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DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

You know that exercise is good for you and that you need to be active on a regular basis. Doing so, you no doubt have heard, will help to keep your bones and muscles strong. Now, if you are indeed a regular exerciser you are probably able to get through each day pain free. But if you are new to exercise, have not exercised in a while or are trying something different, then you will have experienced the pain, soreness and discomfort that comes with making your muscles do something they weren’t prepared for. You may be relieved to know that any soreness you are or have experienced is very common and even has a name – DOMS. It’s not a pleasant feeling and can happen to anyone including athletes and personal trainers.

What is DOMS?

DOMS is the acronym used by doctors and fitness professionals for ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’. As the name suggests, delayed onset muscle soreness is the soreness and discomfort you experience after exercise, especially if that exercise is something you are not used to doing. For instance, if you usually walk as your main form of cardio exercise then decide to go for a bike ride, if may find that your legs are very stiff and sore hours later.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness occurs after a period of hours. This means that initially you will feel great after your exercise session but later that day or even the next day (depending on when you exercised) the soreness and stiffness will set in. Generally you find this happens after you have been inactive, sitting or lying down for a few hours.  During this time your muscles cool down, blood flow returns to normal and your body realises it has been made to do some form of activity that it wasn’t expecting. Lactic acid build-up and trauma to the muscles sends the body into a healing process and before you know it is very difficult to move around.

Our bodies are creatures of habit (and to some degree are very lazy) and prefer to do the same thing day in and day out because it is easy. Just like a little kid, our bodies like to know what to expect and don’t particularly like to be challenged– it means it has to work harder – which is why personal trainers recommend changing your routine regularly because it shakes things up a bit.

Regardless of whether you have never exercised before, had taken time off due to illness or injury, or have changed your routine, making your body do something it is not used to will result in a case of DOMS. That’s right, even the most experienced exercisers, trainers, and athletes will experience a case of DOMS if they do something different, often to the point of dreading it occurring.

Can it be prevented?

Unless you decide to never exercise, get sick or injured, or change your routine, then at some point in your life you will experience DOMS. Even if you don’t exercise you can still experience DOMS simply by doing something your body is not used to (such as moping the floor, carrying a heavy weight, doing the gardening etc). While you cannot prevent DOMS as such, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of it occurring.

If you are new to exercise or returning after illness, injury or pregnancy, start slowly and gradually build up. Choose beginner versions of resistance exercises and try not to force yourself to work at a certain intensity level or lift a certain amount of weight. Pushing yourself too hard will not only result in a case of DOMS but you also run the risk of injury.

Make sure you warm up and cool down properly (at least five minutes each) aiming to gradually raise your pulse and blood flow to muscles for the warm up, and gradually lowering your pulse and blood flow to muscles for the cool down. Doing this for the cool down is particularly important for preventing blood pooling in the calf muscles.

Another tip to reduce the likelihood of DOMS is to make sure you stretch well at the end of your exercise session. Static stretches are particularly good and should be held for between 30-60 seconds.

If you are changing your routine try not to make the changes to dramatic. For instance if you are used to walking for 30 minutes at 60% intensity, don’t suddenly change to cycling for 45 minutes at 80% intensity. Not only will you struggle to complete your exercise session but you are guaranteed to be stiff and sore the next day.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

How do you treat it?

Because the cause of DOMS is similar to a minor injury, it is often treated in the same way. Make sure you include an active recovery component in your workout to help your body cool down and return to normal slowly. Doing so allows the lactic acid which builds up during exercise to be removed from your muscles as your heart rate gradually slows down.

You will find that you don’t feel too bad when you are up and about and your muscles are warmed up – it’s only when you stand still, sit down, or go to bed that the soreness and stiffness really take hold. This is because warm muscles equal increased blood flow and healing. Cold muscles on the other hand allow the muscles to ‘cease up’ and it takes a lot to get them going again. Massages, warm baths, and gentle stretching all help to increase blood flow to your stiff and sore muscles and help the healing process.

DOMS is a completely normal and natural part of exercise and life. While it is difficult to prevent them entirely, it is possible to reduce the severity of them and treat them. The most important thing you can do when it comes to DOMS is to know when to expect them – if you know this you can at least be prepared to cope with them. So if you are starting or resuming an exercise program, changing your routine or doing something different, just remember that come the following morning, you may find it very hard to get out of bed. But on a positive note – DOMS means that your body is becoming stronger and healthier and has accepted the exercise challenge.


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