You workout hard and at the end of your session you feel spirited, strong, and healthy. Then two days later you can barely put on your jacket because you’re so sore. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a part of training most of us seem to have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, it’s an oddly-satisfying way to feel like you’ve pushed your own limits (safely, we hope). On the other hand, it’s frustrating when DOMS doesn’t ease up before your next training session.After all, many workouts suffer because of achy muscles which haven’t fully recovered yet.
Good news: while you may not be able to totally avoid it, there are ways you can speed up recovery and minimize your DOMS post-workout.
As the American College of Sports Medicine points out, delayed onset muscle soreness is not caused by “lactic acid build up” in the muscles. Instead, docs and researchers tend to believe it’s from microscopic muscle fiber damage—a natural consequence of training. As these fibers repair over the 12 to 72 hour period following a tough bout of exercise, DOMS is apt to show up.
Muscle soreness isn’t the only symptom of DOMS. Intense cases can also present with joint stiffness, decreased range of motion, limb swelling, and temporarily reduced muscle strength.
Important caveat: while DOMS itself is not considered an emergency, seek medical attention if post-workout pain or swelling becomes legitimately debilitating or if your urine becomes dark, as this could indicate rhabdomyolysis, or “rhabdo” for short. Rhabdo is a rare but serious condition of muscle breakdown and can cause kidney damage and other nefarious consequences.
In case you’re curious, here’s a perfect recipe for getting DOMS:
If it helps to know, even seasoned athletes can get DOMS, but the more adapted your body is to training the less likely you are to get it, especially from a familiar activity.
All right, so DOMS stinks. It’s uncomfortable and can even impair your ability to train on subsequent days. These 5 strategies may help reduce DOMS so you can get back to safe and effective workouts:
Research has shown people who consume tart cherry juice or blueberry juice on training days experience significantly less DOMS compared to control groups. These antioxidant-rich fruits contain anthocyanins, which fight inflammation and accelerate tissue healing. If you want the Tart Cherry benefits without the sugar, you can get it in supplements as well.
Collagen is a complete protein found in ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissues. As a supplement, it’s used to treat arthritis thanks to its anabolic effects on cartilage. Studies have shown it can also speed up recovery in your muscles post-workout. Additionally, collagen contains a compound called arginine, which can improve physical performance and help retain muscle mass by enhancing your body’s natural growth hormone response.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) taken daily, as well as before and after training sessions, have also been shown to significantly reduce DOMS in scientific studies. Researchers attribute it to the ability of BCAAs to maximize protein synthesis and maintain muscle fiber integrity.
Self-myofascial release techniques with a foam roller or lacrosse ball can reduce pain, relieve tension, and prevent the build-up of mobility-restricting adhesions in your connective tissues. Do these immediately after your workout and focus on muscle groups hit hard during your session.A bonus idea for particularly grueling workouts: schedule an acupuncture session or massage after your workout. These therapies can decrease DOMS intensity by disrupting pain signals sent via the nervous system, increasing capillary blood flow, easing muscle tension, and reducing free-floating creatine kinase (a biomarker of muscle damage).
Adequate warm-up is essential for preparing your muscles for exertion and reducing your risk of injury. But the oft-neglected cool down and active recovery day can reduce post-workout soreness since they help fight inflammation and accelerate the tissue healing process by increasing circulation.
Try light cardio for 15-20 minutes after a tough lifting session, and schedule 1 to 2 days of easy-but-still-moving workouts within your typical training week.
DHA and EPA omega 3 fatty acids, turmeric’s curcumin (the active component in the golden yellow root), and Vitamin D3 all have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They’re also heart and bone healthy and may even improve symptoms of insomnia, depression, and other issues which canmess with your training (let alone your life in general). Even if some studies show their effect on severe DOMS is minimal to nil, these supplements can accelerate post-workout recovery and may minimize some muscle pain—beside benefiting your health in other ways. Take with nutrient-dense foods to optimize absorption (black pepper and dietary fat in particularly has been shown to improve curcumin’s bioavailability).
If you’re willing to train hard, you can expect to have some muscle soreness from time to time. But avoid the temptation to rely on DOMS as your gauge of whether you trained hard enough, since gains in endurance, strength, and power are possible even without that next-day achiness.
Above all, know your body (it’s important to know and heed the difference between pain of exertion and pain of injury) and feel free to experiment with safe and effective ways to optimize physical performance and recovery—hopefully with a little less wincing as you walk down the stairs.