Why am I sore after my workout and what can I do about it?

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If you’ve ever woken up the day after an intense workout feeling like your muscles were on fire, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Characterised by a dull, aching pain that kicks in when you contract or stretch the muscle, DOMS occurs 24-72 hours after strenuous exercise or performing movements that your body is not accustomed to. In some cases, DOMS can be so severe that it can be mistaken for an injury!

But what exactly causes DOMS? And what’s the best way to treat it? We’ve rounded up everything you’ll need to answer these questions and more.

What causes DOMS?

DOMS is caused by exercising beyond your usual range of intensity. For example, if you perform a new lift for the first time, workout with heavier weights than normal or run faster than usual, you’ll probably get DOMS in the days that follow. This is why you get so sore when your first start working out - your body simply isn’t used to the workload. Even athletes and regular gym goers can get DOMS if their training session is more rigorous than normal. Genetics, diet, dehydration and other physical stresses can all affect the severity of DOMS.

It’s thought that unusually intense exercise triggers DOMS due to the way eccentric movements cause microtrauma to muscle fibres. However, the exact physiological mechanisms behind the phenomenon are a little less understood. As noted in a study published in Sports Medicine, there are six possible factors that are responsible for causing DOMS, including:

  • Lactic acid

  • Muscle spasm

  • Connective tissue damage

  • Muscle damage

  • Inflammation

  • Enzyme efflux

DOMS is probably caused by a combination of these mechanisms.

What is the best way to treat DOMS?

In most cases, it’s perfectly safe to hit the gym with DOMS. You may not be able to workout with the same intensity as you usually would and you’re probably not going to be hitting any personal records, but getting the body back in motion is a great way to alleviate muscle soreness (at least in the short term). Here are some other great ways to prevent or treat DOMS:

1. Get a massage

Not only is a massage a great way to unwind after a hard day in the office, research indicates it can also help reduce the muscle soreness associated with intense exercise. In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, investigators found that massage administered two hours after exercise helped reduce hamstring soreness 48 hours after the workout, although it did not improve hamstring function.

2. Take an anti-inflammatory

We don’t recommend relying on drugs on an ongoing basis, but the fact remains that popping an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen can do wonders for quickly reducing soreness. It’s worth keeping in mind that although anti-inflammatory drugs can help reduce soreness, they probably don’t aid the recovery process, meaning your muscles still won’t be ready to work at full capacity (even if they feel fine).

3. Use a heat wrap

While it might seem logical to use ice to reduce muscle soreness, research suggests that you should actually be applying heat. In a study by the U.S. Spine & Sport Foundation, researchers set out to explore the effects of heat wrap therapy on lower back DOMS 24 hours after exercise. They found that the heat wrap reduced pain intensity by 47 percent compared with the control group, leading them to conclude that heat wrap therapy could be “...of significant benefit in the prevention and early phase treatment of low back DOMS.”

4. Change your diet

Eating a good balance of fresh, nutritious food provides your body with the fuel it needs to recover and build muscle, but it might surprise you to learn that there are certain foods that can also fight inflammation. Fish oil, for example, has been found to aid recovery, while research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology has found that curcumin, a molecule found in turmeric, can reduce the pain associated with DOMS.

5. Change your approach to working out

Last but not least, one of the best things you can do prevent DOMS is to ease up on the intensity during workouts. This might involve limiting your sets, reps or weight progression to no more than 10 percent per week, being mindful of the number of eccentric movements in your workout and cooling down properly after training.

patty lee