Written by Lara Ceroni | Photography by Paul Buceta
Delayed onset muscle soreness is a side effect of pushing through a tough workout, but does it mean you’re any closer to your fitness goals? There is this common belief among exercisers that muscle soreness and the quality of a workout is a linear relationship: We tend to associate the familiar sensation of aches and pains in the days after a gruelling sweat sesh with bigger muscles and a stronger bod.
Of course, we’re talking about delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short. The pain that kicks in 24-48 hours after exercise, where muscles feel tender due to microscopic damage occurring in the muscle fibers. It happens when you force those muscles to work harder than usual, or you recruit different muscle groups not often targeted in your regular routine.
This induced microtrauma and “newness factor” causes inflammation (in other words, that pain you feel), which then triggers our immune cells to go in and repair the damage. That’s recovery, and it’s during this time when muscles rebuild to be stronger, denser, and more resilient.
We asked the experts to weigh in on the subject of DOMS, from why we get it, to how we treat it, and whether our pursuit of pain is really worth the agony.
THE DOMS DEBATE
“It’s a contentious topic,” says Dr. Shayne Fryia, an exercise physiologist and chiropractor at Primal Function Health and Rehab in Toronto, Canada, who also holds an MA in Rehab Science. “Mostly because there’s a lot of debate around its causes, treatment, and ways to reduce it; plus, whether or not it actually improves muscle endurance overall.”
CAN YOU SPEED RECOVERY?
For Fryia, the recovery process first comes down to genetic efficiencies, and that can quite literally vary person to person. “Regardless if you have fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscles, it all depends on how efficient your body is in getting rid of that waste (called lactic acid), and how good you are at flushing it out,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a symbol of more perceived effort because each body can respond to it very differently.” In other words, some bodies are simply better at recovering than others.
“There is no one proven formula to prevent DOMS,” he says. “But certainly, proper sleep and hydration are critical before engaging in any type of exercise or athletic event. Muscles are made up of a high percentage of water, so even mild dehydration can make your DOMS worse.”
Nutrition is also something to consider. For instance, following an extremely low-carb diet could lead to greater DOMS. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise, as they are broken down into sugars for our body to draw upon for energy or store in our muscles for later use.
The same goes for essential amino acids (think: fish, poultry, lentils, eggs, and legumes). They are the building blocks of protein and are required for the growth and repair of body tissues, including muscle. If you don’t eat a lot of protein, or you regularly train intensely, “supplementing post-workout has also been shown to help enhance muscle protein recovery, which will help to speed repair,” says Fryia.
BEWARE THE PAIN PURSUIT
Dr. Phil Warner, an Advanced Practise Consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital and sports-focused chiropractor in Toronto, Canada, has noted a trend in the number of clients who have come into his clinics with injuries, based on the fact their mindsets are pushing themselves beyond the point of overuse. “People are striving for that pain,” he says. “They have to push themselves to be sore, and they’re constantly chasing that soreness beyond a reasonable amount. For a lot of people, if they don’t “feel” like they did a workout, or don’t feel sore the next day, then they didn’t do enough. It’s a ridiculous thought process.”
Warner goes on to say that there is no proven research indicating that the more pain you’re in, the bigger the benefit you get: There is any number of exercisers or athletes that will not experience DOMS, and that’s okay. He called it the “repeated bout effect”: With repeated bouts of the same exercise, you become accustomed to it and your body adapts.
On that point, Fryia adds that extreme muscle soreness can be counterproductive. It significantly decreases the body’s capacity for force, meaning you can’t work out as hard or effectively as you would if you were pain-free. Plus, constant muscle pain could cause motivation to take a significant hit, too. “If you’re crippled by muscle soreness, will you want to stick with your workouts? Maybe not,” he says. “And how is that beneficial for your long-term health? It’s not.”
POTENTIAL RECOVERY METHODS
There are a growing number of techniques and products for reducing the severity and duration of DOMS, from compression clothing to foam rolling and even taking ice baths, but their effectiveness isn’t guaranteed.
Not for the faint of heart, some athletes swear by the recovery boosting benefits of immersing in an ice bath for 15-20 minutes post-workout. Another popular technique is cryotherapy, a chamber that engulfs you in freezing temperatures, although some of the benefits are not yet proven.
A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that when compression garments are worn after heavy exercise, they appear to reduce muscle soreness and faster muscle recovery. They work by constricting your muscles to decrease the swelling and inflammatory response when we work certain muscle groups hard.
Foam rolling is an effective therapeutic modality because it’s all about myofascial release, which alleviates the tension in the muscle’s connective tissue.
Focus on light activity, such as gentle yoga, walking, or biking, which will help to increase circulation and blood flow (which carries oxygen to muscle tissues) and reduce stiffness.