Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). If you've ever done any moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise, you'll already know enough about those 4 words to read them with a certain amount of trepidation.
Individuals who work at higher intensities will often have a love-hate relationship with DOMS. If they don't get it, they'll miss it, but when they do get it, they'll prefer not to have it at all.
While DOMS is never nice for anyone to experience, it arguably has the biggest impact on novice exercisers who aren't familiar with the muscle soreness that will likely accompany their new exercise programme. This can have a significant impact on their programme adherence and be a major negative stimulus to developing healthier habits.
So, let's take a closer look at what DOMS is and explore some effective ways to mitigate it.
What is DOMS?
DOMS is the muscle soreness and stiffness that you may feel around 24 hours after intense exercise, especially if your body isn't accustomed to it.
These symptoms are primarily caused by the damage you do to your muscles during the eccentric (lengthening) parts of a loaded movement, which is when your muscle fibres are in their most stretched position. This creates microscopic tears in the muscle fibres, which triggers an inflammatory response. This inflammation is a sign that the body is in the process of repairing the damage caused, which is when muscles grow and rebuild to become stronger.
The mental impact of DOMS
This muscle soreness can have a significant mental impact, especially for novice exercisers or those returning to exercise after a long period.
If you're a personal trainer working with a client complaining of DOMS or are experiencing it while on your journey, you must take time to understand what DOMS is (well done reading this blog) and try to reframe how you're feeling. Failure to do so could lead to you reducing your intensity while at the gym, thus limiting the amount of progression you make, or you quitting a programme entirely.
While being in pain or experiencing soreness isn't generally a good thing, in the context of achieving exercise goals, such as hypertrophy, it is. It means muscles have been damaged, which means they must be repaired, which means they will likely grow.
Over time, individuals will become more accustomed to DOMS and it will become less severe as their bodies adapt to exercises. However, in the meantime, equipping individuals with an understanding of what they're going through and that it can be seen as a positive thing will hopefully help to reduce the chance of a lack of program adherence or abandonment.
How to mitigate DOMS
While the rebuilding of muscles (DOMS) will naturally subside around 2–4 days after a workout, there are ways to speed up the process. However, for those seeking to maximise muscular development, it's important to note that some methods will interfere with growth more than others.
Methods that will help reduce DOMS but may interfere with growth
There are numerous and popular ways to reduce the severity of soreness caused by DOMS and get you back to training faster. Two common methods are hot-cold therapy and over-the-counter pain relief (anti-inflammatories).
Hot-cold therapy involves exposing your body to cold and warm compresses or environments to reduce inflammation and temporarily soothe or numb the affected area.
Anti-inflammatories, like Ibuprofen, help to reduce the inflammation that occurs as part of the muscle-rebuilding process, which will help to alleviate the discomfort caused by DOMS.
While these methods will help to reduce peak soreness, they may also interfere with muscle growth. These 2 mitigation methods work to reduce inflammation or speed up recovery, but this may be at the expense of the positive adaptations your body is going through.
It's like making a cake, putting it in the oven to bake, and then prematurely removing it from the oven because you're too impatient to let it properly cook through. Yes, the cake will be partially baked and it'll be edible, but will it be as good as if you'd given it the time it required? Probably not.
Prioritising recovery time over growth is sometimes a sacrifice worth making. For example, if you're a rugby player in the middle of a tournament and you're playing back-to-back games with only short rest periods, your priority is to be ready as quickly as possible for the next game. In this example, using methods that help speed up recovery is a great option because you don't care about growth, you're already in the shape you need to be in, and recovering in time for your next game is your priority.
Methods that will help reduce DOMS and probably won't interfere with growth
While I'd love to tell you that there are some magic ways you can reduce DOMS and alleviate soreness without interfering with growth, I'm afraid it ultimately comes down to the basics:
Eating a healthy, protein-rich diet that contains an adequate amount of calories.
Getting an adequate amount of good-quality sleep and rest.
And practising good training principles in your programming.
If you have damaged your muscles, they need to repair themselves and when it comes to repair, protein is king. Your body needs to get amino acids, via the bloodstream from the small intestine, to the damaged muscles for repair to occur. Consuming an adequate amount of protein will speed up muscle repair and support muscle growth.
You've probably heard the old saying that growth doesn't happen in the gym, it occurs at rest, well, it's true. In the gym you're causing damage, outside the gym you're repairing it (while experiencing DOMS), and that's when growth happens. Allowing your muscles to have ample time to repair between workouts is essential and this is best done through rest and good-quality sleep that promotes healing. Rest doesn't mean sedentary, it can take the form of active recovery, such as brisk walking to get the blood flowing, or training alternating muscle groups via splits, such as Push Pull Legs or Lower-Upper Body.
Not all types of intense training lead to muscle damage. While certain training goals, such as hypertrophy (higher volumes), may provoke more acute DOMS, strength or power goals, which involve increased intensities with lower volumes may lead to practically no DOMS at all. It's important to note that this likely wouldn't apply to untrained individuals, who would regardless experience DOMS due to de-conditioning.
I'll wrap this one up by reminding you that DOMS is a natural part of the muscle-building process. The most important thing is that you listen to your body and be vigilant for more severe muscle soreness, which could be a sign of overtraining or a muscle strain. By implementing the right strategies into your routine, you can help mitigate DOMS and avoid it impeding your slow but steady progress towards your goals.
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