If you’re embarking on a fitness kick for the first time, or getting back in the game after a period of inactivity, the hardest moment probably won’t come during your first workout but in the days that follow. That’s because you’ll wake up the morning after that workout to find your body is wracked with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
The optimists out there can view DOMS as an indication of a job well done. You’re challenging your body in a new way and naturally there will be some pain as your muscles rebuild themselves to adapt and become stronger. Once you get more accustomed to exercise, you’ll find that DOMS crops up less and less often, even after a particularly tough workout.
You can also reduce your chances of suffering DOMS by warming up and stretching properly before your workout, and building up the intensity of your exercise over time rather than going hell for leather on your very first try. That said, if you are trying a kind of exercise that you haven’t done before, DOMS is almost guaranteed. Sorry.
Even if you view DOMS as a marker of a good workout, no-one is going to argue that it’s an enjoyable experience in and of itself, so we sought advice on reducing and preventing the pain from Ross Preston, health advisor at the Bupa Blackpool Health Clinic (opens in new tab).
What causes DOMS?
“DOMS occurs when you start a new exercise programme or increase the intensity [of your training],” says Preston.
“This causes microscopic damage to your muscle fibres, which results in soreness and stiffness. Exercises that really load the muscles in a lengthened position, such as Romanian deadlifts, have a tendency to increase your chances of being sore after a workout.”
It’s important to remember, though, that DOMS is only a temporary pain station en route to a stronger you.
“Don’t let DOMS put you off your workout,” says Preston.
“This discomfort is only temporary as your muscles adjust to the new exercises and grow stronger. The next time you do that activity there will be less damage to your microscopic muscle fibres, so you shouldn’t be as sore and your recovery time will be quicker than the first time.”
What are the best ways to prevent and treat DOMS?
You can read Preston’s opinion on several popular DOMS preventions and cures below, but first some general advice on how to build up your training to reduce the risk of severe muscle pain.
“There isn’t a proven formula to prevent DOMS, but you can reduce its severity by gradually introducing a new activity or slowly increasing the intensity,” says Preston.
“While stretching is a must after exercising to reduce the risk of injury, it won’t prevent DOMS.”
Fortunately while DOMS can be unavoidable at times, there are treatments to try.
“There are a few things you can do to alleviate the discomfort such as hot/cold baths, ice packs, massage, tender-point acupressure and rest,” says Preston.
“Try a couple of these options to see which one works the best for you.”
Common DOMS Cures And Whether They Work
The internet is awash with purported cures for DOMS, but – whisper this quietly – you can’t always believe everything you find on the internet (unless it’s on Coach), so we asked Preston for his opinion on some of the most common DOMS treatments.
The theory behind compression helping with DOMS seems valid, but so far it’s unproven.
“There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that compression clothing can cure or prevent DOMS,” says Preston, which is a downer. But wait! There’s more.
“When your muscle groups work hard, they become inflamed as a result of extra fluid and white blood cells rushing to the area. This inflammation can cause soreness and tightness in the muscle groups. However, people who wear compression clothing may find their muscles don’t become as inflamed as they would do if they’re wearing loose clothing.
“It’s also believed that compression garments may increase blood flow to the muscles, reducing the amount of creatine kinase, which is a chemical that builds up in your muscles and causes soreness.”
Good news for fans of self-myofascial relief: it gets the thumbs up for treating DOMS.
“While your muscle fibres are repairing themselves after a workout, they can often become knotted, reducing muscle elasticity and causing soreness and stiffness,” says Preston.
“Foam rolling, massage and active stretching can help alleviate the discomfort of DOMS.”
- How To Warm Up At The Gym
- How To Use A Foam Roller: Self-Myofascial Release Explained
- The Best Foam Rollers
- Does Compression Gear Work?
Pain Relief Balms
No real shock here: pain relief balms can indeed relieve pain.
“Balms like Deep Heat or Tiger Balm provide a cooling sensation on the skin, which can help reduce soreness,” says Preston.
“The menthol in the balms cause calcium ion to affect your neurons that sense temperature and inhibits your brain/pain connection in that area.”
Hot/Cold Showers And Ice Baths
The fact that subjecting yourself to hot, cold and freezing water works is good news – it’s a cheap and easy solution. (So why do we feel like it’s bad?…)
“Hot baths cause your blood vessels to expand, filling them with blood, while cold or ice baths constrict the blood vessels, forcing the blood to move on to other parts of the body,” says Preston.
“A combination of both (known as contrast hydrotherapy) flushes the nutrients carried in the blood more effectively and quicker to your muscles, which speeds up the recovery process.”
Branched-chain amino acid supplements aren’t a DOMS cure-all, but they might help with the pain.
“Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are essential in muscle repair and growth,” says Preston.
Your body does not naturally produce all the amino acids it needs, and the ones it doesn’t produce you have to get from food or supplements, including some that are vital for muscle repair.
“Three important amino acids needed for muscle tissue repair are leucine, isoleucine and valine, which can be found in BCAA supplements. They work by helping to repair the microscopic torn muscle fibres and prevent the muscles from breaking down.
“Although they can’t help in preventing or curing DOMS, BCAAs may help reduce soreness.”
Lots of foods are reported to have DOMS-curing properties, but Preston suggest that there are three main types to look out for.
“It’s important to eat and stay hydrated after a workout, as the nutrients and protein can help your muscles recover,” says Preston. Here are his top three.
Bupa offers health assessments that give the body a full MOT. For more information head to bupa.co.uk/health-assessments (opens in new tab)
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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