If you’ve ever exercised, you’ve likely encountered delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS.
DOMS hits new and experienced exercisers alike, and typically occurs 24–48 hours after a bout of heavy strength training, downhill running, plyometric exercises or any type of physical activity that the body is unaccustomed to.
“People sometimes refer to DOMS as muscle fever, everything is achy and burns a little bit,” says Dani Almeyda, MS, corrective exercise specialist and co-owner of Original Strength in North Carolina. “It’s a natural physiological response; it means things are happening.”
Thankfully, it only takes one exercise session for your body to wise up, and your immune system will be better prepared the next time you perform that workout, according to recent research published in the journal Frontiers.
There are many theories as to the physiological causes of DOMS. One of the most common theories is DOMS is caused by a buildup of lactic acid in the muscle tissues, but that’s not actually the case, says Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, PhD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
In reality, DOMS is caused by small-scale trauma to the muscle fibers themselves. If you look at muscle fibers under a microscope 24–72 hours after an intense training session, the muscle tissue looks scrambled, with fibers torn and splayed out at different angles, Nelson says.
One of the best ways to prevent painful DOMS is to progress slowly when starting any new exercise program. And while some post-exercise soreness is inevitable, there are strategies you can use to ease and reduce the effects. Here, experts share their three favorite tips:
Spend 5–10 minutes after your workout flowing through a series of easy movements that calm and reset the nervous system. “This downgrades all of the adrenaline from your session and gets your body in a better state,” Almeyda explains. Great options include baby crawling, hip rocking, deep breathing and windshield wipers.
Many people assume that having muscle soreness during the days following a workout means they should take it easy. But while you probably shouldn’t do an intense workout when you’re sore, you definitely shouldn’t sit all day. “Sitting on your butt in one spot all day is going to make it worse,” Almeyda says. Incorporate easy, low-impact activities into your day off: Take walk breaks, stretch or go to yoga class. If you have a hard time getting away from your desk for extended periods of time, make it a goal to perform 20–30 standing marches once every two hours, Almeyda says.
How to do it: While standing, lift your right knee toward your hip without bending at the waist and tap it with your left hand. Repeat with the opposite hand and knee.
Your muscles are hungriest for muscle-repairing protein and energy-refilling carbohydrates within the first hour of finishing your workout. If you feed your body adequate amounts of protein and carbs after your training session, you’ll speed up your recovery process, Nelson says.
For simplicity’s sake, he recommends the 4-by-40 approach: 40 grams of protein at every meal, with one of those meals being your post-workout recovery. Meanwhile, the amount of carbs you need varies depending on your activity. General dietary recommendations suggest approximately 130 grams of carbohydrates per day, but average exercisers going to the gym four days per week could do 200–250 grams on training days.