You know the feeling: You just crushed a HIIT workout in your living room and you’re dripping with sweat. You feel proud of your hard work, riding that "exercise high" for the rest of the workday, asking yourself, "Why would I ever skip a workout, when it makes me feel so good?"
Then you wake up the next morning, radiating soreness from muscles you didn't even know you had. With your body waving the white flag, you take a rest day — only to wake up the next morning feeling even more beat up than you did the day prior.
This very common phenomenon is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If you ever noticed feeling soreness within the 48 hours following your workout, trust me — you're not alone.
Delayed onset muscle soreness impacts nearly every athlete. Below, I explain what DOMS is and how to prevent it (or lessen its effects) so it doesn't interfere with your training plan.
What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is muscle pain that begins roughly 12-48 hours after your training session. It's a common, yet uncomfortable feeling experienced by novice to elite athletes.
You're most likely to experience DOMS after completing an unfamiliar workout. For example, if you're a former tennis player who picked up her racquet for the first time in six months, you're likely to be sore after a few matches. Or, if you complete a heavy leg day after ignoring the squat rack for a few weeks, you'll certainly feel it over the following days.
Is it DOMS or Is it Just Fatigue?
When you give your all to a workout, you will be fatigued. So how do you know if your muscle soreness is DOMS or regular fatigue?
Short answer: If sore muscles set in a full day (or two) after your workout, it's DOMS. Any earlier, and it's probably acute muscle soreness.
Long answer: Delayed onset muscle soreness is not the same as acute muscle soreness, which you feel during your workout. Acute muscle soreness is the burning sensation you feel while working out, caused by a buildup of lactic acid (a chemical substance in your blood that’s produced by your cells when you need energy without oxygen). For example, imagine performing 30 pulsing squats. By rep 28 or 29, your quads will certainly be on fire — this is acute muscle soreness, not DOMS.
What Causes Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
As described by “Sports Medicine,” delayed onset muscle soreness isn't caused by just one thing. Lactic acid, muscle damage, and inflammation all contribute to DOMS (and the severity of it).
Here's how DOMS occurs: When you work out, tiny muscle fibers physically tear themselves apart. Inflammation — or your body's response to damage or a foreign invader — increases as a result of this tissue damage. The affected muscles must go to work to repair the damage, thereby causing soreness.
While DOMS is uncomfortable, here's a piece of good news: Over time, as your body becomes more accustomed to a certain type of exercise (and the associated muscle damage) DOMS will lessen.
How Can I Prevent and Treat DOMS?
Elite competitors and everyday athletes alike experience delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS can actually be a good thing, as it shows you are surprising your body in new ways, which can increase your overall fitness level.
With that being said, I know DOMS is not the most comfortable experience. Here are a few tips and tricks to prevent and treat muscle soreness.
1. Introduce New Exercises Gradually
When you set a new goal — particularly one related to fitness — it's easy to overdo your initial effort. If you go from sitting on the coach to doing two-a-day workouts, you will experience DOMS (and an injury).
Instead, I suggest following a structured program, like the Build Bullet-Proof Health training plan. Following a program designed by a certified personal trainer will help you introduce new exercises gradually, causing less soreness and preventing injuries.
2. Warm Up Properly
Studies show that a proper warm-up, performed directly before eccentric exercise, reduces symptoms of DOMS. In fact, warming up was found to be more effective at reducing muscle stiffness and soreness than doing a cool down post-exercise.
Before any resistance training or HIIT workout, it's important to warm up your muscles. Perform plyometrics (carefully), do dynamic stretches, and gradually raise your heart rate before any strenuous exercise.
3. Don't Skimp on Your Recovery Work
Recovery work is one of the most critical aspects of any exercise program, and that’s why it's a key pillar within 4 Legs Fitness. Knowing how to rest, repair, and recover your muscles will help decrease pain related to DOMS — and get you back to your workouts.
After any rigorous workout, get to work foam rolling, icing sore muscles, and (if necessary) taking anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. Or, you could do an at-home version of cryotherapy by taking a cold shower.
4. Eat Protein
Remember when I said that rigorous exercise causes muscle damage? Eating protein helps repair it.
Consuming protein after a workout helps repair the microscopic damage caused by exercise. In a process called muscle protein synthesis, amino acids (the building blocks of protein) provide an anabolic effect to your connective tissues. In other words, consuming protein following a workout is what allows your muscles to repair themselves, allowing them to grow bigger and stronger.
5. Exercise (Hear Me Out)
Science shows that the single most effective treatment strategy against DOMS symptoms is to exercise again.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out: When a muscle feels incredibly stiff or sore, do you avoid using that muscle altogether? No! You stretch the muscle, apply a heat wrap, or massage the tissue to increase blood flow, thereby alleviating muscle stiffness and soreness.
Exercise, of course, does all of the above.
Performing light exercise 1-2 days following a rigorous workout (the one that caused DOMS in the first place) can help repair muscle tissue and alleviate soreness. Once again, this is where an exercise routine designed by a personal trainer will come in handy — because a proper program will strike a balance between recovery, high-intensity workouts, and light physical activity, thereby preventing muscle strain, soreness, and other injuries.
A Well-Rounded Fitness Program Can Help Treat DOMS
DOMS is a common phenomenon in both everyday and elite athletes. And while the internet is filled with articles on how to decrease symptoms of DOMS, the best advice I can give you comes down to this:
Follow a structured workout program designed by a certified personal trainer.
A well-balanced workout program, such as Build Bullet-Proof Health, will incorporate nutrition, rest, cardio, and strength training — all of which you need to combat muscle soreness. You need to do your recovery workout, using a foam roller or ice pack to treat those sore muscles. You need a proper nutrition plan with enough protein to rebuild and repair your muscles. And most importantly, you need to strike the right balance between your workouts. Through the Build Bullet-Proof Health program, you'll alternate between cardio and strength, high-intensity and low-intensity, to help combat and treat DOMS.
For health and fitness updates and discounts, subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of this page.