Updated: Jun 13, 2020
Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS as it’s sometimes known is the pain or discomfort you may feel in the 24-48 hours after a hard workout. Sometimes it may last even longer and the degree to which you may suffer will depend on what kind of workout you’ve done and your relative fitness / strength in those muscles prior to the workout.
First of all, the effect on each person will be different and there may be other factors such as fatigue, muscle tension, injury, technique etc that will have an influence on how badly you suffer DOMS after a workout.
The cause of DOMS is sometimes misunderstood. Despite popular opinion, a build up of lactic acid is not the cause of DOMS.
The delayed pain actually results from the muscle damage that occurs at a microscopic level within the muscle when excess load is placed on the muscle. Now before you panic at the word ‘damage’ and swear off exercise after reading that, rest assured that this is a perfectly normal process that happens every time you workout. This is in fact the way the body gets stronger.
Are there any green thumbs in the room? What do you do to roses to make them thrive? You hack them back about 2/3, right? You cut them down, essentially damaging the structure in order for them to bloom the next season and continue to grow as a healthy plant. Do you know happens after a bush fire? The fire damage actually helps many of the trees and shrubs to regenerate. Many plant species in naturally fire-affected environments require fire to germinate, to establish, or to reproduce, or all three. Without fire (without damage to the plant), these plants would actually be eliminated.
The body works on a similar principle. During a hard workout, particularly following a heavy resistance session, the individual microscopic muscle fibres experience tiny tears, which then over the next 2-7 days, repair naturally, stronger than they were before. As a consequence of being placed under strain, the muscles work out that they better fix themselves a bit stronger than last time to avoid the same thing happening again. It’s like a defense mechanism.
It’s the tiny muscle tears that cause the pain and depending on the degree to which the muscle was damaged, the more it hurts and the longer it lasts. There have been many stdies done to find out what the best solution is for DOMS.
The results of these numerous studies are clear. The best thing you can do is keep the muscle moving with gentle exercise. Go for a walk, do some gardening, do an easy cross training workout (something different to what you would normally do – if you always run, then cross train using some swimming, if you usually swim, cross train with some walking or cycling).
The next solution is massage. Invest in a remedial massage which can target the appropriate muscles, you can even do some self massage or sweet talk your partner into giving you a rub down.
The third thing to do is stretching the sore muscles as often as you can, at least 4 times per day.
The fourth technique to try is hot / cold therapy. This helps encourage increased blood flow through the muscles to promote quicker recovery. Try starting with a warm shower for a minute or two, then turn the taps to as cold as you can bear for 30 seconds, back to hot for 1 minute, cold again for 30 seconds and 1 more minute of hot.
Ideally, the best solution is to do all of the above. The worst solution, proven over and over again, is to do nothing. Avoiding moving for fear of experiencing more pain will make the pain last much longer than staying active and keeping moving gently.
The length of time you will be sore will depend on how bad your DOMS was to start with and how diligent you are with the techniques above.