We’ve all seen the post leg day memes and dragged ourselves up a flight of stairs the day after heavy squats. While you may feel muscle fatigue or soreness during a tough workout, DOMS is the soreness you feel 48-72 hours after a hard workout.
Why Soreness Happens
Resistance exercises, like lifting weights, create small tears in the myofibrils (muscle fibers) as well as a small amount of inflammation. Muscle fibers release enzymes to repair themselves and grow back thicker and stronger. Free nerve cell receptors called nociceptors respond to these microscopic muscle tears by sending pain signals to the brain. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) may feel like tightness, aching, or cramping and is usually at its worst 48 hours post-workout.
The uncomfortable feeling you get mid-workout is due to lactic acid buildup. Once you get enough rest and hydration, the discomfort will ease, usually in a few hours.
Why You Shouldn't Be Chasing Soreness
There’s a common misconception that DOMS is an indicator of a good workout. No pain, no gain may be a popular hashtag, but it shouldn’t be a training strategy.
People experience soreness differently. Genetic factors and hormone levels play a role in how quickly the body repairs damaged muscle fibers as well as each person’s perceived soreness. Estrogen, in particular, has been shown to repair muscle damage and lower levels of creatine kinase (the chemical used to measure muscle damage).
Some studies suggest that women are able to recover faster and are less likely to experience DOMs, but there isn’t conclusive proof that women are less likely to suffer from DOMs. Additionally, scientists are still studying how varying levels of estrogen impact muscle performance during different phases of the menstrual cycle.
Certain workouts create more soreness than others. Eccentric muscle contractions, like the lowering phase of a bicep curl or the descent of a squat, create more soreness than concentric contractions, the lifting phase. Eccentric actions may also feel more taxing since they recruit fewer motor units than concentric contractions. Similarly, downhill running will produce more soreness than flat running due to the eccentric demand placed on the muscles. This doesn't mean that your muscles aren’t working as hard during concentric contractions or concentric-focused exercises.
How To Prevent Soreness
DOMS occurs when muscles are stressed in a new way. Some of the most common times people experience this is when starting a new training phase or when returning to the gym after a break.
In most cases, soreness isn’t a cause for undue concern. But if soreness is accompanied by swelling, redness, or acute pain it may be a sign of something more serious.
Soreness is a part of progressive loading and working out. That being said, there are a few strategies you can use to reduce DOMs.
Warm up with dynamic and sport-specific movements. The often overlooked warm up is a vital part of any training session. An adequate warm up increases circulation, lubricates the joints, and helps prepare your body for movement.
Ensure your recovery is adequate. Muscles are made when you’re resting. Getting a nutritious protein-rich meal in post workout is one of the best things you can do for muscle recovery. In addition to eating a nutrient-dense diet and hydrating adequately, sleep is an irreplaceable component of any training program. Make sure you’re getting the recommended eight to nine hours each night.
Should You Workout When Sore?
Muscle soreness isn’t a reason to skip the gym. But it’s vital to be able to distinguish between soreness like DOMs and acute pain from a sprain or stress fracture.
Studies suggest steady-state cardio or low-intensity training can actually help reduce muscle soreness and increase blood flow to sore muscles. Many people choose a low-intensity cardio session or activity like yoga between heavy lifting sessions.
Be sure to adequately warm up before working out with sore muscles since soreness can limit the range of motion and lead to compensatory motions.
Foam rolling and massage have been proven to help relieve DOMs discomfort and restore range of motion and power in sore muscles. Foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other tools for self-myofascial release are popular choices for both pre and post-workout pain relief. Therapeutic massage or percussive therapy in the form of massage guns can also reduce pain and increase blood flow to sore muscles.