Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) may not be something you think about often, but it can have some serious consequences. The most important consequence of delayed-onset muscle soreness is a decision to give up exercise.
What is DOMS?
If you work out hard one day you might have a little tightness the same day — and sore muscles the next day. Two days after your workout you might feel stiff and sore. This is the point at which a lot of people decide not to work out anymore.
That’s not the best choice.
Avoiding muscle soreness
DOMS may be caused by lactic acid or micro-injuries. Tiny tears in muscles recover, and this slight damage and recovery build up the muscles over time. It is most likely to happen if you work out after a period of little activity, or if you work muscles in new ways or more intensely than before.
Researchers have found that stretching doesn’t prevent DOMS, but working out in the same way repeatedly does. Sore muscles are a sign that your body is adapting to new challenges. Without new challenges, there is no need for adaptation.
On the other hand, new challenges lead to increased fitness. Gradually increasing intensity or adding new exercises can help you build fitness without too much pain.
Alternating workouts so that you challenge one set of muscles on one day and a different set the next day is a good way to keep muscle soreness in check.
The first step toward treating delayed onset muscle soreness is a change of mind. Pain is generally a signal from the brain telling us not to do something so we won’t get hurt. If you touch a hot surface, you feel pain and snatch your hand away from the heat. This makes it natural to react to sore muscles with fear and distress.
Significant muscle pain while you are working out is usually a sign to back off from what you are doing. Slightly sore muscles a day or two later, however, can be a good pain. Think of it as communication from your brain and respond by keeping up the good work, or doing a bit less to avoid too much discomfort.
Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen are usually plenty to handle delayed-onset muscle soreness. A hot bath or a day of rest can also help. Some people find that massage is beneficial, while others swear by caffeine.
However, researchers have found that exercise is actually the best cure for DOMS. Choose a different exercise from the one that caused the soreness, and be sure to warm up before working out. But plan to go back to the exercise that led to the muscle soreness after a day or two of gentler exercise.