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DOMS day: When your workouts turn sore
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DOMS day: When your workouts turn sore

Exercising after a long period of inactivity or abruptly changing the workout intensity can induce an intense muscle pain called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)

DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness, can be managed by easing down the workout intensity, taking active rest, or complete rest.

Starting any workout regimen or fitness journey is accompanied by uninvited pain within just a day or two. The muscles are so stiff and sore that you find yourself unable even to move normally. This unannounced pain which has deflated your fitness spirit time and again is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a common occurrence.

According to the National Library of Medicine, DOMS occurs frequently in beginners and is seen among experts too, usually because of abrupt changes in muscle activity.

Leon Williams, a 45-year-old program manager from Liverpool, UK, experiences DOMS frequently as he pushes himself while working out. Although he hits the gym daily, he does take a couple of days off when DOMS catches up.

“But mostly, I embrace the pain that I worked for,” says Williams. “Hydration is key for recovery, and so is food, so eat and hydrate well. Stretching and warming up does help, but you must continue working out through the pain.”

What causes delayed onset muscle soreness?

“DOMS is a minute muscle injury that is characterised by inflammation, pain and swelling,” says Dr Sushmita Kushwaha, assistant professor in the department of sports medicine at Pt. B.D. Sharma University of Health Sciences, PGIMS, Rohtak.

Twenty-four-year-old Indian table tennis player Sreeja Akula experiences DOMS when she steps up her training. “This intense muscle soreness occurs when I increase the intensity of my workout,” says the 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medallist. “If I perform a different form of exercise that targets a different muscle, even then I get DOMS which hits me 12-24 hours after the workout.”

DOMS does not discriminate between a novice and a professional athlete. However, the type of muscle contractions involved in the exercises may lead to DOMS. In addition, eccentric contractions of the muscle are also known to cause DOMS.

“Both eccentric and concentric contractions are types of isotonic contractions. When we carry weights, the tension in the muscle is constant while the length of the muscle changes,” explains Dr Kushwaha.

In a concentric contraction (during bicep curl, upward movement during push-ups, bench presses, squats, etc.), muscle length shortens during exercise. In eccentric contraction (lowering movement during squats, bench presses etc.), muscle length increases.

“Usually, eccentric contractions tend to generate more tension in the muscle, which leads to micro-tears in them. To heal those microtears, the body causes inflammation at that site. And that inflammation is the reason for pain and development of delayed onset muscle soreness,” she adds.

How long does it last?

Dr Abhishek Chowdhery, associate professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Government Doon Medical College, Dehradun, says DOMS, true to the name, sets in 24-48 hours after the workout.

“When you feel the muscles paining after two to three days of training, chances are that it is DOMS. But this is different from acute muscle soreness which is immediate and occurs during exercise. It goes away as soon as you stop doing it,” adds Dr Chowdhery who was a doctor with the Indian contingent at the London Olympics in 2012.

Dr Kushwaha says that the pain lasts for five to seven days. “If it prolongs for more than seven days, then one should definitely visit a sports medicine specialist,” she adds.

Is it a sign of muscle growth?

Dr Chowdhery mentions that phrases like ‘no pain, no gain’ shouldn’t be taken seriously as DOMS is a sign of overexercise.

“Any exercising should be done step by step; especially high-intensity interval training,” says Dr Chowdhery. “The ideal way to start is to have a conditioning coach or a trainer who can guide you with the basics – like with how much weight you should start your workout – so that you train within your limit. People are generally pumped up to achieve an unattainable level of fitness in a short span of time. But by doing so, they end up with DOMS.”

Dr Kushwaha talks about the 10% rule that an individual, who is focusing on eccentric or resistance training, should follow.

“You should not increase the duration and intensity of the exercise you are performing by more than 10% in a week,” she says. “If the rule isn’t followed, DOMS will hamper your workout, whether you are a beginner or an expert. It is not a sign of muscle growth.”

Should you stop after DOMS?

Akula, who gets DOMS frequently, says that stopping because of the pain is a strict no. “I reduce the intensity of the workout. When the pain subsides, I increase the intensity again,” she says.

Dr Kushwaha explains the concept of taking active rest when one goes through DOMS. “Instead of bed rest, one should take active rest, that is, shifting from your regular activities to light aerobic activities like cycling, walking or swimming,” she says.

Dr Chowdhery adds, “If, however, the pain is too severe, one may take a gap of 24-48 hours before resuming exercise.”

How to reduce DOMS pain

  • Ice bath
  • Warm bath: reduces stiffness of muscles
  • Sports massage done ideally 48 hours after the workout
  • Anti-inflammatory medications

How to prevent DOMS

  • Staying hydrated
  • Warming up the body before workout for 5-10 minutes
  • Cooldown after exercise for 20 minutes
  • Incorporating adequate amount of protein in diet
  • Diet rich in protein, fish oils, Omega 3 fatty acids, and adding nuts, seeds, bananas
  • Studies suggest caffeine could ease DOMS

Takeaways

  • Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, can occur in athletes and beginners alike. It is caused by an abrupt change in physical activity.
  • Proper warm-up and cooldown before and after exercise can significantly reduce or prevent the occurrence of DOMS.
  • Pain occurs 24-48 hours after a workout and can last for 5-7 days.
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