Sore Muscles and DOMS
16 tips to prevent and treat delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), plus sore muscle treatment and relief.
by Brad Walker | First Published February 6, 2017 | Updated March 3, 2019
Sore muscles after a tough workout are common and are a normal part of athletic training. But what about that soreness that hits you a day or two after your workout?
They weren’t that sore a few hours after your workout or even the night before and the pain is different to that experienced during exercise or to that of an injury such as a muscle strain.
These sore muscles are a result of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
What is DOMS?
DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a condition that causes moderate to extreme muscle pain and stiffness, and affects muscles 24 to 48 hours after physical activity.
The sore muscles are in response to any unusual exertion during exercise or an activity that your body is not used to, and the body’s attempt to adapt to the increased physical demands.
Ironically, this adaptation process produces greater stamina and strength in the muscles as they recover and build in growth and size (muscle hypertrophy). In other words, sore muscles are usually an indication that they are getting stronger, leading to greater fitness.
Warning: Don’t overdo it! Be sure that the muscle soreness is only moderate and that it has been caused by exercise, not by muscle overuse or injury. This is important when considering what you need to do for sore muscle relief. Any sore muscle treatment as a result of DOMS should work with the adaption process rather than against it.
The Principle of Adaptation
Adaptation is the ability of the body’s muscles to adjust to changing physical demands. This process enables you to coordinate muscle movement and to develop sports skills. By repeatedly practicing the same physical activity, it becomes second-nature and easier to perform. Only in the early stages of the activity, when it is relatively new to you, does muscle soreness or DOMS usually occur.
What Causes Sore Muscles and DOMS?
Muscles experience physical stress when we exercise. Certain factors challenge the adaption process, which can ultimately cause moderate muscle damage and soreness as opposed to unnecessary pain or injury. These factors include:
- Exercising too hard in the early stages of a physical training program can place unfamiliar stress on the muscles.
- Taking on a physical activity too strenuous for your fitness level.
- Overtraining by overdoing a physical activity, over-exerting yourself physically or doing too much too quickly.
- Failure to warm-up, cool-down and stretch before and after exercise can lead to muscle soreness or even injuries.
- Chemical agents being released from damaged muscles during physical exertion to irritate pain receptors.
- Increased blood flow to the muscles during physical exertion to cause swelling and irritation to pain receptors.
Why Do Muscles Get Sore?
It is natural for your muscles to feel sore the next day after exercising. By increasing the intensity, you increase the stress on your muscles. The sore muscles then need to recover to increase their endurance and strength. So basically, muscle recovery leads to improved muscle function. Let’s look at this process in greater detail.
By exercising hard, you stress your muscle tissue beyond what it is used to. Your muscles begin to burn, which indicates muscle damage. Because of this damage, your muscles feel sore the next day. Muscle soreness is delayed because damage to the muscles consists of small microscopic tears in the muscles after they have undergone lengthening (eccentric) contractions. Inflammation sets in after 24 to 48 hours, which then causes the soreness.
Muscle biopsies taken immediately after physical exertion show disruption of z-band filaments holding the muscle fibers together as they slide over each other during a contraction. Next-day muscle soreness (DOMS) is solely caused by damage to the muscle fibers themselves.
It used to be thought that DOMS was caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles. Lactic acid in the muscle’s tissue is completely washed out 30 to 60 minutes after physical activity. With most muscle soreness occurring 24 to 48 hours after exercising, the cause of sore muscles cannot be lactic acid build up in the muscles.
Can You Prevent Sore Muscles?
You can only prevent sore muscles by doing everything at the same pace and intensity as you have always done it, which is basically unnatural. Muscles must be stressed enough to strengthen them but not too much to cause them injury. Normal healthy muscles need to be tested through physical activity so if you’re looking to improve your performance or get fitter, faster and stronger, sore muscles cannot be prevented or avoided.
Here are some tips to get sore muscle relief and help you prevent, or at least minimize, the type of sore muscles that cause injury.
- Warm up properly before any physical activity.
- Gradually increase either the intensity or the duration of your workout, not both at once.
- Be aware of your fitness level and don’t overtrain, particularly in the early stages of any exercise routine.
- Use correct posture and positioning when exercising.
- Don’t increase both intensity and duration during the same week.
- Finish your exercise session with a thorough cool-down and stretch.
Sore Muscle Treatment Tips
The only “cure” for sore muscles is time for them to recover and heal. No-one has discovered a panacea for DOMS yet but there are remedies that have proved to be of some help in the recovery process. These include ice, rest, anti-inflammatory medication, massage and heat treatment. To reduce sore muscles and get relief;
- Wait for the muscles to heal before working at the same level that originally caused the muscle soreness.
- Move the sore muscles slowly and easily until they return to their normal state.
- Work below your previous intensity until their strength returns.
- Gradually warm up your muscles to increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles before you work them. Your joints will also become less stiff and your body better adapted to the demands of the exercise.
- Stay hydrated.
- Keep your muscles fueled with good nutrition and good dietary habits.
- Give your body time to recover properly so that it can adapt slowly to your improved levels of performance.
- Sleep plays a major role in helping your body and muscles recover. Aim to get at least 8 to 9 hours of good quality sleep a night.
- Massage and foam rolling will reduce muscle soreness by stimulating the neutrophils (white blood cells that fight inflammation).
- Relaxing in the pool, a hot tub or a salt bath for 15 minutes will reduce muscle tension.
- Include regular flexibility training as part of your long term exercise program.
Don’t Stop Exercising
Sore muscles are a natural outcome of any kind of physical activity, particularly in the beginning stages of an exercise program. Don’t give up exercising altogether just because you have sore muscles. Give your body time to recover and continue with your activity. By doing this, you are allowing your body to adapt to higher stress in a very healthy and natural way, which will lead to stronger muscles and greater fitness.
Research and References
- Cheung, K. Hume, P. Maxwell, L. (2003). Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Medicine, 33(2):145-64.
- Macdonald, G. Button, D. Drinkwater, E. Behm, D. (2014). Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool After an Intense Bout of Physical Activity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 46(1):131-42.
- Pearcey, G. Bradbury-Squires, D. Kawamoto, J. Drinkwater, E. Behm, D. Button, D. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(1):5-13.
- Roberts, B. (2016). The Science of Sore – DOMS explained. Stronger by Science.
- Slumber Yard. (November 30, 2020). Muscle Recovery After a Workout: The Important Role of Sleep. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://myslumberyard.com/blog/muscle-recovery-and-sleep/.
- Walker, B. (2018). The Anatomy of Sports Injuries, 2nd Edition (ISBN: 978-1623172831)
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 6). Delayed onset muscle soreness, In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
- Zainuddin, Z. Newton, M. Sacco, P. Nosaka, K. (2005). Effects of Massage on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, Swelling, and Recovery of Muscle Function. Journal of Athletic Training, 40(3): 174–180.
About the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.
Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.