Picture this: you’re nearing the end of a new workout, working up a sweat and hitting your stride. Feeling a mix of exhaustion and energy, you wrap up your exercise feeling like a warrior that came out the other side even stronger.
That is, until the aches start to kick in a day or two later.
We’ve all been there — regardless of athletic caliber, every athlete has fallen victim to that classic post-workout soreness. And it can definitely put a damper on that feeling of invincibility that comes with finishing a tough workout (or reinforce it, depending on who you are).
But don’t settle for that soreness! There’s a lot more to this common gripe than most people assume — and we’re here to walk you through it.
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
That latent discomfort following a workout is technically called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is pretty straightforward based on the name. It occurs when your muscles develop pain or stiffness within a day or two after you exercise. Usually, this dull achy feeling is paired with tenderness in the specific muscles you used during your workout.
But it doesn’t happen with just any exercise. DOMS occurs the most frequently after doing eccentric exercise, which is any kind of exercise that lengthens your muscles under load. This can include a wide range of activities, like walking down a flight of stairs, running downhill, lowering weights, or lowering your body during crunches or push-ups.
Additionally, this kind of soreness is often brought on by doing workouts that your body wasn’t necessarily accustomed to, like when people have just started up a new exercise routine. Don’t be fooled, though — highly trained athletes can also be susceptible if they greatly increase the intensity or duration of their usual workouts. (So, no matter your athletic expertise, you aren’t immune to soreness.)
Experiencing Soreness vs. Sustaining an Injury
Now here’s an important distinction.
Having DOMS pain is more of a temporary inconvenience rather than an actual issue — and while the pain can be intense at times, it’s far from being an injury.
In general, soreness is much more short-term; once it hits 1-2 days after exercise, it often only lasts for another 2-5 days and lessens over time. Plus, soreness will usually subside whenever the muscles are warmed up again.
Injuries, on the other hand, typically have a sudden onset of pain that lasts much longer, can get progressively worse, and often require outside intervention to resolve. It can sometimes be hard to differentiate whether your pains are caused by intense soreness or a more serious injury — luckily though, a bit of trial and error can help you determine what your body is trying to tell you.
The best way to assess your pain is to continue training (without overworking your muscles) and pay close attention to your body’s signals. Injury-based pain will often worsen with continued physical activity and is more likely to be accompanied by additional symptoms like swelling, redness, or increased temperature. By comparison, soreness typically doesn’t have external or visible symptoms beyond the pain itself.
So, once you’ve ruled out the likelihood of your pain being caused by injury, you have nothing to fear (as long as you don’t constantly overwork yourself). In fact, many people think of DOMS as a good sign in the long run; let’s look a little deeper into why your muscles experience it and what it can mean for your training.
Causes of Muscle Soreness
So this soreness that we keep mentioning — what exactly is it, other than a physical sensation?
Well, it’s a little complicated. Although DOMS is such a common occurrence for just about anyone who works out, it’s a topic of low priority for medical researchers since it isn’t a serious injury or condition.
Generally, most people subscribe to the explanation that DOMS is a result of repetitive mechanical stress that causes microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. While that may sound alarming, it’s all a part of the strengthening process known as the repeated-bout effect — when your muscles work to heal these microtears, they will rebuild their fibers stronger and more resilient to match the demands of your new workouts. This means that the more your body adjusts to your exercise, the less likely you’ll have to relive the same symptoms of soreness.
As for the “delayed” part of DOMS, evidence suggests that the pain and soreness are postponed by inflammation. Essentially, when you do some unfamiliar exercises, your body feels enough discomfort to warrant an inflammatory response that suppresses your muscles’ discomfort for 1-3 days. When the inflammation finally decreases, you’re left with that familiar post-workout ache.
With all this being said, there are still a number of other theories surrounding the causes for the pain specifically: lactic acid build up, muscle spasms, enzyme efflux, or additional damage to connective tissues or muscles. It’s hard to determine the root cause, but it’s likely that it’s affected by multiple factors that have yet to be specified through research.
But hey, life would be boring if we figured everything out.
How to Prevent Muscle Soreness
Considering how common DOMS is, it’s natural to wonder... is it inevitable?
The short answer is no. Experiencing DOMS isn’t some magic cue to make sure you’re working out hard enough (that mentality is a recipe for disaster). While nothing is guaranteed to eliminate DOMS, there are a few general tips that may help you decrease the intensity or frequency.
And a lot of it has to do with basic exercise best practices.
For example, something as simple as ensuring proper form is important (in more than one way) for all of your workouts. You also want to be sure that you’re doing sufficient warm-up and cool-down exercises, that way your muscles are properly engaged before and after workouts to avoid potential muscle injury.
Additionally, you want to be sure that your body has enough time for recovery. Not only does this mean that you need ample rest days, but that you should reduce the intensity and duration of your exercise in the 1-2 days following your DOMS-inducing workout. Typically, eccentric exercises are most effective when they’re progressively introduced over a period of 1-2 weeks to avoid excessive stress on your muscles, so make sure you aren’t doing too much too soon.
If you’re not big on reducing how hard you work, consider changing up what you work, instead. After your intense workout, take the next couple days to experiment with alternative exercises that work less-affected muscle groups. This will encourage your body to continue exercising without consistently placing stress on the same muscles each time. Lower-impact exercises like walking, easy cycling, or swimming can be great ways to keep your body stimulated, and moving can even provide some relief.
Keep in mind that while these methods don’t necessarily guarantee DOMS immunity, they’re great to include in your exercise routine regardless. Ensuring that your muscles are prepared for workouts (before, during, and after) is key to optimal exercise performance and reducing risk of aggravating or worsening pains.
How to Deal with Soreness After Exercise
Now, that’s all well and good — but what if it’s already too late to prevent soreness? How are you supposed to get rid of it??
Let’s take a look...
To reiterate, the specific causes for DOMS are still somewhat up in the air. And, unfortunately, that means there’s much to be desired when it comes to assessing current recovery remedies.
But that also means that people have certainly tried their hand at discovering the best treatment.
Whether it be applying something to the affected muscles, wearing something, consuming something, or submerging the muscles into something — there are countless attempted remedies. It’s hard to determine which methods are the most effective and why, but here’s a breakdown of some of the most common remedy attempts and research-based findings on whether or not they’re actually worth trying.
Applying Pressure to the Muscles
Typically, the top suggestions for alleviating DOMS-related pain is to apply some kind of pressure to the affected muscles. This ranges anywhere from massaging, foam rolling, or wearing compression garments — but do these methods actually eliminate the soreness?
Yes and no… it depends, really.
Massaging the affected muscles has shown some promising results for relieving soreness. It doesn’t necessarily improve your muscles’ functionality, but it can help with overall pain relief. That being said, massaging can have pretty varied results, so the specificity of when and how you administer it can have an impact on its overall effectiveness. It may require a bit of trial and error to find out what works for you.
Similarly, foam rolling is also considered to be generally helpful. Some studies have shown that performing around 20 minutes of foam roll exercises after a workout can help reduce muscle tenderness and reduce the intensity of DOMS. It’s still somewhat unclear whether or not foam rolling can be leveraged to eliminate soreness altogether, but it’s a good practice to be in regardless.
Compression garments, however, have some more mixed reviews. Many studies do not demonstrate any notable benefits for using compression garments to alleviate DOMS. Granted, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear them — they can still be helpful to wear for general post-workout recovery, but they just may not be the solution for eliminating soreness.
Applying Ice or Heat
Alright, so applying pressure can be hit or miss… what about applying ice or heat to the muscles?
It’s about the same. Again, without a definitive understanding of what specifically causes the soreness, it’s difficult to find remedies that target the root issue. This leads to most people defaulting to generic recovery methods, like applying ice or heat to the affected areas.
Cryotherapy is typically found to be either ineffective or inconclusive at reducing DOMS symptoms. For the most part, icing specific muscle groups or trying cold water immersion isn’t all that helpful for pain alleviation or recovery — more than anything, it can help with temporarily numbing the symptoms and potentially reducing any swelling.
Heat, on the other hand, is a bit more promising (albeit still inconclusive overall). Both dry and moist heat have been shown to reduce pain while also preserving muscle strength and activity. Research indicates that the most effective means of reducing soreness is to apply moist heat immediately after exercise.
That being said, neither ice nor heat are necessarily harmful for DOMS recovery, so it could be worthwhile to experiment which seems more fitting for you.
Now comes an interesting option — oftentimes, people will suggest some form of anti-inflammatory agent to help cope with DOMS pain.
But, as mentioned earlier, inflammation typically occurs as a defense against pain, rather than causing it. Based on this theory, reducing inflammation isn’t correlated with reducing pain, so using anti-inflammatory agents won’t necessarily address the root cause of the soreness.
For example, taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (otherwise known as NSAIDs) has long been a questionable alternative. Although NSAIDs are made to reduce inflammation, most studies testing these drugs for DOMS pain relief yield inconsistent or unreliable results. This is primarily because there are so many variations in types, and doses and administration are inconsistent. Plus, they often come with side effects like digestive discomfort or hypertension, so even if they were consistently proven to be effective, it’s at a price.
While DOMS may not be cut and dry, it’s common enough that all you frustrated athletes deserve a few answers.
Ultimately, feeling some soreness after new or more intense workouts is by no means a bad thing. Pain from soreness is usually bearable during or after exercise, and it’ll start to occur less and less the more your body adapts to the changes in physical activity.
With that being said, remember that just because DOMS is a natural response doesn’t mean you HAVE to experience it. Soreness occurs because your body wasn’t 100% prepared to take on a new workout or higher intensity, so you shouldn’t be seeking workouts that consistently leave you sore in the aftermath.
And even though there aren’t any definitive solutions on how to prevent or treat DOMS pain, you’ll still come out the other side stronger (quite literally). Until research uncovers more about the root cause of DOMS, dealing with soreness will likely require a bit of toughing it out.
But hey, at least you know it won’t last forever.