Chances are, most of us have at some time experienced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. This is not the muscle soreness that is experienced straight after a workout, but usually 24 to 48 hours afterwards, and can stay around for about 2 to 4 days.
If you’ve ever been for a long jog or perhaps run down lots of stairs in a workout only to wake the following morning and have trouble walking because your quads or calves were too tight or sore, it is likely that you were experiencing DOMS.
DOMS usually occurs after excessive eccentric muscle contraction, not concentric contraction. For those that need reminding, think of flexing your bicep brachii muscle for a moment. When you draw your fist towards your shoulder and flex your elbow joint, you are concentrically contracting. When you slowly release your fist away from your shoulder, extending your elbow you are eccentrically contracting the bicep.
It’s thought that our muscle cells become a little more compromised with this type of action (eccentric contraction) under load. The integrity of the muscle cells becomes damaged which leads to micro-trauma, leading to micro-tears in the muscle fibres. These tiny micro-tears bring about inflammation, then soreness, stiffness, fatigue and the all-too-familiar decreased range of movement.
What about lactic acid?
The subject of lactic acid has been under scrutiny for some time. In the past, many people thought that the accumulation of lactic acid was the major cause of DOMS. This was a likely conclusion because lactic acid does produce pain in the muscles, and, if not cleared sufficiently, can diminish performance for a short time afterwards. Although DOMS is a result of new activity or higher intensity workouts causing an increased amount of lactic acid, the soreness felt the next morning is not related to this. This is because lactic acid build-up will reduce to normal levels within 20 to 40 minutes after a workout, according to Dr Szymanski, Assistant Professor and the Director of the Applied Physiology laboratory at Louisiana Tech University.
Because we now know that lactic acid levels reduce quickly after exercise, we also know that it is not lactic acid build-up that causes the DOMS felt the following day and days.
How to prevent DOMS
The effects of DOMS can be minimised by warming up the muscles and joints before a workout. Even by increasing muscle temperature by 1°C before eccentric training, you can dramatically reduce the amount of muscle soreness the next day. Muscles that are “lubricated” and warmed up are much better prepared for the workout to come.
Another preventative measure is a simple one: repetitive training. By conditioning your body to the eccentric workout activity, your muscles will feel less pain as your body will have adapted to it. On a cellular level, your body adapts, repairs and strengthens, enabling you to feel less pain and ready to take on a greater load.
Avoid staying in a rut
Although it is clear that repetitive training is an excellent way of avoiding DOMS, it is still necessary to change your workouts so that your body is experiencing varied amounts and types of exercise and continues to improve in strength and fitness. It’s a good idea to change your routine approximately every 4 to 6 weeks so that you don’t reach a plateau in your performance.
Pain can be positive
Suffering too much of DOMS means that there is an overload of stress applied to your untrained body, which is likely to lead to injury. Experiencing less dramatic amounts of DOMS can be a positive experience. Although the pain may be annoying at the time, on a physiological level it a good sign. “Although DOMS is associated with something negative, it’s actually a physiologically positive reaction,” says Dr. Szymanski. “Once your body is exposed to whatever made you sore, the next time your body will say, ‘I got it, I’ll protect you.’ It’s actually a beautiful thing.”
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