Q. What the heck is DOMS? And what can I do to prevent getting it?
You know the feeling when you try a new workout and you get up the next morning and feel fine? You think to yourself, “Well, I’m in better shape than I thought.” Then you wake up on day two barely able to lift your leg, let alone walk up stairs, because everything hurts. That’s DOMS: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. DOMS sets in a couple of days after a workout, leaving you achy and stiff—and it’s totally normal, so there’s no need to panic. On the bright side, DOMS signals that you worked muscles in a way you haven’t recently and that your body is getting stronger, so greet it with open arms (if you can lift them that far).
To get technical, it is believed that DOMS is caused by microscopic damage in muscle tissue during eccentric activities. Which means, while a muscle is performing a lengthening contraction, such as during the coming down phase of a bicep curl, it is more prone to tiny tears. This is how muscles begin to re-build and adapt to new activity. I like to tell my patients that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. By breaking down the muscles, you rebuild them, making you stronger and more durable overtime. The good news is that the effects of DOMS will reduce as you repeat those movements again and again.
Still, it’s important to differentiate between normal muscle soreness and injury. DOMS is a natural physiological response to activity. It can be annoying, but it isn’t limiting—it will go away on its own, and will improve with movement. Injury, on the other hand, needs to be taken care of. If you experience sharp pain, the kind that inhibits normal function or increases with movement, it is a good idea to get checked out by a healthcare professional.
There is no “cure” for DOMS, and the only way to totally prevent it is to avoid new workouts, which I don’t advise. It’s important to keep challenging yourself and moving in different planes. Yes, there will be attendant soreness, but your body can and will adapt.
To manage the pain and soreness caused by DOMS, try massage, warm Epson salt baths, or an anti-inflammatory, such as Advil. Icing is often recommended, but I personally don’t care for that treatment. Cold compresses will constrict veins and reduce blood flow to the area, and I like to make sure blood and nutrients are flowing to speed up muscle repair. I also suggest using a foam roller on tight muscles to work out the kinks. Anything that brings movement into the sore area will help, even if all you really want to do is hold perfectly still.
Finally, always perform a dynamic warm up before any activity. A dynamic warm up is a specific movement pattern that will turn on the muscles you need to properly do a movement—it is not static stretching (think: reaching toward your toes and holding). Warming up by firing up the muscles you will be using will help you during your workout and improve recovery.
Have you ever experienced DOMS? Do you have a question you’d like David Reavy answer? Share in the comments!