It’s time to rethink our attitude to next-day muscle soreness

For many serious gym girls, the measure of a good workout is that dull ache in the muscles we trained the day before.

It’s not uncommon to feel too stiff to train again after your last gym session. But does severe next-day soreness do more harm than good?

This feeling is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and those who train in the gym consider it a natural component of weight training.

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DOMS mindset reset

However, on-going research is changing conventional thinking around DOMS and the role it plays in the muscle-building process.

For instance, early theories suggested that a build-up of lactic acid caused DOMS. However, more recent theories suggest that exercise-induced damage causes micro-trauma to muscle fibres and connective tissues and that the resultant inflammation causes the discomfort and, sometimes, pain.

While it is likely that DOMS stems from a combination of factors, if the phenomenon occurs due to damaged tissue of any kind, it is pertinent to ask whether next-day soreness is beneficial.

The six main hypothesized DOMS theories include:

  1. Lactic acid
  2. Muscle spasm
  3. Connective tissue damage
  4. Muscle damage
  5. Inflammation
  6. Enzyme efflux

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‘Good’ vs ‘bad’ soreness

Many health and fitness professionals agree that mild to severe DOMS may not actually indicate an optimal training response.

Rather, this symptoms indicate excessive damage, which is not necessarily conducive to optimal muscle growth or enhanced strength.

However, it has proven difficult to directly link muscle soreness with protein synthesis (a part of the process that creates new muscle tissue) or the degree of muscle fibre damage caused by specific exercises or techniques.

What we know for certain is that building more muscle can happen without associated muscle pain, and that eccentric movements or exercises (lengthening a muscle under tension) tends to result in more severe DOMS.

DOMS is also more common after performing new or unfamiliar exercises, or after significantly increasing your training load, intensity or volume. Untrained athletes also tend to suffer more severe DOMS than well-trained or seasoned athletes.

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DOMS drivers

DOMS is associated with the repair process required to rebuild muscle fibres after a tough workout.

Research shows that the source of the majority of this discomfort or pain mainly resides in the connective tissue that binds muscle fibres together, not the actual muscle fibres themselves.

According to one theory, the reason for the pain is the body’s immune response to the damage, which results in inflammation, accompanied by the release of various chemicals and other substances.

This mainly happens in the chemical environment surrounding the muscle cell, rather than inside the muscle cell itself.

The combination of these elements create the sensations of sensitivity or pain as nerve endings in the damaged tissue become overly stimulated.

The DOMS threshold

However, some degree of damage and inflammation will always occur in response to progressive overload and training, but seasoned gym-goers don’t always experience DOMS.

When DOMS does present, a dull ache in the belly of the muscle and the presence of some degree of discomfort during movement is probably the threshold limit for ‘good’ next-day soreness.

You shouldn’t experience any limitations in movement or muscle function, though. Feeling pain or discomfort at the origin and/or insertion of muscles (points where muscles connect to joints) indicates damage to connective tissue, which is undesirable.

The repair process can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to complete. However, that doesn’t mean that the repair process ends once the DOMS sensation disappears.

If any pain or discomfort persists beyond 48 hours and remains present throughout the day, then you’ve probably exceeded the ideal level of muscle damage and you need more time to recover. You should also review your training approach to avoid a repeat.

Reducing DOMS

Book-ending your workout with a proper warm-up and cool-down can help to reduce tissue damage during the session.

And applying best-practice guidelines with regard to progression, by only increasing one variable (load, duration, volume or intensity) in your workout by no more than 10% a week, can help to minimise the risk of DOMS.

If you’re already deep into your DOMS, movement is vital. Performing some low-intensity cardio to improve blood flow, followed by light stretching – both static and dynamic stretches – along with some mobility drills, will help to restore natural movement and accelerate the recovery process.

You can also use hot-cold therapy with contrast bathing (an ice bath is best) or showering to promote blood flow. Constantly switching between hot and cold water helps to flush muscles and surrounding tissues with fresh oxygen and nutrients to assist with healing and repair, while removing exercise metabolites.

Adding Epsom salts to your bath water is another potential way to help alleviate DOMS. This magnesium-rich powder dissolves in water and may help to reduce muscle and tissue inflammation as the body absorbs the minerals through the skin.

Aid repair and recovery

The food and supplements you eat and drink can also help. Healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, can help to naturally reduce inflammation.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine determined that taking an omega-3 supplement for a week helped to reduce soreness and ease inflammation following eccentric strength exercise.

Boosting your antioxidant intake with natural foods and supplements can also reduce the oxidative damage that the free radicals produced during exercise inflict on cells.

A randomised controlled trial published in The Journal of Pain found that people who took ginger capsules, which contains the bioactive compound gingerol, daily for 11 days, reported 25% less muscle pain when they performed eccentric exercises compared with a placebo group.

Supplementing with BCAAs before, during and after exercise may also limit tissue damage, which can help to ease DOMS.

And maintaining optimal hydration is another important component when soothing sore muscles because many important biochemical processes required to regenerate and repair tissue can only occur in water.

Muscle manipulation

If your muscles are not too sensitive to the touch, you could also consider adding some foam rolling or light massage to your approach.

A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine showed that massage also helps reduce the production of immune cells called cytokines, which play a critical role in the post-exercise inflammatory response.

Furthermore, the research team from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, found that massage enhances cell recovery by stimulating mitochondria, which facilitates quicker adaptations to exercise.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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