What You Need to Know About Muscle Soreness

You’ve had a particularly fruitful session at the gym, sweat pouring down the face, muscles pushed to their maximum. You feel good, full of energy, in fact, you’re on top of the world. The next day, however, you can barely lift your arms and your legs feel like jelly. It’s as if a steamroller has gone over you several times. Out goes the energy you felt and in creeps the muscle soreness.

DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

This experience of muscle soreness is common after vigorous physical activity, particularly if you have recently embarked on a new fitness regime. Known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, this discomfort develops in the 24 to 48 hours following exercise and peaks between 24 and 72 hours. If the soreness increases significantly and does not abate after five days, it could be an indication of substantial muscle damage. Contrary to previous findings, new research has shown that DOMS is not due to lactic acid buildup. An accumulation of lactic acid causes acute muscle soreness, which occurs immediately after exercise. And yes, you can experience both.

DOMS is caused by an activity that requires a lengthening, or eccentric, contraction of the muscle to oppose the pull of gravity. A classic example of this is running downhill. Interestingly, you actually use fewer muscle fibres during a lengthening portion of an exercise (when you lower your arm in a bicep curl), than you would on the shortening phase (when you lift your arm in a bicep curl). The lengthening action produces mild muscle strain, creating microscopic tears to the muscle fibres. These tears are accompanied by inflammation, which causes the soreness and pain we experience.

Regardless of whether you’re a regular gym bunny, a star athlete, or an exercise newbie, you can be susceptible to DOMS. Such muscle tenderness implies that your muscles are being used and improved, making them stronger so as to be able to subsequently perform the same exercises better. Keep in mind though, excessive soreness does not necessarily mean you have had a great workout, and it may delay you from achieving your fitness goals. If your legs are so sore that you can barely climb stairs, it is not likely that you’ll be able to do half a decent leg press. Moreover, this might even affect your ability on other tasks, especially back exercises as these require considerable strength and stability from the legs. Soreness lasting for more than three days and impact your functioning in daily life, your energy expenditure will decrease, negating potential benefits from the workout. In extreme cases, the muscle could be damaged to the extent that vital structures supporting the muscle seep into the surrounding tissues, rendering the muscle incapable of further change.

Plausible Remedies

In most instances, DOMS will subside after 72 hours, and if the discomfort is bearable, you could even carry on with your regular routine, perhaps opting to train a different muscle group instead. DOMs will improve over time as your body adapts to a fitness routine, but on particularly sore days, these tips might come in handy:

Foods with Antioxidants Properties

As aforementioned, a combination of minute muscular tears and inflammation is the main cause of DOMs. Foods rich in antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties that help combat the inflammation experienced. Examples of such foods that have shown some effectiveness include kale, pineapple, blueberries, cherries, turmeric and ginger. Sounds like a great list of ingredients for a yummy post-workout salad. You might prefer to take antioxidant supplements such as fish oil or curcumin (the anti-oxidant compound found in turmeric) instead.

Protein-rich Foods

Aside from anti-inflammatory food, certain good quality foods that are rich in protein have shown to be particularly helpful. One example is salmon, owing to its high amounts of antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Cottage cheese has also found to be beneficial due to the presence of casein protein, which is a slow-digesting source of energy that aids in the rejuvenation sore muscles during sleep. Cottage cheese also contains high quantities of the amino acid leucine, which speeds up the recovery process. Leucine is also found in eggs, making them another great addition to your post-workout meal. Finally, with its nine essential amino acids, including casein and leucine, milk proteins have been found to alleviate DOMS. Concentrated milk products, like evaporated milk or milk powder, contain 40 to 90 percent protein and are a good inclusion to your post-workout diet. So if you feel like having that teh-si after gym, go ahead and ask for an extra dollop of milk (without sugar of course)!

Heat Therapy

Athletes use a simple rule when it comes to dealing with body aches after training: acute injuries like sprains and pains should be iced, but chronic muscle soreness should be treated with heat. While balms and heat patches are useful, direct heat applied to the area of discomfort is a more successful treatment as it increases blood flow to the affected area. Moist heat (as opposed to dry heat) has been shown to be especially effective. A warm damp towel would do the trick, but why not submerge yourself in a bath instead? As a bonus, add some Epsom salt to your bath as this has been linked to decreased muscle inflammation.

Massage Treat!

Another great way of increasing blood flow, loosening tight muscles and enjoying a spa experience is to get a massage within 48 hours of exercise. Ensure you get a professional masseur though; an amateur can leave you with more soreness than you first started.

Foam Roller

If you cannot afford a masseur, try foam rolling, which is essentially a type of self-massage. Not only does it relieve DOMs, it may also help with muscle fatigue and flexibility. The technique is easy enough – position the roller underneath the sore muscle and gently roll against it. It would be advisable to search for videos online to guide you along.

A Massage Gun or massager

If foam rollers or massage balls don’t cut it out for you, then you might want to get a massage gun that will help you ease some of the aches.

A Compression Gear

No, we’re not talking about that crazy sauna suits fitness fad. Made from elastin and nylon, compression garments are tight and designed to enhance muscle recovery. Studies have shown that wearing compression gear following a training session is associated with less soreness and quicker recovery of muscle function. Wearing the garment for up to 24 hours after the session ensures best results.

Warm-up with Proper Stretching

The value of stretching is underestimated when it comes to exercise and is an often neglected part of a routine. The word “stretching” brings to mind holding poses to extend a muscle to a point of minimal discomfort. This is known as static stretching, the form that most of us are familiar with. Static stretching has some benefits in reducing soreness, but dynamic stretching, such as walking lunges and arm circles, is a better option in fighting DOMS.

Start with a simple warm-up that consists of a five-minute aerobic activity like cycling, and dynamic stretches such as body-weight squats, push-ups and lunges, followed by static stretches that target the area of soreness. This prepares your body by increasing your heart rate and blood flow, and also improves overall flexibility. Remember to cool down with another five to ten minutes of walking or jogging.

Hydrate and Sleep It Off

Like stretching, hydration is equally underrated, both during and after your workout. Water aids in flushing out toxins from your body and prevents dehydration, which makes DOMS even more painful. Getting sufficient sleep and rest also works wonders with the muscle recovery process, the lack of which can exacerbate soreness and extend the time taken to heal.

Keep Exercising!

As tempting as it might be to skip a workout or two by blaming it on DOMS, you should really keep exercising! Unless you’re in severe pain, soreness enables you to get used to an exercise. Moreover, if you are results-oriented, DOMS provide an immediate indication of your workout paying off, even if you have yet to see any physical improvements.

If you take too long a break, you will essentially be restarting the training process, thereby allowing DOMS to set in over and over again each time. As suggested above, working out other muscle groups while the more fatigued ones recuperate. Or you can choose to do easy, low-impact exercises such as swimming during this recovery phase.

Although DOMs don’t usually require medical intervention, you should consult a medical professional should the symptoms persist for more than a week, if they tend to recur or if they are accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness or weakness.


If you liked this article, please support our book project “Building Body Confidence” by pledging an amount here. Every dollar goes into the publishing and distribution of the book and you will get a copy of it once it does get published!

Photo Credits: Pexels, Pixabay and Unsplash



Leave a Comment