levels within 20–40 minutes after exercise,” says Dr. Szymanski, who has studied the subject extensively. “Because of that, the pain that somebody associates with delayed onset muscle soreness 24–72 hours later cannot be because of that lactate that was built up while they were running.”
He contends that lactate does cause soreness during or immediately after exercise, and can end up decreasing performance if the athlete can’t clear it. However, the deferred discomfort has nothing to do with that process. Higher intensity workouts that you are not accustomed to, like hill repeats or intervals on the track, are often the culprits of DOMS. The eccentric component of exercise, in particular, can damage the integrity of the muscle cell membrane. This micro trauma creates tiny micro tears in the muscle fibers, which leads to inflammation, and thus soreness, fatigue, stiffness and reduced range of motion.
Treating and preventing DOMS
Although the cool-down has long been touted as the main tool in a runner’s arsenal to combat muscle soreness by flushing out lactic acid (which is still important), research suggests that the warm-up is more important to reducing DOMS. One of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, Dr. Priscilla Clarkson of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has demonstrated how important it is to get out and warm up before competition. By increasing the muscle temperature by 1 degree Celsius before eccentric training, the amount of muscle soreness experienced by athletes is noticeably reduced.
“If you already have the muscle warmed up and prepared, it is better able to handle the activity,” explains Dr. Szymanski. “Before a race, you need to lubricate the joints, ligaments and tendons so your body is better prepared for what’s coming next.”
Training a particular muscle group to be ready for am event, race or particular exercise is a good way to avoid continued DOMS from the same types of workouts, it doesn’t mean you should simply train your body to withstand one form of training. It’s about building on your workouts week after week and training your body to withstand more. Dr. Szymanski explains: “We have what are called chronic adaptations. Once you do a specific amount of training for a certain length of time, your body will be able to handle it. That’s why training plans help you gradually progress.”
Perhaps the best news is the fact that delayed onset muscle soreness isn’t all bad. “Although DOMS is associated with something negative, it’s actually a physiologically positive reaction,” says Dr. Szymanski. “Once your body is exposed to whatever made you sore, the next time your body will say, ‘I got it, I’ll protect you.’ It’s actually a beautiful thing.”