Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) typically begins 6-12 hours after exercise that is more strenuous or vigorous than usual. The discomfort will increase over the next 2-3 days and then begin a hopefully steady decline over the 2-4 days after the peak.
While experiencing DOMS you can expect decreased strength and coordination of the affected muscles. Sometimes these muscles will also have difficulty relaxing making them feel stiff and unresponsive.
The exact reason why DOMS occurs is not fully understood, but one of the primary theories is that there is microscopic damage to muscle tissues that is caused by intense exercise. There is some thought that metabolic exhaustion can also further the development of DOMS, even without underlying muscular damage.
Increased inflammation and chemical markers have been found during DOMS. Inflammation has a tendency to make nerve endings more sensitive and lead to increased pain sensation.
The biggest issue with DOMS for the average person is that, well, it hurts. And if you are already feeling less than your best when you started I can understand why some people would not be keen to continue onward. If the FIRST round of exercise felt like that, imagine what the next one must feel like. It's a bit of a tough sell if you look at it like that. However, there is hope! DOMS does not have to be a part of every workout.
The ideas for reducing the occurrence and severity of DOMS are as follows:
- Adequate recovery. Get lots of sleep. Plan your exercise schedule accordingly.
- Compression of the affected area has shown limited benefit.
- Nutrition. Are you eating well? You just asked for more out of your body, did you give it more to work with?
- Keep going! The incidence of DOMS is reduced if exercise is repeated in a reasonable fashion on a consistent basis.
Even if you do everything right, you may still encounter DOMS in your training and in your life. So, with all of this in mind, how would one make a decision about whether what they're feeling can be worked through or around on any given day?
Here is a little decision making flowchart that I find useful.
You've established that your muscles are sore. Are you injured, or just experiencing DOMS?
Begin your warm-up. You have an exercise routine, you set aside this time for yourself, and you may as well see if you can do what you set out to do. Following the warm-up, do you have full pain-free range of motion? If yes, carry on with the exercise adventure. If no, move on to the next check.
Perform 1-2 warm-up sets of the chosen exercise, performing with minimal-to-no weight and over the range of motion that you feel comfortable. Do you now have full pain-free range of motion? If yes, continue on into the sets that you set out to do! Otherwise, now is the time to consider changing the goals of the workout for this particular day.
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- Accelerating Recovery from Exercise-Induced Muscles Injuries in Triathletes: Consideration for Olympic Distance Races. Hotfiel, T. et al. Sports. 2019.
- Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Hody, S, et al. Frontiers in Physiology. 2019.