DOMS stands for delayed onset muscle soreness. Learn all about DOMS including how to avoid it and how to manage it if you get it.
We’ve all experienced painful muscle soreness that makes it difficult to walk or lift something heavy without wincing. Usually the soreness and stiffness follows a particularly taxing workout such as a hard race or lifting session. Other times the soreness sneaks up on us several days after an event is done and forgotten.
There’s a name for this soreness and today I want to tell you all about it. This sometimes painful phenomenon is known as DOMS. DOMS stands for delayed onset muscle soreness.
DOMS occurs after a demanding workout. This includes hill repeats, a hard and fast race, weight lifting, yoga, barre… the list goes on. DOMS may arrive as soon as eight hours after a hard workout and can last anywhere from 24-72 hours, oftentimes peaking around 48 hours after exercise.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or physical therapist; I’m a running coach and fitness trainer. This post should not be used as a replacement for medical advice. This post is for entertainment purposes only.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) | Everything You Need to Know
Why do our muscles get sore in the first place?
Each time you stress your body — be it with running or with weight training — you’re introducing a stress so adaptations can occur. Adaptations include things like speed and strength. Of course these stressors will change based on your personal goals and can also change over time.
Muscle soreness, in its simplest definition, is caused by micro-tears of muscle tissue. Each time a stress is introduced, the stress causes the muscle fibers to break down just a little bit. Let’s use hill repeats as an example. With hill repeats, you run the hill hard (fast) several times over. With each repeat, you’re stressing the body, thereby causing tiny little micro-tears in the muscle. In other words, the sore part is injury sustained to the muscle by the hill repeats.
The magic happens during the repair process of the muscle tears. These tiny little micro-tears heal and rebuild stronger than they were before. A little bit of soreness can go a long way when it comes to gaining strength, speed, and stamina. And it should be noted this is true of all physical fitness, not just running.
Tell me more about DOMS…
DOMS is both expected and normal after intense activity the body is not accustomed to performing. Severe DOMS is likely to occur when the activity supersedes the body’s ability to adapt. As such, it’s recommended to train in a progressive manner so body systems can be taxed and challenged to allow for adaptations to occur while minimizing the effect of DOMS.
Severe DOMS is one example of why a new runner may quit after going out too fast, too far, or too hard. Or why folks tend to avoid the gym after lifting weights above their current physical ability. Severe DOMS can be intensely painful that makes functioning on a daily basis difficult if not downright awful. In very severe cases, muscles may feel swollen or hot. If this occurs, please seek medical attention.
How can I avoid severe DOMS?
You can avoid severe DOMS by training in a progressive manner. Lift weights that you can comfortably hold and use for multiple repetitions. Run hill sprints that are challenging yet manageable. If you’re new to lifting, aim for light weights and high reps — as little as five pounds for 12-20 repetitions will be plenty! And if you’re a new runner, try the run/walk approach for your first few runs while your body acclimates to this new activity.
Can I work out if I’m sore?
Yes and no. It’s advised not to stress the affected muscles until DOMS has subsided or you risk injury and undoing all your hard work. The repair, or healing, part of the cycle is the main reason that it’s ill-advised to work out while sore. We need to give our muscles time to repair and become stronger. If you have a broken leg, you don’t continue to hop on it. Instead, you give it time to rest, heal, and grow — or you risk causing more pain and more damage.
This is one reason why you hear of people doing “chest day” or “leg day” at the gym, especially those who like to lift weights multiple times per week. Those individuals can tax their legs one day and then focus on their arms the next day without missing a beat.
Another byproduct of working out the same sore muscles is compromised form. Compromised form can, and likely will, lead to injury. If you’re so sore you cannot perform the activity correctly, refrain from the activity until you’re no longer sore. When in doubt, sit it out.
Runners may run while they’re sore but only if there is no pain while running. If walking downstairs is difficult but running down your road doesn’t hurt at all, run on! If forward locomotion is difficult for you, an extra rest day will do you good.
Uh oh, I got DOMS! Now what?
Depending on where you are in the DOMS cycle, foam rolling may be a good option for you to help relax the muscles a bit. On a personal level, if I foam roll while sore, I wait until most of the soreness is gone. Otherwise my foam rolling session is not nearly as effective and beneficial as it should be. Learn more about foam rolling — it’s not just for runners!
Some other ways to mitigate the discomfort of being sore include:
- a warm, Epsom salt bath
- apply a warm compress or heating pad to affected areas
- enjoy some much needed rest days
- pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be used
In short, a certain level of soreness is likely to occur after any given workout. Soreness in and of itself is no big deal. The issues arise with severe muscle soreness, continuing to workout through a bought of soreness, and not taking care of your body to allow it to heal, regenerate, and grow stronger.
Remember, just because you’re a seasoned athlete doesn’t mean you’ll escape activities that will potentially make you sore. And if you’re not a seasoned athlete, begin your new fitness activities slowly and safely to ensure a pleasurable fitness experience.
Have you experienced severe DOMS? How did you cope?
What activity continues to challenge you even though you already do it a lot?