“Are these DOMs? Or am I dying?”
Have you ever woken up after a good training session and felt like you can barely move? What happened? You smashed your workout, you felt invincible, until you’ve woken up and now that workout has smashed you. If I had a pound for every time I’ve woken up to an “I’m going to kill you, everything hurts” text from one of my clients I wouldn’t quite be a millionaire yet, but you catch my drift. Welcome to the love/hate world of DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
DOMS: The Meaning
As the name suggests, DOMS refer to the pain you experience after exercise, typically DOMS use sneaky ‘delay’ tactics, lulling you into a false sense of security and then hitting you anywhere from 8-48 hours after exercise. Normally this muscle soreness lasts around 3 to 5 days, so if you’re reading this post leg day, I’m afraid you’ve got a few more days of waddling yet.
What causes DOMS?
Almost everyone will at some point experience DOMS, usually after they try a new exercise or have returned to training after a considerable break, although some may experience DOMS after every, single, workout. Ouch. It’s also important to recognise that muscle soreness is not a signal for your level of fitness, it can strike athletes and novices alike. It is thought that the leading cause of DOMS is the eccentric loading phase of an exercise. This phase is the lengthening phase of the muscle when it is being stretched. For example, it’s the downward part of a bicep curl, when the arm is straightening.
Is DOMS lactic acid build up?
Since the early 20th century, it's been thought that delayed onset muscle soreness is the result of a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, caused by an intense training session where the body’s oxygen supply has been depleted. However, as lactic acid build up occurs almost instantly and clears within hours and DOMS don’t usually appear for 24 hours, scientists concluded realised this didn't add up, so there must have been something else causing this muscle stiffness. That something is now thought to be tiny microfractures in the muscles themselves.
A study published in Clinics in Sports Medicine found that DOMS are caused by microtrauma to muscles and surrounding tissues, which leads to inflammation, followed by shifts of electrolytes and fluids. These tears heighten your sense of pain. The eccentric part of exercise causes this as it is when the muscle is most stretched and prone to damage. To understand this further, imagine your muscle is an elastic band, now pull that elastic band apart so it's as long as you can, how likely is it to snap? That’s the eccentric part. Now curl the elastic band up for the concentric phase. Not so likely.
DOMS: True or False?
No Pain, No Gain. If it doesn’t hurt it's not working.
False. (Sort of) Whilst after a good workout we can expect to experience soreness as our muscles repair and grow stronger, aches are not a sure sign of success. Unfortunately measuring DOMS as proof you’ve nailed your workout, is the same as judging intensity by how much you sweat. As your body becomes more accustomed to an exercise, it knows how to repair from it more effectively and so the DOMS you experience may become easier to manage, or for some they may vanish entirely, despite training to complete failure during the workout itself. There is not enough conclusive evidence to use DOMS as a benchmark for a successful workout, however if you are experiencing no ‘pain’ during or after your training, chances are you need to up the ante.
The fitter you are, the less DOMS you get.
False. We know as our bodies adapt to exercise, they become more efficient at the given task and, therefore, we experience less pain and slower results, which is why you should change your routine regularly. However, when it comes to DOMS the key thing to consider is that pain is subjective. Therefore, what may feel like a horrendous body-numbing ache to one person, another may shrug off as a little niggle. Many factors can affect our sensitivity to pain, for example, some people are genetically more adapt, whilst others may experience fewer aches due to a diet rich in omega-3 which has anti-inflammatory properties. There is, of course, the other option, which is that some people may be experiencing DOMS just as bad as you, it’s just they choose not to whinge about it. Hint. Hint.
Dealing with DOMS: Recovery
Is there anything we can do when a double dose of ‘man up’ isn’t enough?
The benefits of massage differ greatly from one person to the next and whilst for some it may be a relaxing part of their rehabilitation, others may find it aggravates their tired muscles and leaves them aching more than before, it appears in the most part to be a matter of personal preference. Research in The Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found massage was effective in reducing DOMS by approximately 30%, as well as inducing a significant reduction in muscle swelling though it had no effect on the muscle function.
Self-Myofascial release: Foam Rolling
If you’ve ever been in the gym and heard whimpering coming from someone rolling over their legs with what looks like a giant rolling pin and wondered what on earth was going on, they were a victim of foam rolling. Foaming rolling is the painful process of self-myofascial release, which works through deep tissue massage of ‘trigger points’. These trigger points are the knots which really hurt when they’re rolled over, making them easy to find and master yourself. To explain how foam rolling works differently to stretching, let's refer back to our elastic band. The elastic band is your muscle which is suffering from DOMS and has a huge knot in it, stretching the elastic band lengthens around the knot, but the knot is left untouched. When we foam roll we are working directly on releasing the tension in the most painful place (the knot) and enabling normative blood flow and function. The deep compression of foam rolling, though often incredibly painful at the time can help to alleviate DOMS and aid recovery.
The Powerplate is the home of vibration training. Vibration training accelerates the bodies performance by increasing its number of muscular contractions by up to 30-50 per second. This increase can have amazing effects on your training, strength, flexibility and recovery. The Powerplate is my go-to machine for DOMS. Research in The Journal of Athletic Training concluded that after just 60 seconds on the plate the machine was able to induce an alleviating effect on muscle soreness and increase circulation.
Rest is crucial to recovery and its needed to repair and grow stronger. Working a muscle split programme, for example, chest and triceps, back and biceps, shoulders and abs and legs, means that each muscle group gets adequate rest and recovery before it is targeted again, so your progress isn’t halted.
Most people will experience DOMS, you're not dying and there are ways to carry on improving despite your aches. DOMS can often be more mentally defeating than they are physical, so don’t let them get in the way of your progress.
And perhaps the most important lesson of all: DOMS are not a valid excuse to skip leg day.