“Oh were you planning on walking tomorrow? Not anymore” - Leg day.
Sitting hurts, standing hurts, even lying down hurts. To make matters worse, you're walk is frankly embarrassing and don’t even mention stairs. What’s happened? The DOMS have kicked in. DOMS stands for ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’ and are characterised by the world of pain which kicks in 24-48 hours after a workout. With legs being your body's biggest muscle group and training exercises such as squats, lunges, and leg presses focusing on the eccentric muscle actions, thought to be the main cause for DOMS, it’s normal for legs to be where you ache the most. Whilst there may not be a miracle cure, there are certainly ways to aid recovery.
Post workout cardio
Research by California State University studied the effect of moderate intensity cardio on DOMS after training legs. Participants completed the same leg focused workout, after which one group followed it with 20 minutes of cycling on a stationary bike at a moderate intensity. The subjects who performed moderate-intensity cardio immediately after their leg workout saw their leg strength return to normal a full day faster than those who did nothing. Researchers believe this is due to the fact that the moderate-intensity cycling increased the blood flow to DOMS affected areas, which not only delivered nutrients to damaged muscle tissue but also aided the removal of the waste by-products of exercise (such as lactic acid), helping to speed up healing. So after your next leg worth out it could be worth pedalling past DOMS.
Another study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning compared delayed-onset muscle soreness and the effects of cardio acceleration in between sets of resistance based training. Cardio acceleration simply means performing an exercise which elevates the heart rate before performing the next lift, the theory being that the increased heart rate stimulates an increase in blood flow to the muscles that are being exercised. DOMS were considerably reduced and by the end of the 4 week study eliminated in the cardio acceleration group entirely, suggesting that the increase in blood flow limited eccentric contraction damage known as DOMS and helped speed up muscle recovery. To try cardio acceleration you don’t need to be dashing between weights and treadmills, simple exercises such as jogging on the spot, burpees or skipping will sufficiently raise your heart rate and can be done where you're performing your other exercises.
One of the reasons we experience DOMS is because we are testing the muscles and putting them under the strain of a new routine. After a few weeks of training the body will adapt and no longer ache from the same exercises, hence why a progressive plan is developed to make sure you continue to move forward with your training. The vicious cycle is never ending:
You start training ⇾ Ouch! You experience full blown DOMS! ⇾ Strength! A few workouts later you're no longer becoming sore ⇾ Progress! You change your routine to ensure you’re making progress ⇾ Ouch! Once again you are sore, and so the cycle continues.
So whilst you may be able to reduce leg DOMS by getting stronger, to continue to gain strength, they are a pain you’re just going to have to suffer.
DOMS during sleep
We all know you recover when you sleep and so providing you're not in so much pain you're being kept awake, defeat DOMS with an extra few hours of sleep. Human Growth Hormone, often referred to as HGH, is the hormone which enables repair of damaged tissues. HGH releases its highest doses during deep sleep and, therefore, it is essential to get a good night's sleep to help speed up DOMS recovery.
Is training legs important?
Give these methods a try and next time you suffer from leg DOMS remember, better to ache then skip legs day altogether, as training legs can:
- Lead you to victory in sport. Most sporting events require strong and powerful legs where the athlete exerts maximal force in minimal time.
- Reduce your risk of knee injuries such as Osteoarthritis. Muscle pulls against the bone developing its density.
- Burn more calories. Training the body’s biggest muscle group in compound exercises means getting the greatest calorie burn.
- Improve your balance. Having a strong lower body can help to develop proprioception as well as enhance your performance in balance requiring skills such as ice skating.
- Help you run faster. Training exercises which strengthen the hips such as deadlifts and squats help prevent common hip injuries experienced by runners and develop power in the legs to up your speed.
- Increase metabolism. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns at rest to maintain your composition.
So despite the fact that the DOMS may be brutal, the benefits of training legs means they earn their place and should be a staple in your routine.
“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.