I will never forget my first workout in high school, my first jump-rope circuit workout in college, or my first half Ironman triathlon race. I remember these workouts/races not because of how I felt that day, but because how I felt in the days to follow. During that time, I was so sore that even rolling over to turn my alarm clock off was difficult. This pain wasn’t a result of a poor night's sleep, it was DOMS-Delayed onset muscle soreness.
Odds are that if you are an elite athlete you experience this phenomena multiple times per year. It happens when we return from the off-season or when a coach introduces new high-intensity exercises in practice. This painful, yet awesome feeling of performing new workouts results in your body experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS increases within 24-hours after you complete an unaccustomed series of movements, and peaks between 24 and 72 hours. This explains why you may not feel sore immediately after a hard workout, but the pain appears 1 or 2 days after the fact. In this post I will explore the mechanisms behind DOMS, as well as techniques and tips to help maximize recovery, minimize soreness, and to get you ready for your next practice or race.
What exactly is DOMS?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is caused after performing high-intensity unaccustomed exercises. More specifically, it is due to the high intensity eccentric (lengthening) contractions during these exercises. Eccentric contractions (examples include lowering a dumbbell down after a curl, or running downhill) in unprepared muscles can cause micro traumas to the muscle that result in an athlete’s soreness. DOMS tend to concentrate at muscle-tendon junctions due to the high concentration of muscle pain receptors at these myotendinous junctions. Lastly, inflammation (your body’s response to repair damaged muscle tissue) is an important factor in causing muscle tenderness associated with DOMS.
DOMS: Impact on performance
DOMS can have a major impact on athletic performance. When an athlete is symptomatic and sore, muscles compensate to reduce the stress on the muscle groups affects by DOMS. This compensation can alter a joint’s range of motion, reduce muscle strength and power, as well as change an athletes’ technique. Let’s look into how these three changes affect performance.
- Reduction in joint range of motion can increase the risk of injury as the cushioning effect from a full range of motion is reduced. In addition, this reduction negatively affects performance causing a loss in movement efficiency.
- A reduction in strength and power is also seen during DOMS. Studies have shown a great reduction in eccentric muscle contractions and peak torque. An athlete will be unable to reach previous power output levels when their muscles are not firing at normal levels.
- A change in technique is often associated with DOMS to compensate for the soreness of certain muscle groups. This not only affects performance, as it can decrease efficiency of an athlete’s movements, but it can also increase the susceptibility to injury. If DOMS symptoms are severe enough to alter technique, strain will be put on certain muscles, tendons or ligaments. So while DOMS is a sub-clinical injury, it’s affects may lead to more serious injuries if technique and recovery not monitored and taken seriously.
DOMS: Prevention tips
There are many recovery techniques that can help lessen the affects of DOMS on your body. These techniques include cryotherapy (icing/ice baths), stretching, massage, compression and anti-inflammatory drugs to name a few.
- Icing causes vasoconstriction helping to reduce inflammation around the muscle micro traumas caused by DOMS. Additionally, ice baths can help increase circulation and accelerate recovery.
- Stretching and massage also increase body circulation and blood flow to the injured muscles. Furthermore, stretching can improve joint range of motion that is impaired through DOMS.
- Compression wear can help increase blood circulation from your extremities back to your heart for oxygenation meaning that oxygen is deliver more efficiently to sore muscles.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs can help alleviate some of the pain and inflammation associated with DOMS. However, it is important to recognize that the taking anti-inflammatory drugs should be done with caution and is not an end-all solution to DOMS.
The techniques listed above can help you recover from DOMS efficiency and even help to lesson its affects by being proactive in the recovery process. Taking action before the onset of DOMS (as you have 24 hours before you feel the effects) will speed recovery after the intense practice. Recovery begins with a proper post workout warm-down and continues with the techniques listed above. Don’t wait until getting out of bed is difficult-be proactive and lesson the symptoms of DOMS before they start. It will make it that much easier to hop out of bed the morning after a tough new workout.
- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is cause by unaccustomed, high-intensity eccentric contractions of muscles.
- DOMS symptoms peak between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.
- DOMS impacts performance by reducing in joint mobility, decreasing in muscle power and changing technique.
- Recovery from DOMS can be accelerated through many techniques including but not limited to: cryotherapy, stretching, compression, massage and anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Be proactive! Don’t wait to feel the symptoms of DOMS to take action to accelerate recovery. Proper warm-down and nutrition after a tough workout can save a lot of soreness and discomfort in the following days.
- Cheung, K., Hume, P. and L. Maxwell. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Treatment Strategies and Performance Factors. Sports Med 2003; 33 (2): 145-164
- Khan, Mohammed Yusuf et al. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Asian Journal of Physical Education and Computer Science in Sports. Volume 5 No. 1 pp46-47.