Every athlete experiences delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) at some point because their exercise regimes are about making them stronger and more flexible, leading to DOMS symptoms. DOMS can’t be stopped but through massage, nutrition, and stretching, you can speed up your recovery.
What exactly is DOMS?
The main DOMS symptoms are stiff, aching, and painful muscles 24 hours after you have finished exercising. It often peaks from then up until about 72 hours post-workout, but it can last up to five days in some cases.
DOMS is often the result of eccentric exercises (when muscles contract while you lengthen; think about lowering the weight slowly during a bicep curl) rather than concentric exercises (where a contraction shortens your muscle; the lifting phase of the bicep curl).
Athletes get DOMS because their exercises are often designed to stretch the muscles – so they’re more durable. Health and fitness regimes most likely to cause DOMS include strength training, running, and plyometric training. Let’s explore why.
Cause #1: Weight training
Using weights as part of a training regime gives athletes the foundation to succeed in their sport. All sports require athletes to have an element of strength, energy, and force, and weights help develop these qualities. Some of the athletes who get the most benefit from weight training include football players, strength sports enthusiasts, runners, hockey players and many more.
Weight training of any kind implements eccentric exercises. Whether you lift a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or bumper plate as you lengthen your limb, your muscle stretches and contracts – the same thing happens when you squat or flex. When muscles are stretched they suffer micro-tears, and this leads to DOMS. However, the tissue damage causes your muscles to regenerate and potentially increase in size. Win!
Strength, flexibility, and muscle mass are crucial in sports like gymnastics and professional wrestling. In a 2017 report, Ismail Kaya looked at the effects of a one-day wrestling tournament on the muscles. Kaya concluded that wrestlers do get DOMS, with the mean pain rating (out of 10) being 6.30 after 24 hours and 5.80 after 48 hours. At least they were building muscle, even if they didn’t win, right?
Cause #2: Running
Running benefits any athlete involved in a fast or explosive sport. Running builds up your hip flexors, quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, heart, and core muscles – it gives you a near full-body workout. Any athlete can see improvements in their capabilities if they have a running regime, with runners the most obvious example.
If you’re attempting to up your running game, you might intersperse your exercise routine with interval training – a form of eccentric exercise. As you increase the intensity and pace of your running, through hill work or fartlek sessions, for example, you create microtrauma in your muscles, causing micro-tears in the muscle. This, obviously, leads to some swelling and pain – and that’s your DOMS materializing.
Athletes with a running-intensive program need to warm up and down. Warming up and down helps ease muscles in and out of their training, safeguarding against the strain that causes DOMS.
Running isn’t limited to your marathon and park-runners. It covers any field sport, which means athletes playing football, soccer, basketball, hockey, tennis and more all get DOMS. In fact, these athletes may be more likely to get DOMS because of the variety and intensity of their running.
Cause #3: Plyometric training
Plyometric training is focused on short, sharp bursts of exercise that push your muscles to their limits. Athletes use plyometric training to boost their power, which involves explosive movements and quick transitions from stationary to active. High jumpers, pole vaulters, and field sports are where athletes get the most from plyometric training.
Athletes with a plyometric training regime enhance their neuromuscular functions through a stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). SSC is a cyclical muscle action, where muscles quickly go through eccentric and concentric contractions. SSC can cause myofibre disruption, causing tissue damage and leading to DOMS.
Soccer is an of example athletes getting DOMS because of plyometric training, particularly the gegenpressing style used by Liverpool FC. Gegenpressing demands sharp and intense transitional running, with players chasing the ball and their opponents. Transitional running is a form of SSC, which causes soccer players using gegenpressing to experience DOMS.
Is there a positive to DOMS?
If all athletes suffer from DOMS there has to be a good side to it, right? DOMS is a type of muscle conditioning for your body. This means each time you perform the same exercises there will be less tissue damage and a faster recovery. The result will be stronger and more durable muscles.
The reason athletes see a long term benefit from DOMS is that it’s the beginning of a journey. If you keep on the right path there will be a positive to the pain, if you take or design the wrong one there will be no gain.
How to speed up recovery from DOMS
DOMS is a near certainty that comes from putting your muscles under severe stress and duress, but there are ways to soothe your soreness. Athletes use massage, nutrition, warming up/down and more to speed up their recovery, and this next section looks at these methods.
Recovery #1: Massage
A 2003 study by a trio of researchers looked at the effects of massage on speeding up recovery from DOMS. Researchers used 18 subjects and brought about DOMS by making them exercise their right hamstring, giving half of the group a massage afterward and leaving the remainder without. Test subjects who were given a massage were much less likely to experience post-exercise soreness than those were not.
Massage has not been found to improve the function of muscles, with the range of motion dipping after exercise regardless of whether you have one or not. However, it has been shown that having a massage after working out does reduce soreness, making it an effective way of speeding up recovery from DOMS.
Recovery #2: Nutrition
It’s been said that exercise starts in the kitchen, with diet long being considered an important part of a successful training regime. A 2014 report looked at whether nutritional intervention can be used to speed up recovery from DOMS, by making your body better able to cope with it.
Nutrients thought to help tackle DOMS include caffeine, omega-3 fatty acids, taurine, and polyphenols. While are positive examples of certain nutrients aiding recovery from DOMS, the evidence is inconsistent. What has been noted is that an inflammatory response to nutrients has a connection to lowering DOMS.
Recovery #3: Warming up/down
Warming up eases your muscles into exercise by running through the workout in a slower, less intense way. Warming down lets your body have a gradual recovery, easing its way back to a resting pace and stance. Research into the effects warming up/down on speeding up the recovery from DOMS has seen positive results.
Warming up/down is a way of reducing DOMS by speeding up the body’s metabolic processes, increasing muscle temperature. An increase in muscle temperature increases extensibility, meaning it is able to able to be stretched. This means warming up/down speeds up the recovery from DOMS, because your body is not so shocked by the stress your exercise puts on your muscles.
DOMS affects all athletes who have an eccentric exercise regime. Typically, this means anyone who wants to up their strength, improve their flexibility, or become less injury prone. The good news is you can make your recovery faster. Try tweaking your nutritional plan, having a massage after you exercise, and always warm up and down. Do all this and you’ll have less pain for the same gain.
About the author: Scott McDougall (MPharm) is the Co-Founder and Registered Manager of The Independent Pharmacy, one of the UK’s leading independent online pharmacies. For more healthcare and treatment advice, visit their website.