If you are new to working out, or you’ve taken some time off, you will likely experience some muscle soreness the day, or even two days, after training. It can even happen to those of us who are more experienced fitness fanatics when we try something new. It comes with the territory of working out! Some people love the feeling of sore muscles and feeling that they trained hard, others don’t. We’ve all been there, trying to walk down the stairs when your quads are feeling tender, it’s not the most practical for trying to get on with day to day activities! So here is a guide to dealing with, and reducing DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness).
Why does it happen?
Firstly, it’s worth understanding why DOMS actually happens. When your muscles are used in a new or more intense way than before, it can cause microscopic tears to the muscle fibres which result in stiffness and soreness. These tears, whilst somewhat painful initially, actually help the muscles to grow and strengthen. This can happen to anyone, no matter their level of fitness or experience, even athletes can experience DOMS when introduced to new movements or when they begin training again after time off. Muscle soreness normally occurs 1 - 2 days after a workout and can last between 3 - 5 days.
Can anything be done to avoid it?
DOMS can be incredibly hard to avoid, and therefore muscle soreness is accepted as a norm for people who work out, but it is especially normal and expected when you are new to exercise. There are some things though that are thought to help reduce and ease any muscle soreness you may experience.
Research has shown that staying hydrated can help reduce DOMS. It was found that muscle soreness was much worse when dehydrated, and those who drank water before, during and after exercise, in the same climate, had less muscle soreness. It is thought that being dehydrated can result in an increase in both core body and muscle temperature during exercise which can lead to muscle cell function and performance during exercise be reduced, resulting in delayed muscle soreness, and delayed recovery. We should all be staying hydrated whether working out or not, but this is another great reason for drinking water to add to the endless list of benefits!
It has also been suggested that caffeine can reduce levels of muscle soreness on days 2 and 3 after exercise. By consuming caffeine in the days after a new exercise has been introduced, you can reduce muscle soreness which will enable you to recover and train again sooner. If you’re not a caffeine fan, try focusing on your protein consumption instead. Some research has found that protein intake, especially whey protein, can limit the level of muscle soreness. By consuming high levels of protein in the days after intense exercise, you could reduce your DOMS. Consuming protein will help in the recovery of muscles through protein synthesis, as explained in this previous blog post (here), so will support in reducing soreness. Whey protein powders can be bought and mixed with water or milk to make shakes but increasing your protein through food sources throughout your day will help.
If you are struggling with muscle soreness and it is restricting your movement, it is worth resting your body, or even just the sore muscles. So if you’ve got saw legs, maybe do an upper-body focused day. Alternatively, you could go for an active recovery day where you focus on aerobic exercises that keep your body moving but is not strenuous, this could be walking, swimming or cycling. Research suggests that exercise is one of the most effective ways to alleviate muscle soreness.
There is varying evidence around the effectiveness of stretching, warming up and cooling down before and after exercise. One study found that stretching both before and after exercise reduced soreness for the next week. Other studies have found that it makes no difference and does not impact DOMS. However, it’s not going to make your soreness worse, so it could be worth trying to see if it works for you. Even if it doesn’t help your DOMS it can improve your flexibility, which is never a bad thing! Performing warm-ups and cool-downs pre and post-workout have been shown to improve and reduce muscle soreness in the days after training. We recommend aerobic exercises to warm up and cool down the muscles, for example, some low-intensity cycling or jogging is great for both pre and post-workout.
The effectiveness of massage has been widely researched and found to be one of the most powerful techniques for reducing DOMS and helping your muscles recover from intense and new exercises. It’s a great excuse to treat yourself and get a massage! Alternatively, you could use a foam roller to help your muscles recover by alleviating muscle fatigue and soreness. The research suggests that around 20 minutes of foam rolling after exercise and in subsequent days can significantly reduce soreness and help increase movement that DOMS may have limited.
To try and avoid any serious muscle soreness we recommend taking it slow. If you’re a complete beginner, or you’re introducing something new to your programme, there is no need to rush into it. Exercises should be progressively introduced so that your body can get more accustomed to them. This should help avoid intense DOMS meaning your training shouldn’t be interrupted. If you’re starting a new programme, the last thing you want to do is to take a week off after your first session because you’re too sore. When you start something new, momentum and routine is your best friend. You don’t want to lose that after the first workout because your muscles are too sore! By taking it easy and slowly progressing into a new programme, you can build up your strength safely by allowing your muscles to adapt to the new movements and minimise the intensity of DOMS so you can keep training regularly and build momentum and routine.
If all else fails, grab some painkillers! The NHS recommends painkillers if you cannot alleviate them any other way. Of course, if symptoms persist, you experience swelling or the pain is unbearable, seek medical advice. However, DOMS should not usually require medical attention and will subside over time.
Your body and muscles will adapt to these new movements, so the more you do them, the quicker your body will get used to them. Soon, you will be able to train without feeling anything the next day as your recovery time and ability will have rapidly improved. Try to implement some of these tips so that your DOMS doesn’t hold you back!
Cheung, K., Hume, P., & Maxwell, L. (2003). Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005
Cleary, M. A., Sweeney, L. A., Kendrick, Z. V., & Sitler, M. R. (2005). Dehydration and symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness in hyperthermic males. Journal of athletic training, 40(4), 288–297. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1323290/
Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 403. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
Heiss, R., Lutter, C., Freiwald, J., Hoppe, M. W., Grim, C., Poettgen, K., Forst, R., Bloch, W., Hüttel, M., & Hotfiel, T. (2019). Advances in Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) - Part II: Treatment and Prevention. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, 33(1), 21–29. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-0810-3516
Herbert, R. D., de Noronha, M., & Kamper, S. J. (2011). Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (7), CD004577. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3
Hurley, C. F., Hatfield, D. L., & Riebe, D. A. (2013). The effect of caffeine ingestion on delayed onset muscle soreness. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 27(11), 3101–3109. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a99477
NHS website. (2021, February 4). Why do I feel pain after exercise? NHS UK. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/pain-after-exercise/
Nieman, D. C., Zwetsloot, K. A., Simonson, A. J., Hoyle, A. T., Wang, X., Nelson, H. K., Lefranc-Millot, C., & Guérin-Deremaux, L. (2020). Effects of Whey and Pea Protein Supplementation on Post-Eccentric Exercise Muscle Damage: A Randomized Trial. Nutrients, 12(8), 2382. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082382
Olsen, O., Sjøhaug, M., van Beekvelt, M., & Mork, P. J. (2012). The effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed onset muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscle: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of human kinetics, 35, 59–68. https://doi.org/10.2478/v10078-012-0079-4
Pearcey, G. E., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J. E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of athletic training, 50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01
Tufano, J. J., Brown, L. E., Coburn, J. W., Tsang, K. K., Cazas, V. L., & LaPorta, J. W. (2012). Effect of aerobic recovery intensity on delayed-onset muscle soreness and strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(10), 2777–2782. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182651c06