What causes the dreaded DOMS and what you can do to prevent it

female runner foam rolling to ease doms
What causes DOMS?Getty

Imagine going to the gym for the first time or after an extended break. Following a good warm-up you go to the squat rack, load up the bar and crack on. ‘This doesn’t feel too bad,’ you think. You complete your workout and head home with the afterglow of feeling fitter than you thought you were. That night, you dream of PBs to come. The next morning, you get ready to spring from your bed with your new-found strength, but your legs creak and your hamstrings feel like a collection of old rubber bands. Welcome to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Whether it’s from the gym or running on roads or trails, most runners will have experienced DOMS at some point – but what’s actually going on and is it something to be concerned about?

What is DOMS?

It’s a term used for the stiffness and discomfort you experience sometime after completing exercise; it’s generally felt between 24 and 72 hours after the offending session.

When we exercise, we create micro-trauma in our muscles. This might sound like something to avoid, but it’s actually a necessary part of training. Also known as myofibril tearing, this micro-level damage triggers your body to go into repair mode using its natural inflammatory response. With adequate recovery, this helps you to become stronger.

DOMS is likely to occur when you introduce something new to your training regime or push beyond your current training limits. If you’re a marathon runner, think back to your first one. Descending the stairs the day after the race was an enormous challenge. This is because you had run further and at a higher intensity on race day than you had in your months of training.

What causes DOMS?

Delayed onset muscle soreness is more likely to develop and is particularly uncomfortable after a running session or a race with lots of fast downhill running. This is because running descents involves an increase in what is known as eccentric muscle contractions. Imagine yourself doing a chin-up. If your body is hanging from the bar, you squeeze the muscles in your arms, shoulders and back to pull your body up – this is known as a concentric contraction. In this type of contraction, a protein in your muscles called myosin binds to another protein called actin and drags it to shorten muscle fibres.

Now imagine you start at the top: your muscles are already contracted and your chin is at the bar. Now you lower yourself slowly down to the hanging position. This is know as an eccentric contraction. For this movement, your actin and myosin proteins start to pull apart as a stretch takes place in the muscle.

The myosin heads, which are attached to actin, cling on for as long as they can and if the contraction is strong enough, they will break off. It is thought this breaking of the myosin heads creates much of the micro-trauma and pain associated with DOMS.

You may have heard that DOMS is caused by an acclamation of lactate (or, the incorrect term, lactate acid) in our muscles. Not so. This is important because much of the marketing fluff surrounding products aimed at improving recovery often refers to the removal of waste products and lactate from the muscle. In fact, eccentric contractions generally require less energy and are so often associated with the production of less lactate. That aside, lactate will return to pre-exercise levels after 20 to 30 minutes anyway. So make sure you have your nonsense radar turned on when it comes to products or training methods that say they can reduce DOMS.

How to recognise DOMS

While the micro-damage linked to delayed onset muscle soreness is not the same as a traumatic muscle or tendon tear, it's important to remain aware of chronic increases in aches and pains and respond to them. Here is what DOMS is not:

Pain during running: Pain during a running session is something you need to respond to quickly. Stop running if you feel pain that is great than two or three on a scale of one to 10. Seek professional advice if it doesn't go away with rest and conservative treatment.

Sharp and highly localised pain: DOMS is quite recognisable as a generalised feeling of stiffness and soreness. A sudden or sharp onset of pain that may be highly localised and doesn't ease with movement is something that needs to be checked out by a medical professional.

Chronic pain: Feeling slightly heavy-legged the day after your gym work, long run, or faster running session is to be expected However, it's not normal to feel this way after all your harder efforts. You might need to place more focus on recovery or lower the intensity of your training.

How to ease DOMS

So you've pushed a bit harder, tried a new session or race and DOMS has kicked in: what do you do? There are various options for trying to ease some of the soreness.

Active recovery: Just stopping might not be the best option. However, expecting to get out of the door and run another fast or stead run while experiencing DOMS is not likely to end well. Consider a gentle walk, an easy spin on a bike or a swim as an impact-free way to increase your blood flow.

Rest and recover: If you're very sore, rest. Ultimately, the effects of DOMS are short-lived. Focus on getting good nutrition and sleep. And don't worry: you won't lose fitness if you need to stop training for two or three days.

Ride it out: You will see a great many suggestions for ways to reduce the pain of DOMS, from ice baths to ibuprofen. I suggest you steer clear of these options unless you have been advised otherwise by a medical professional. An inflammation cycle is important; it's part of how you get stronger, so using aids intended to reduce this might actually have a negative impact on your body.

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