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DOMS . . . don't let it get you down

Posted Jul 30 2012 3:53pm
Picture Ever feel like this?

I have been out of my normal workout routine for about three weeks.  However, I am teaching a weekly body sculpt class to a bunch of hardcore, fit, strong members who expect an all-out tough workout.  So, that's what they get.  Then, for the next few days I limp around filled with pain and soreness,  that lasts a couple of days . . .and, since I am not as  motivated as I should be now to get to the gym, it starts all over again.  What I have is called the DOMS (or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and if  you have ever taken time off and then jumped right into a maximum workout you know what I'm talking about!  This is NOT the way to workout!  In fact, when I am instructing, I tell "new" members to take it easy.  When I begin an new bootcamp session we do not begin at the "top"; we begin at a manageable but challenging pace and increase the intensity.  This is the way to workout and not be blindsided by a painful case of DOMS.

Since that is what is happening to me lately, and I want you all to be better than I am, here are the facts.  The symptoms include muscle tenderness, soreness, weakness, and even swelling. It usually sets in a day or two after a particularly strenuous workout. It happens to everybody,  from weekend warriors to hard-core athletes. Some dread it; others love the  feeling for days as proof that they’re making progress. But  science still hasn’t been able to nail down the precise cause of DOMS.

There are some theories out there.  You may have heard rumblings of some of them. 

One is that lactic acid is to blame. Lactic acid causes the “burn” during your workout.  However, this is not what causes  muscle soreness.  The intense lactic “burn” feels nothing like DOMS, which is a duller type of pain AND lactic acid concentrations return to pre-workout levels within an hour of exercise, while DOMS occurs days later. 

Another popular notion is that DOMS occurs because intense exercise breaks down your muscle fibers: you tear the muscle fibers apart with resistance training and they respond by coming back stronger than ever. The pain, then, comes with breaking down and rebuilding muscle fibers. Either that or it’s inflammation. Or it’s increased pressure on your nerves as a result of expanding muscle. There are a ton of possibilities thrown out there, and they all sound vaguely plausible, but the science is still murky. Whatever the cause, we do know that it can’t be neatly explained by a single factor. Some folks say "it just is. (

 It has been firmly established that a certain type of exercise – eccentric contraction – is more likely to cause DOMS. This means walking downstairs, running downhill, and the negative movements you do when using weights.  For example, when you are lowering weights slowly and not letting gravity pull the weight down. Getting rid of negative movements isn't practical, though. You can't begin a squat at the bottom or a bench press from your chest and not lower it down  So, these negative movements are just part of exercising.  

That said, there are some things to do and some things that might make you feel better when you can't sit on the toilet from the massive amount of squats you did the day before. 

Time – Sometimes, you just need to give it time. Usually you feel  better after one or two days, the worst cases shouldn't last longer than 4 days.

Stretch – You knew I would say this as I'm such a huge fan.  Even though the research doesn't actually support this to help DOMS, it usually just feels better.

Massage – This might help get you moving a bit quicker, but beware, the massage can hurt even worse if you are really sore!

Ice Baths – Some folks swear by ice baths after a tough workout or super long run.  I think it sounds like a great (if painful) idea, but it does take some planning to get the ice in the tub and take the time to soak right after the workout.

Anti-Inflammatories – Try ibuprofen or a chemical equivalent. I typically try to do it on my own and not depend on these but some swear by it.

Exercise – This has been my friend - I've been on the elliptical, walking the dogs, spinning and swimming laps. I believe you gotta keep those muscles moving to feel better!  Warming up before your workout is always a good idea. Afterward, beset by DOMS, light exercise can “train” your body to work through the pain. Don’t work through any particularly severe DOMS, but it’s safe to get back on the wagon on the tail end of the soreness. Eventually, you should stop getting it altogether.

Epson Salts - Some folks swear by a soak in the tub filled with epson salts.  I have tried this but can't tell if it's the soak in the tub or the addition of the salts that really helps.

Cherry Juice - Other people swear by drinking natural tart cherry juice.  I confess I haven't tried this one.  Let me know if you have and what you think. 

Remember – DOMS is different from a pulled or torn muscle, or a strained joint. It can be a step in the adaptive process. Not everyone gets it, but if you do you can rest assured you’re doing something right. I know that when I take time off or do something completely different or making a substantial increase in weight or intensity I can get the nagging DOMS.  It's
just a fact, muscles get sore. I think it shows you have been working - and that's a good thing. It's supposed to hurt a little bit, or it would be too easy! 

So, when was your last case of DOMS?  What do you do for relief?  Go have some fun today!

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