The Science of DOMS and What It Means for Your Fitness Journey
If you’re been working out for a while, you’ll be familiar with that unexpected dull ache that rears its ugly head one or two days after intense exercise. The muscle pain that sets in around 24 hours after your workout and sticks around for about 72 hours is known as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. While it might be uncomfortable, it is a sign that you’re doing something right in the gym.
While it might be a good sign, there’s no denying that DOMS will disrupt your life. Being able to identify the difference between DOMS and an injury is essential for your fitness journey.
While returning to exercise with a little muscle soreness is generally considered to be safe, resuming when you are injured could lead to further problems. There are also steps you can take to limit muscle pain after a workout.
What causes delayed onset muscle soreness?
DOMS is caused by inflammation in the muscle fibre and is a kind of localised fever response. Eccentric movements recruit fewer motor units, so the tension is localised to a smaller area, which results in greater injury to the muscle.
Eccentric movements are exercises that lengthen the muscle under load, such as the lowering movement in a squat. This is why leg day is commonly associated with DOMS.
Muscle injury might sound scary, but it is a positive thing when it comes to building muscle. The muscle is broken down and the body rebuilds the muscle by fusing fibres, which creates larger and stronger muscles.
Damage to the muscle fibres triggers a secondary immune response, which leads to pain, redness, swelling and heat.
Is DOMS a good thing?
We used to believe that the more pain you’re in after a workout, the more effective it was, but this is no longer the widely held belief in the fitness community. So while a little bit of pain after a workout can be normal, if you’re in too much pain, it could be a sign that you’re training too hard.
There is also the risk that individuals could misinterpret the pain they are experiencing. DOMS could feel a lot like a muscle strain, and while returning to exercise with DOMS is unlikely to cause issues, working out with an injury is not a good idea.
There are also steps you can take to minimise DOMS, so it doesn't have to become a permanent part of your life. Many people find that they only experience DOMS when they are returning to exercise after a long time or when they change their exercise intensity or frequency.
Can I exercise with DOMS?
You can return to exercise with a little muscle soreness, but you can expect some discomfort. Exercises that you usually find easy might be more challenging when you are experiencing DOMS, and you might find that you reach exhaustion faster.
This is one reason that many experienced weight lifters train different body parts on different days. This could allow you to train two days in a row because you aren’t hitting the same muscle groups every time.
How can I avoid DOMS?
Consistency is one of the best ways to beat DOMS. You might find that the DOMS is more severe when you have skipped a workout one week, so getting into a good routine could help you to avoid discomfort.
There are also steps you can take before and after exercise to help limit injury and inflammation. These include:
- Always warm-up and cool down. A good warm-up is essential to get the blood flowing to your muscles and to help prevent injury. Following your workout with some cool-down stretches can also help to improve mobility.
- Try myofascial release. Not everyone can afford a sports massage after every workout, but you can replicate the effects with a foam roller. A firm foam roller can help to massage muscles and limit the onset of DOMS.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration can make the effects of DOMS even worse, so make sure you’re drinking at least 2 litres of water per day. You may need even more if you are supplementing with protein and creatine.
- Upgrade your bath. If you decide to take a hot bath to relieve your muscle soreness, try adding some Epsom salts to help reduce inflammation. These bath salts are rich in magnesium which can help to reduce inflammation.
- Embrace active recovery. If your idea of a rest day consists of sitting on the sofa and doing nothing, it might be time to rethink your routine. Try adding some low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS) to your rest days to help combat muscle aches.
- Get plenty of sleep. When you’re sleeping, your body can carry out essential repairs, including muscle repairs. Making sure you get enough sleep every night is one of the simplest ways to upgrade your training routine to minimise
Does DOMS cause weight gain?
One of the side effects of muscle soreness is water retention, so you might notice a slight uptick in the number on the scales. Water retention can also leave you feeling more puffy than usual, which could impact your confidence. As long as you aren’t eating too much salt, this water retention shouldn’t be a permanent problem.
If your muscle soreness is causing you to skip workouts and take extended breaks from exercise, this could impact your progress in the long term. Try scaling back the intensity of your workouts until you find more balance. While it might not be the direct cause of weight gain, it certainly won’t help you to progress in your fitness journey if you are unable to manage it effectively.