You’re a runner, staying generally fit with 2 – 4k runs 4 times a week. You’ve been enjoying your running for a couple of years. On Tuesday you attend your first ever fitness class. The class is based on body weight exercises; there are plenty of lunges and squats completed in long sets (check out Power & Grace). On Wednesday, you wake up a bit sore — the thighs and backside are talkative and you particularly notice this on the way downstairs to breakfast. As the day wears on, your discomfort level increases and stairs become dreaded. The pain is relatively intense and sitting, particularly in the bathroom, is torture. With dismay, you awake on Thursday even more sore than the day before!
You are an active person and love to exercise. You’ve been doing something cardio 5 times a week, at least, for as long as you can remember. You like lifting weights in order to maintain your fitness levels and have been hitting the weight room about 3 times a week for a few years. You’ve been curious about those things called kettlebells and decide to give them a go. You attend a ‘skills clinic’ and spend about 40 minutes with the instructor learning the basic movements: swings, cleans, presses, snatches and a few other moves you can’t really recall right now. You take note of the challenge and find this surprising given your exercise history. The next day you ache all over and have to forgo your morning run. The day following that, you are still tender through your inner and rear thighs and between your neck and shoulders. You have to prevail upon your willpower to go for a light workout in the weight room.
What is going on here?
The pain, stiffness or discomfort being experienced here is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short. This muscular soreness is frequently experienced when you add something new to your workout regimen or increase the amount of weight you are moving in the weight room — in short, when you increase intensity, duration, introduce unfamiliar movements, or perform eccentric muscular work such as downhill running or plyometrics. You might also have some swelling in the muscles. The symptoms usually sets in 12-24 hours post-exercise and can last up to 72 hours.
The mechanisms causing DOMS are not fully understood. In order to create muscle growth – strength, size or both – stress needs to be placed on the muscles. Push ups, kettlebell swings, lunges. The repertoire of stressing exercises is limitless. These stresses create microscopic tears in the muscle fibres and the fibres, upon repairing themselves, become stronger and/or larger. Muscle protein breakdown is also a suspected mechanism.
Some folks think it is these microscopic tears and the consequent repair work which causes DOMS though the exact mechanism is not understood. I like to take comfort in the fact that our bodies are exquisitely complex. We can put a person on the moon but not fully understand why we experience a burn in a muscle which is working hard. We can split an atom but not have an explanation for DOMS. This wonder which is our body and our consciousness and our spirit defies easy explanation and demands utmost respect.
DOMS is. We shall coexist.
What can we do about it?
To date, research does not give us a fast and straightforward answer to treating DOMS. Advice like massage, continued activity, hot baths with or without Epsom salts, rest, ice, compression, stretching, exercising lightly, etcetera, etcetera have not provided substantial relief.
Time, however, does provide full recovery. It also seems that some light activity on day two encourages a return to a normal state of affairs. So, an slow easy run or a yoga class, a pleasant walk or a light weight training session might be of some benefit.
Prior to a workout, warm up properly. A five minute general warm up, where you increase body temperature at low intensity levels and a warm up specific to the muscles/muscle groups which will be used, might be helpful. Introduce new exercise gradually and increase intensity in a slow, incremental fashion.
Though popping an ibuprofen or two seems to make sense, don’t bother. No research supports the use if anti-inflammatory drugs, antioxidant supplements, ointments or creams in the prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Muscle soreness is a ‘normal’ part of many exercise regimens. Your chest is likely to be sore after first introducing pushups into your program, your thighs and glutes will be sore if squats or step ups are new to you. Your triceps may talk back after your first set of body dips. Swinging and lifting a kettlebell, joining a Jazzercise class, or running bleachers can all be harbingers of DOMS.
I’ve had clients tell me they couldn’t brush their teeth or lift their arms to their keyboards the day following training without discomfort. I once thought I’d not be able to get off an airplane. DOMS can be quite debilitating, for a short period of time. If the pain extends beyond 2 or 3 days, it is possible that something else is going on. Check with a trainer or your physician if this is the case.
Such sequelae are a normal response to unusual exertion; it is an adaptation process that leads to greater strength once the muscles recover.
As a fitness instructor I experience muscle soreness when I move into new schedules. Adding classes I haven’t taught before or in a long time or just increasing the sheer volume of weekly classes can do me in for a few days. I can recall adding 2 lunchtime core classes to my duties and being unable to stretch long for a few days. Even rising from bed in the morning provided a strong reminder of new activity.
This week it has been the addition of two full-body classes which has gifted me with DOMS. Today I feel strong after recovering, but I am grateful for this poignant reminder of what participants in my classes experience, or suffer, as the case may be.