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BoxLife Magazine

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): What is it? What causes it? Plus, 5 Ways to Alleviate its Effects

By William Imbo

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July 9, 2014

I would wager that most of you are familiar with DOMS through personal experience. You know, the onslaught of stiffness, soreness and tenderness in our bodies that follows a previous day’s workout. One need only bear witness to the sight of a fellow athlete gingerly hobbling into the box like a zombie, groaning in despair with every rep of the warm-up’s air squats. These are just a few of the effects of DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness.  But what exactly is it? How does it affect your performance? And can it be stopped?

What is DOMS?
DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness, is exactly that—delayed. Unlike acute soreness (which is pain that develops during the actual activity), delayed soreness begins to develop 8-24 hours after the exercise has been performed, and may produce the greatest pain 24-72 hours following the fateful WOD. While muscle pain may be the most obvious indicator that you’re suffering from DOMS, other common symptoms can include:

• Swelling of the affected limbs

• Stiffness of the joint accompanied by temporary reduction in a joint’s range of motion

• Tenderness to the touch

• Temporary reduction in strength of the affected muscles (lasting days)

• In rare and severe cases, muscle breakdown to the extent that the kidneys may be placed at risk. This is more commonly known as rhabdomyolsis, or simply ‘Rhabdo’, which warrants it’s own article.

• Elevated creatine kinase (CK) enzyme in the blood, signaling muscle tissue damage.

Thus it would appear that DOMS may be more serious than a simple case of sore muscles and trouble getting out of bed the next morning. There is, however, the argument that DOMS is simply an indicator of progress and strength development. To see if this is an accurate assumption, we must first learn a little more about what causes DOMS.

What causes DOMS?
A common misconception for the cause of DOMS is that it is linked to lactic acid accumulation and toxic metabolic waste build-up. However, this is now considered to be an outdated theory, as stated by the American College of Sports Medicine. Indeed, the jury is still out as to what the exact mechanism(s) of DOMS are, with a 2003 paper in Sports Medicine proposing that there are up to six hypothesized theories. However, there is the widely held belief that DOMS  “appears to be a product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements that sensitize nociceptors and thereby heighten the sensations of pain,” as is stated in a 2013 study from the Strength & Conditioning Journal. Simply put, DOMS appears to occur due to connective tissue microtrauma. The main culprit for said trauma is believed to be due to eccentric muscle contraction—the lengthening or stretching phase—which is know to damage both the individual muscle fibers and connective tissues that surround the muscle fibers. After this microscopic muscle injury, immune cells go to the site of injury to repair the damage—which results in the inflammation and pain on experiences, but also means that muscle fibres will become stronger through the healing process, resulting in a stronger muscle in general. This process can result from any eccentric exercise—not just weightlifting. That includes things like running and yoga, as well as exercises that you simply aren’t used to.

So, does the repair work done by the immune cells and subsequent fortification of the muscle fibres mean that DOMS is a sign that one is becoming stronger and progressing? The short answer is ‘no’, though it is a little more complex than that. Simply put, muscle damage is a contributing factor to muscle hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size through an increase in the size of its component cells), but it’s not absolutely essential. Hypertrophy can occur from mechanical tension and/or metabolic stress. Therefore, though DOMS can provide a general indication that some degree of muscle tissue damage has taken place, it is not a definitive measure for it. What this means is that you don’t have to experience muscle soreness after a workout in order to build muscle, and it isn’t a reliable indicator of productiveness.

How can DOMS affect your performance?
With the obvious difficulty of getting out of bed and walking to the box in the first place, DOMS can affect your athletic performance by limiting your range of motion around a joint and hindering your ability to produce power. In addition, the tightness and soreness you may be experiencing in certain muscles and joints affects your movement patterns, causing unaccustomed stress to be placed on muscle ligaments and tendons. I don’t have to tell you that this could easily lead to an injury, if left unchecked.

How can I alleviate the effects of DOMS?
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid the onset of DOMS completely. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.

1. Active recovery
Active recovery (AR) focuses on completing an exercise at a low intensity, but high enough to increase blood flow and enhance the clearance of enzymes responsible for muscle damage and residual fatigue, thus helping to minimize the symptoms of DOMS.

2. Repeated exposure to the same exercise stimulus
Just as I mentioned one of the causes of DOMS being an unfamiliarity with a certain movement or exercise, it stands to reason that the more you expose yourself to that stimulus, the more the body will adapt—making the effects of DOMS less intense.

3. Make sure your diet is on point
Eat fresh, organic, nutritionally dense foods. This gives your body the building blocks to forming strong, resilient, inflammation-resistant tissues.

4. Post-WOD dynamic stretching
Dynamic stretching activates the muscle and increases body heat and blood flow, which helps to provide your muscles with nutrients that can reduce soreness.

5. Cryotherapy/Cold water immersion
Cryotherapy helps the body recover after intense exercise by flushing out the muscles and delivering oxygen and nutrients to them. Furthermore, it also helps to increase muscular resistance to fatigue and enables the muscles capacity to regenerate.

Photo courtesy of Arctic Warrior/CC BY-ND 2.0

William Imbo

About William Imbo

William Imbo is an Associate Editor at BoxLife magazine, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and holds an MPS in Sports Industry Management from Georgetown University. He is an avid CrossFitter and loves film, music and travel, thanks to having grown up across Europe. A fan of the New Orleans Saints and Newcastle United, Will's favorite CrossFit girl is Helen-least favorite being Isabel. View all posts by William Imbo →

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