Every summer, I head to Maine for a week that includes not just lobster and a great beach read, but also a workout or two alongside some fit female athletes, including members of the Montreal Stars hockey team and an Olympian or two thrown in for good measure.
I usually start off slowly with a solo beach run, but it’s not long before I’m joining in with the group and trying all sorts of new ways to work up a sweat. The result, without fail, is a wicked case of delayed onset muscle soreness, commonly referred to as DOMS.
Often associated with novice exercisers, DOMS can afflict even those who workout regularly. The common denominator between rookies and veterans is that it strikes anywhere from 12 to 24 hours after a tough or unfamiliar workout and lasts anywhere from 24 to 72 hours.
This year, my muscles started to protest the morning after a short, intense interval workout that featured eight 20-second rounds of four exercises: burpees, mountain climbers, curl ups/planks and lunges. Yet despite the pain, I worked out again the next day, with 60 minutes of pushups, weighted carries, core stability exercises, bent over rows and more lunges.
Once I got going on the second workout, the pain disappeared. But by the end of the day, I struggled getting in and out of my low-slung beach chair, a feeling that hung around for the next two days. I also felt a little tender in the pecs (chest) and abs.
My experience is typical of anyone who steps outside of their exercise comfort zone, either by significantly upping the intensity or duration of their workout or performing multiple reps of an unfamiliar exercise or series of exercises. Yet despite the frequency with which DOMS hits veteran and novice exercisers, the exact cause of this short-term muscular discomfort is unknown.
Characterized by pain that’s typically localized to the muscles that performed the bulk of the work, it’s generally felt the same on both sides of the body and can also be sensitive to the touch and result in mild swelling.
Most experts suggest that DOMS is the result of “micro-trauma” to the working muscles, while others believe it begins at the cellular level with the release of metabolic byproducts that cause discomfort. Yet despite the lack of agreement on the exact physiology behind the phenomenon, one thing is for certain: DOMS isn’t the result of a buildup of lactic acid, a myth that’s been bounced around for years.
What experts do agree on however, is that eccentric exercises (exercises that lengthen rather than shorten your muscles — like running downhill) are more likely to trigger DOMS. So while both my workouts were tough, there’s no doubt that the 80-plus lunges I did on Day 1, followed by 30 more the day after, were enough to cause the discomfort in my butt and thighs.
No matter the exact cause of the pain, it’s important to understand that DOMS isn’t necessarily a bad thing — especially when the discomfort is mild. In fact, it’s widely accepted that DOMS signifies a degree of muscular overload significant enough to prompt a boost in muscle size and strength.
The key to the principle of overload, however, is that the word “progressive” is often added as a modifier, suggesting that muscle growth is possible without the pain associated with DOMS. So while a bit of tenderness after a tough workout may be a sign that you pushed your body to the next level, too much post-exercise pain shouldn’t be considered a shortcut to bigger, stronger muscles.
In fact, during those 48 to 72 hours after a tough workout, when DOMS is at its peak, it can temporarily diminish strength in the affected muscles and restrict joint range of motion, suggesting that a more progressive form of overload is more prudent and effective over the long haul.
What do you do to lessen the pain and reduced mobility should you ever experience a bad case of DOMS? Despite claims otherwise, stretching, massage or icing sore muscles doesn’t help. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest it only adds to the discomfort. As for studies suggesting that compression clothing can reduce the effects of exercise-induced muscle damage, the results are by no means conclusive.
Anecdotally, light activities like walking, cycling and swimming are the best way to diminish the pain, even though the effects generally return once you stop moving. Otherwise, time is the only cure, with most pain diminishing in three to five days.
The fact is, increasing exercise intensity or duration gradually is the only way to avoid the discomfort of DOMS. So while your goal may be to get stronger, faster or fitter, it’s possible to achieve muscular overload without having to walk around in pain for days afterward.
I don’t mind a bit of tenderness after a tough workout, but I generally try to avoid pushing myself to the point where I have trouble moving the next day — except of course when pride gets in the way of common sense, which happens every year when I work out with fit women half my age.