The Cleary Theory

DOMS: The Curse of Post-Exercise Soreness

January 27, 2015

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Muscle soreness. We all dread it. We all get it.

Today we’re gonna talk a little bit about what it is, why it happens and what to do about it. For those of you that are beginners, I’ll give you a heads up on what to expect and how it feels so you don’t freak out when you realise you can’t get out of bed in the morning without needing a mechanical crane to pull you up.

After taking too much time off over the Christmas break, I’m unfortunately sitting writing here feeling like my legs have been run over by an 18-ton truck. I know exactly how it feels. I’ve been sitting here for quite some time, largely due my reluctancy to stand up. The pain that awaits me is terrifying.

What should I expect?

If you’ve not not performed any strenuous exercise in a long while, especially strength training, or if you haven’t partaken in any at all then you’re in for a rather large shock. When working out you’ll likely experience a myriad of feelings and emotions such as tiredness, sweatiness, mental exhaustion, perhaps some enjoyment, but often this is overridden by a deep burning sensation within whichever muscle you are currently working.

If you happen to have a personal trainer or coach then you’re also likely to experience seething feelings of resentment, but that’s another discussion altogether. When the workout is over, a sense of relief, satisfaction and perhaps even pride may surface.

If this is your first tough workout then there’s a chance you may regret having put yourself through the ordeal but there’s also a good chance you’ll be preoccupied with the joy at having finished.

But it’s not over.

Sure, you’ll go home, feeling drained and depleted but often refreshed. You’ll be ravenous to consume your post-workout meal and you’ll swear that nothing has ever tasted so delicious and you’ll likely end up having a blissfully deep sleep that night. And then you wake up.

Now I haven’t ever experienced true sleep paralysis, (a terrifying phenomena where you wake up in bed having regained consciousness but finding yourself physically unable to move an inch of your body) but I have woken up the morning after leg day.

And it sucks.

Often, your muscles will be sore and painful to the touch. Your mobility will be greatly impaired as walking down stairs will seem like your life’s greatest challenge. Getting up from chairs and sitting down to use the toilet become workouts in themselves. After walking for a while, you’ll feel like you’ve made some progress to recover as you begin to loosen up, perhaps even some of the soreness will subside. Don’t be fooled, this will not last as your muscles are only temporarily warmed up. Sit down for 10 mins and to stand up again…Exactly.

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Try not to drop your keys either. The best feeling will be going to sleep at night, where you are no longer obligated to move your limbs. Much to your dismay, the second day will be the worst which lends itself to the pains’ true name: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

So you’re aware, DOMS typically kicks in at around the 6-8 hour mark after finishing your training. The feelings of soreness will continue to intensify for the next 48 hours or so. Don’t worry, the second day is usually the worse and it’ll get better from here on out. Hopefully.

Why does it happen?

We don’t really know. But we have a pretty good idea. The old school belief entailed that muscle soreness is simply the pain response due to the build up of lactic acid as a result of muscular exertion (exercise) but that theory has largely been rejected in recent years.

The most convincing candidate is that soreness is an inflammation response that is triggered by the micro-trauma we inflict upon our muscle fibres and their respective connective tissues. When attempting to strengthen and build our muscles (hypertrophy) via strength training, one of the key mechanisms at work is muscle damage.

Essentially, in laymen’s terms, when we train, we slightly damage our muscles resulting in many thousands of ‘micro-tears’. With time, proper nutrition and adequate recovery, our muscles will rebuild themselves, bigger and stronger.

The reason the soreness has a delayed-onset (DOMS) is because the response isn’t instantaneous as it would be had we truly injured ourselves on a catastrophic scale like a muscle belly tear.

With consistent training, proper nutrition and adequate recovery (you’ll sense there’s a theme here), our bodies will attenuate this inflammation response and we’ll feel much less sore.

Again, the second day will likely be the worst and it’ll gradually get better with each day onwards.

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Furthermore, if there is no swelling and the onslaught of pain did not ruin your life with excruciating stabbing during the workout, it is highly unlikely you’ve done any true irrecoverable damage. Contrary to popular belief, DOMS does not actually result in any weakness of the muscle. If you make the effort to warm up, you’ll likely feel better and will be good to go. DOMS, in the simplest terms is a pain (inflammation) response caused by the muscle damage we create when training. DOMS will be at it’s worse when we introduce a new stimulus such as a new exercise or when returning after a lay off of training (usually more than a week).

It means I’ve had an awesome workout, right?

Not necessarily. While muscle damage is one of the key mechanisms for muscle growth, it is only one of the three. The others being ‘mechanical tension’ and ‘metabolic stress’. We’ll talk about those some other time but keep in mind that each of them can be pretty independent of each other. The important thing to remember is that certain exercises and modalities are inherently more damaging to our muscle fibres and as a result cause considerably more soreness. When we contract a muscle, this is called the ‘concentric’ portion of a movement. When we lengthen a muscle, this is called the ‘eccentric’ portion. The eccentric phase is where most of the micro tears are created and as such the main cause of DOMS. Certain exercises such as squats and walking lunges heavily involve a controlled eccentric portion and as a result cause a lot more soreness. On the other hand, pull ups and deadlifts do not. Sure, muscle damage can be an indicator that you’ve worked hard and have covered one of your muscle building mechanisms, but it’s certainly not the only one. So please don’t use this as your only criteria. Otherwise we’ll have more people doing ridiculously dangerous nonsense such as this:

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Case in point.

Please help, it hurts so good?

Strangely, some of you may find that when the soreness isn’t too bad (especially not in the legs), a slight feeling of DOMS can feel kinda good. Nevertheless, you may want to try your best to get rid of it.

We’ve gone over what to expect from DOMS and the likely causes, here is where I attempt to actually be somewhat helpful. Here I’ll outline several strategies on how to alleviate some of the soreness. Keep in mind that the tendency to experience muscle soreness and the relative intensity of it can differentiate between individuals.

Some of these strategies will help, some of them may not, some of you won’t need’em. But they work for me, here goes.:

1. Drink water

Yes it can really be this simple. If I had a penny (or a dirham) for every person I’ve met that doesn’t drink enough water, I wouldn’t be writing this article, I’d be chilling on my own private yacht.

All of you need to drink more water. No,not 8 small glasses of water. More like 8 PINTS. As a rule of thumb, drink a litre of water per 20kg of your bodyweight. For me that’s just over 4 litres.

Properly hydrating yourself has a cornucopia of benefits (just wait for the next article) but it’s role on reducing inflammation and reducing muscle soreness is too easy and cheap to miss out on.

2. Get the blood flowing

A sure-fire way to ameliorate some of the symptoms is to to simply get the blood flowing by doing some light exercise. Go for a brisk walk or jog or simply get to the gym and warm up. See how you feel after 10 mins, there’s a good chance you’ll change your mind about skipping that session after all.

3. Foam roll or better yet, get a massage.

For those of you familiar with Self-Myofascial release techniques (such as foam rolling), I encourage you to put up with the pain and attempt to gently roll out the sore muscles. Along with getting the blood flowing, this will help flush out the sinister metabolites within your muscles that are currently causing the pain and rendering you immobile.

Check out this article for more info: http://bit.ly/1yLjrRh For those who are feeling extra fancy and self-indulgent, make the jump and book a proper massage. Either a Swedish or qualified sports masseuse will know what to do.

4. Get your 8 hours.

We all know we should be doing this. Make an extra effort especially when experiencing DOMS, I promise it will help. The total benefits of sleep are not within the scope of this article. I will cover it soon enough. For now though, trust me on this. Me and the 643,789 scientific studies that say so.

5. Eat yo’ proteinz n’ carbz.

Without doting too heavily on the science of it all. Proteins are the building blocks of your muscles and carbohydrates are the primary energy source.

DOMS = Muscle damage. Rebuild the muscles and you feel better.

Protein = building blocks.

Carbohydrates = the energy required to make things happen.

Get it? Good.

6. Epsom Salt Baths.

These can be a life-saver (not literally). Magnesium sulphate, which goes by the commercial name of Epsom Salts seems to have a hypnotically effective action of relaxing muscles and relieving pain. While the scientific evidence is lacking, tens of thousands of athletes and coaches swear by it.

Perhaps it’s just the warm baths that help, nobody seems to know. Give it a try and see how it works for you. Start off with half a cup of salts per gallon of hot water and go from there.

7. Hardcore drugs.

No, I’m kidding. However, mild anagelsics such as a paracetemol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen CAN be helpful. Try to avoid them unless the pain is unbearable, which will be very rare. Don’t go crazy with this.

So without sounding like a peer-reviewed scientific journal (I hope), I’ve given you the low-down on DOMS; what to expect if you’re new to this whole exercise shebang, why it happens and how to partially make it better. Hopefully I’ve given you some tips to take away or just some knowledge to throw around in the gym so you can pretend you’re really smart.

You'll look as smart as this guy.

Any questions? Tweet me.

Perhaps share it with some people you care about too.

Cheers


Matt Cleary

Matt Cleary's musings on fitness, startups and tryin' to live the good life. You should follow him on Twitter