Man with DOMS standing facing the setting sun

DOMS: 5 things to help you recover from those aching muscles

Find out why you get delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise, how you can prevent it and 5 things to do to help to get over those aching muscles

 

I had the pleasure of joining personal training colleagues at the YMCA in central London for a circuit training teaching course.

“It’s going to be challenging,” the course tutor said, with that knowing kind of smile.

He wasn’t wrong. The day consisted of a huge range of cardio, body weight and resistance exercises; all the variations and approaches you could possibly think of including in an effective circuit.

I learned a lot about circuit training programming, but in the process completed more lunges, squats, press ups and planks than I’ve ever done before in eight hours.

I knew what was coming next. Sure enough, the next morning the exquisite pain of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) made getting out of bed an interesting experience. Three days later (at the time of writing), I’m still a bit achy but at least I can now walk downstairs without wincing.

What is DOMS?

Delayed-onset muscle soreness is a symptom of muscle damage that occurs during protracted, strenuous or unfamiliar exercise. It happens when there is an eccentric component to the exercise – where the muscles contract while lengthening – for example, running downhill or lowering the weight during a biceps curl.

You know you’ve got DOMS because about a day after the exercise session your muscles ache. They call it a dull ache but it can be pretty intense, believe me. Your muscles also feel stiff and the pain is worse when you try and stretch them out. The actual timing of DOMS can vary but it’s usually within a 24 to 72 hour window. The pain gets worse on day 2 before it eases. It eventually wears of but you can often still feel the ache in your muscles for several days.

What causes DOMs?

Exercise produces micro tears in muscle fibres and this leads to an inflammatory response as the body begins the process of repair. This is the way muscles get bigger and stronger. DOMS is the response to that muscle fibre damage. The inflammatory process begins slowly and peaks on day 2, which is why the pain gets worse before it gets better. During the repair process you can experience a temporary loss of muscle strength and a reduced joint range of motion.

Find out more:

NHS Choices: Why do I feel pain after exercise?

American College of Sports Medicine: DOMS

 

When DOMS is serious

You need to differentiate between DOMS and potentially more serious, damage to your muscles, joints, ligaments or tendons. DOMS feels like a general soreness throughout the muscle. A sharp or localised pain could be something else that might need the attention of a healthcare professional.

If your DOMS doesn’t start to abate after 2 to 3 days or if at any time your urine is dark or discoloured (brown), you could have a rare but serious condition called rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo as it’s now known). This needs prompt medical attention. Damaged muscle tissue releases a protein, myoglobin, into the bloodstream. If there is too much muscle damage, excessive amounts of myoglobin can overwhelm the kidneys and lead to kidney damage and eventually kidney failure.

Getting over DOMS

You’ll get over DOMS after a few days, but in the meantime here are five things you can do to lessen its impact:

  1. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking at least 2 litres of water a day. This will maintain your kidney function and flush out any impurities from your bloodstream. Remember, alcohol is a diuretic and can make you dehydrated, so take it easy after hard exercise.
  2. Simple anti-inflammatory measures, such as the application of an ice pack or submersion in an ice bath after exercise – think Andy Murray after a gruelling five-set tennis match – can lessen the degree of swelling and pain.
  3. Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can alleviate the pain, but some experts say these can inhibit the muscle repair process. Topical NSAID creams can be effective in bringing relief and might be a better option.
  4. Active recovery helps. Try gentle rhythmical activities that raise the heart rate and increases the blood flow to the affected muscles. Cycling, for example, will ease those sore quadriceps. However, avoid excessive exercise during DOMS recovery – you don’t want to heap on more muscle damage.
  5. Gentle massage can reduce the duration and severity of DOMS, but avoid deep tissue massage and excessive muscle stretching.

Preventing DOMS

As they say, prevention is better than cure, so think about these basic DOMS-preventing principles:

  1. Ease into exercise and plan to build up the amount of exercise you do in your programme gradually.
  2. As a rule, only increase your sets, reps and weights by about 10% per week.
  3. Think about the amount of eccentric exercise you are including in your workout – are you doing too much too soon or perhaps not enough. For example, if you are a distance runner pay attention to eccentric quadriceps movements, such as repetitive steps downs.
  4. Make sure you do thorough cool down drills following your workout, These will be specific to the activities you’ve been doing and involve light rhythmical cardio activity and stretches to maintain your joint flexibility.

Finally, think on the bright side. The fact that you’re in pain because of DOMs means you had a hell of a workout. Your body’s already adapting to the effort you put in by building muscle and increasing your strength and endurance. Just remember to allow your muscles to rest sufficiently before you put them through it all over again.