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About Muscle Soreness
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) Explained
Weve all been there at one time or another; you raise your training load, added something different to your tried and true routine or tried a new activity. Youre feeling awesome until you greet the next morning and it hurts to get out of bed.
This condition is also called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Thats an acronym that your doctor will use but you can use it to impress your running buddies.
As Jon Mike, CSCS, NSCA-CPT and PhD candidate in Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico puts it, “DOMS is muscle soreness that becomes evident six-to-eight hours following activity, peaking around 24 to 48 hours post-training. While the symptoms will often start to diminish at about 72 hours, the precise time course and extent of DOMS is highly variable.”
The condition is most often encountered when introducing a new training regimen, be it a new activity, heightened intensity, or training volume. It also rears its ugly head with folks who are new to physical activity in general as many a New Years resolutioner will tell you.
Lauren Haythe, certified Kinesis Myofascial Integration Practitioner and yoga teacher reports, “Your body is making adaptations to better prepare your muscles to do that activity again. But, as you continue on, you can build up from there, and you wont be so sore.”
Causes and Symptoms of Muscle Soreness
Even though virtually all kinds of muscle contraction are known to result in soreness, eccentric muscle contraction is the type thats most often associated with DOMS. This is when your muscle lengthens at the same time that it contracts.
A few examples of these activities are running down hills, lowering weights, and moving down into a squat or push-up position. Mike says, “There is also some evidence that upper body movement creates more soreness than lower body exercises.”
Although discomfort in your muscles is the most obvious symptom of DOMS, there are other symptoms as well. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reports that these may include a reduced range of motion and stiffness in your joints as well as local swelling accompanied by tenderness, and diminished strength in the associated muscle.
These symptoms show up gradually after completing exercise. This is what differentiates DOMS from the acute pain that can manifest as the physical activity is taking place.
The Facts and Myths of Muscle Soreness
There are many “facts” that are really myths bandied about in the gym and on the road. You might be surprised at some of them. Here are a few of these myths and explanations of what is really going on.
- Muscle soreness is the result of the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles. Untrue. When you work out, your body requires a good amount of energy. To get it, it breaks down molecules.
This is a metabolic process where cells gradually become more acidic. This is evident when your muscles experience an uncomfortable burning sensation. However, this is not caused by lactate. In reality, lactate is simply a by-product of this metabolic process.
As such, it functions as a buffer that slows down the rate at which your cells become increasingly acidic. Mike says, “People produce lactate all the time, even at rest. It clears your system 30 minutes to 1 hour after working out.”
Clinics in Sports Medicine conducted a study in which it was found that DOMS results from microtrauma in the muscles and their surrounding connective tissues. This is what actually causes inflammation.
The reason? The eccentric muscle contraction is more apt to be the culprit because it puts a greater load on the muscles as compared to concentric contraction. Mike goes on to say, “It’s the active lengthening of muscle fibers under load. Its like youre pulling on a rope, and theres so much force that the rope starts to tear and pull apart.”
- If youre not sore the next day, it wasnt a quality workout. We often feel vindicated by our DOMS and think that if we arent sore, we are just not hammering it enough during out workouts. Again, not true.
Monica Vazquez, a well-known NASM certified personal trainer says, “It doesnt mean that youre not getting as good of a workout because youre not crippled the next day. You should feel [soreness] 24 hours to three days after the activity. If, after three days, you try to do the same exercise and you cannot because you go immediately to muscle failure, youve done too much.”
Mike tells us that studies have shown that soreness, judged on a scale going from 0 to 10 to indicate your level of soreness, is ineffective as a judge of your muscle adaptation and growth. But in fact there are many factors that are involved with how DOMS shows up in athletes.
Mike says, “There is great variability, even between people with similar genetics and even among highly-trained lifters [and athletes].” So it follows that while comparing notes is all an interesting part of the process, soreness and DOMS is actually not the most accurate gauge of perceptually how effective your workout was.
- The fitter athletes are, the less likely they are to falling prey to DOMS. It is absolutely the truth that you will begin to feel less post-workout soreness as your body continues to conform to your workouts and figures out how to to distribute the increased workload throughout your muscles more effectively.
And that is why you need to regularly shake up your exercise routine. If will help you from getting stuck on a plateau and becoming discouraged. If you are primarily a runner just be sure to follow the 10% rule for weekly mileage and long run distances.
One thing to be aware of is that theres also a genetic aspect to the level of sensitivity that we experience to perceived pain and soreness. Mike tells us that, “People can be no-responders, low-responders or high-responders to soreness.” What he is saying here is that if you fall into the category of high-responders, youll experience muscle soreness more strongly than a person who is in the no or low-responder categories given the same training load.
While you cannot change your parents and therefore your genetic makeup, it is essential to understand exactly where you land on the sensitivity spectrum in order to understand how your body might respond to the various changes in your workouts.
- Muscle damage is not your friend. It is true that DOMS seems to be brought on by trauma to your muscles, but it is not necessarily a hard and fast measure of muscle damage.
Rather, a certain amount of pain seems to be necessary for performance adaptation. Vazquez states, “When muscles repair themselves, they get larger and stronger than before so that [muscle soreness] doesnt happen again.” And while these processes arent wholely understood, Mike believes that some muscle fiber trauma is necessary in order to stimulate protein production and cosequential muscle growth.
- Stretching before and after your workout is an excellent method in preventing and treating DOMS. Again, not so. Reviewing the studies for the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews on the effectiveness of doing a stretching routine before or after exercise on the development of DOMS reveals that pre and post-workout stretching does not lower the effects of muscle soreness in non-sedentary adults.
Rather, some research indicates that static or ballistic stretching before working out doesnt protect you against injury. In fact it may actually lower your power and strength although this does sound counter-intuitive.
Although you cannot avoid soreness altogether with a progressive workout plan, ACSM suggests getting your feet wet slowly with a new workout. This will give your muscle fibers adequate time for adaptation and recovery. Vazquez advises always including a proper warm-up including dynamic stretching and a cooldown as a regular part of your routine.
If you have experiences or tips on muscle soreness for our readers, please share them below.
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