DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is part of the training package: sometimes you can feel like you’ve been hit by a car the morning after leg day. Soreness is neither a good or bad thing: if you’re not sore after training it doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard enough. If you’ve been studying, but haven’t got a headache yet, it doesn’t mean you’re not studying well enough.
The mechanism of DOMS is multifactorial: it is associated with increased serum creatine kinase activity, acute inflammation and cellular calcium efflux, outlined here by Brad Schoenfeld:
“Forces associated with muscular contractions, particularly eccentric actions, cause the formation of small micro-tears in both the contractile elements and surface membrane (sarcolemma) of working muscle fibers.
These micro-tears allow calcium to escape from the muscles, disrupting their intracellular balance and causing further injury to the fibers.
Various proteins then interact with the free nerve endings surrounding the damaged fibers, resulting in localized pain and stiffness. Symptoms can be exacerbated by swelling within muscle fibers, which exerts pressure on sensory receptors (nociceptors) and thereby increases the sensation of pain (6).”
It is suggested that there could be a metabolic, neural and even renal component to DOMS. Anyway…it hurts.
Here are our top tips to reduce soreness:
1) ‘Active recovery’ Session
I first read about this from Chad Waterbury: his recommendation is to pick 20% of your max and do 2 sets of 40-50 reps for partial mid range reps. For example, if you have sore legs do 40-50 bodyweight squats without locking out. The goal is not to create a training effect but to flush blood through the affected muscles. I’ve tried this, and it makes a big difference, especially with some carbs added.
2) Supplement with intra-workout Glutamine and BCAAs
In addition to getting a whole host of other benefits, glutamine and BCAAs sipped during your training session will vastly reduce DOMS. I use MP Exceed as it has added beta alanine, which functions as a fatigue buffer via delimiting carnosine production.
3) Stay Hydrated
Plenty of water both before, during and after training. We won’t make this one more complicated than that!
6) Contrast baths/showers
A common theme here so far is blood flow to transport nutrients to the muscle and clear metabolites. Physiotherapists advise contrast heat and cold to cause alternating vasodilation/vasoconstriction of the blood vessels at the affected area. Switch every 2 minutes between hot and cold. Don’t use extreme temperatures. Research is mixed on this, but I’ve noticed an improvement myself.
7) Increase your training frequency
Often if you have a few days off, then have a heavy session, you can be more sore than normal. Paradoxically when we are doing any high frequency training (training between 6 and 10 times per week) soreness disappears. Try it: you’ll find you can handle more volume than you think. Muscle takes roughly 48 hours to recover, although soreness can linger for longer. After 48 hours your performance should be back up to, or beyond what it was – even if it still hurts a little. Don’t believe the nonsense about ‘not training on a sore muscle’. You can handle it.
One thing to take note of: eccentric (negative) contractions are implicated more strongly in creating DOMS, so de-emphasise the lowering of each rep to avoid causing further soreness if you’re doing a recovery session.
8) Eat more, sleep more.
Sometimes if you’re sore all the time, it could be that you simply didn’t eat enough calories. Particularly protein & carbs.
9) Fascial stretches pre/post-workout
We’ve found Ming Chew’s fascial stretches to help with muscle soreness when used pre and post workout. See his full book here.
However, some stretching when you’re already sore can increase DOMS!
10) Foam rolling/massage
This isn’t going to be fun, but foam rolling 2 hours post-exercise has been found to reduce DOMS by disrupting inflammation. Better still get a sports massage if you’re made of money.. . Evidence is weak for massage as a fix for DOMS when 24 hours+ has elapsed since the workout, with some pointing towards it adding to the soreness with ‘post massage soreness & malaise’ (PMSM). Hats off to this guy who did an experiment on himself to thoroughly test the massage hypothesis at various time intervals, and found it made no difference for him. Only way to know if it works for you is to try.
Conclusion: Do it around your workout while the muscles are still warm, otherwise you’re likely to increase the soreness.
Applying ice is shown to reduce perceived soreness, but doesn’t aid in muscle recovery and may impede it in the long term. Ming Chew also advises against ice on the basis that it causes fascial restriction.
A Note On Anti-Inflammatories:
Ibuprofen can help with acute/debilitating soreness – but this is not a long term solution. Aside from the negative effects from chronic use of pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories on kidney and liver function, it is suggested that they may only reduce the pain at the expense of impeding muscle recovery by blocking prostaglandin pathways and muscle satellite cells, potentially mitigating both short and long term muscle growth. You might be wondering whether fish oil would ameliorate DOMS with its anti-inflammatory properties, unfortunately the answer is no, despite the fact that fish oil may inhibit myostatin, solve maths problems and arbitrate divorce courts.
There you have it, 10 ways to keep your DOMS under control – all aimed at improving blood flow to the muscle and enhancing recovery. Enjoy.