Muscle soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness.

We’ve had a number of questions around DOMs lately so this article is a crash course in DOMs.

What is DOMS?

DOMs stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness which is usually experienced 24-48 hrs post exercise. In some cases DOMs can be fairly debilitating and cause pain and restrictive movement for a number of days until it eventually subsides.

Is it harmful?

DOMs is simply a part  of the body’s natural healing process. DOMs itself is not harmful but excessive exercise in extreme environments may be. One should be measured in one’s progression of training and avoid causing excessive damage to the body. Mild DOMs after exercise is completely fine and should subside as you adapt to the current training stresses.

Why does it occur?

Our cells have a lifecycle and naturally turn over every few weeks. Cells die as new cells are created and this is a natural process. When we exercise we intentionally damage cells to elicit an adaptive response to stress. The new growth of cells allow us to cope with stress and increase strength or work capacity. If we exercise infrequently or suddenly with higher than normal load, a large quantity of cells become damaged. This will trigger an inflammatory response. This response causes the pain we feel and explains the slight delay as the inflammation sets in. This response is simply a part of our body’s natural healing process.

What do we do about DOMs?

There are really only two strategies to cope with DOMs. 

1. We avoid it.

We should structure training that will promote an adaptive response without excessive damage. This will keep inflammation at a relative minimum while still progressing our training and is the best strategy. Gradual and realistic progression of training intensity should be something a training plan takes into consideration. We must also be aware of our environment and training state. Any increased stress from heat, dehydration or flack of fuel will increase the damage we do for a given session. DOMs is not necessary for training improvements and may hinder further training.

2. We manage it.

Pain management is our second option. Anti Inflammatory medication and pain killers will help manage the pain of DOMs. Cold treatment may numb sore muscles to reduce pain somewhat and help reduce the symptoms of DOMs. This is a short-sighted strategy and may be necessary for us to go about our working day but should never become the norm.

The idea that we can reverse DOMs or cure it is misguided. We can support our body’s healing processes with rest and nutrition but not much else is proven. Many recovery tools may help reverse some fatigue properties but they are unlikely to have any quantifiable effect on DOMs. Light stretching or exercise can help pain perception through endorphins and increased blood flow but these are not going to reverse DOMs. The perception of feeling better is beneficial but one should avoid the clever marketing that would lead you to believe a certain tool “Treats” DOMs.

DOM’s is a result of damage already done. It causes pain and you can definitely treat pain but you cannot simply reverse its cause; you must heal.  Your body manages that and the best thing you can do is support it and provide rest and nutrition. As DOMs subsides, you can return to gentle exercise, but be careful not to induce further damage. As long as you keep it light and easy you can get some training benefit without further damage or hindrance of healing.

It is, in many circumstances, necessary to train through DOMs. A longer warm-up is the best strategy as it allows you to regain some muscle elasticity through increasing temperature and fluid movement. For those going through intense blocks of training, ensure there is an adequate break in training to allow for adaptation. Until that break comes, do your best to pay attention to nutrition and rest, in the form of good quality sleep. Use recovery tools as you see fit, and if you feel they help your symptoms, but do not prioritize them ahead of the basics.

A note on recovery!

Recovery is the process of reversing factors of fatigue. These include hydration, fuelling, restoring muscle contraction and function etc. It is not quite the same as the healing process although they are not exclusive of one and other.  Recovering is a restoration of homeostasis, but does not necessarily include healing of muscle inflammation. Many recovery tools and methods are the product of excellent marketing as opposed to quantifiable and measurable interventions. We have several articles relating to recovery which can be found below.

Recovery Part 1

Recovery Tools: Compression Garments

Recovery tools: Active recovery

The Best Recovery Method of Them All, Sleep

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