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.
“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 for DOMS, with a healthy serving of myth debunking:
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) Get your post-workout shake in.
Protein is the big one, and timing does appear to make a difference when it comes to DOMS. If you’re fancy, you can throw in some glutamine and BCAA too, with a number of other benefits. I use MP Exceed as it has added beta alanine and citrulline malate, extra goodies.
3) Stay Hydrated
We don’t need to convince you of the benefits of water, although surprisingly it doesn’t appear to have an effect on DOMS.
6) Contrast baths/showers
A common theme here so far is blood flow to transport nutrients to the muscle and clear metabolites. The rationale behind contrast heat and cold is to induce alternating vasodilation/vasoconstriction of the blood vessels at the affected area. Unfortunately, this is a myth and has been observed to actually increase DOMS in a controlled trial.
7) Train again
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 (repeated bout effect).
Try it: you’ll find you can handle more volume than you think. While the muscle will mostly recover within 48 hours, 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.
The options are:
– Train the sore muscle groups the following day in your active recovery session (tip 1).
– Increase your overall training volume and frequency with a submaximal day, e.g. 6×2 @ 70% with a speed focus, or a light hypertrophy-focused assistance day.
– Go for a swim, go to a yoga class
– Split your existing training volume over more days. This change has benefits to size and strength in its own right.
Note: 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’s simply that you didn’t eat enough. Up the 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, go easy with these. Stretching feels good but overdoing it when you’re already sore can increase DOMS, according to some data.
10) Foam rolling/massage
Finally, with the weakest evidence basis (and least fun) is foam rolling 2 hours post-exercise, or better, still get a sports massage. The rationale is that it may interrupt some of the mechanisms that induce DOMS. 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). The intended soft tissue work is not to eliminate DOMS per se, but to keep your tissue in decent enough quality longer term, to prevent dysfunctional patterns, tightness and muscle adhesions.
Hats off to this guy who did an experiment on himself to thoroughly test the massage hypothesis himself by massaging the hell out of one side only, and found it made no difference for him. The problem is that neither stretching, nor massage are homogeneous, and so it’s a little more murky – in this case, your experience is perhaps more valid than grasping at studies.
A Note On Anti-Inflammatories:
Ibuprofen can help with acute/debilitating soreness – but this is not a long term solution. They may only reduce the pain at the expense of impeding muscle recovery by acting on the same prostaglandin pathways that are involved in the hypertrophy adaptation, potentially mitigating both short and long term muscle growth. Fish oil is touted as something that can inhibit myostatin, solve maths problems and arbitrate divorce cases, although unfortunately it isn’t a winner for ameliorating DOMS.
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.