Sore muscles after exercise: what is DOMS and how do I stop it?

Adam Keenan
Health Adviser and sports enthusiast
07 June 2018

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) refers to the sore muscles you get after doing new or higher intensity exercise. So, if you’ve recently started a new regime or upped your existing one, and have been getting sore muscles after your workout – it could be DOMS.

It can be a bit disheartening if you’re trying to improve your fitness and are getting sore muscles. But don’t let it put you off working towards your goals. In this blog I explain what causes it, and offer some tips on how to prevent, reduce and treat sore muscles after exercise.

Why do I get DOMS?

You may get DOMS if you’re starting a new exercise regime, changing an existing one or increasing the intensity or length of your workout. When you’re doing this, you’re breaking down muscle fibres and lengthening your muscles, causing very tiny tears. The soreness is part of the repair process in adapting to exercise. In the long run, as your muscles repair and grow, you’ll be stronger.

How long will it last?

DOMS can last around two to three days, depending on the intensity of the exercise you were doing. It usually comes on within a day or so of the exercise session.

Once your muscles are used to the exercise you shouldn’t get as much soreness. But if you up the intensity or start something new, then you might get it again. This is the normal process of building and strengthening muscles, so it’s nothing to worry about.

Can anyone get DOMS?

Yes, anyone can get it, even if you’ve been exercising for a long time. If you exercise a lot and step up or change your routine then you might get soreness after exercise. Or if you’re new to a form of exercise and you’re not used to it then you might get DOMS.

What types of exercises cause DOMS?

Any type of exercise that causes your muscles to ‘lengthen’ and work harder than normal can cause DOMS. Some of the common types include:

  • strength training – for example when you lower on a bicep curl your muscles will lengthen
  • walking, jogging or running – your thigh muscles lengthen on the downhill in particular

You can also get DOMS from jumping and doing aerobics.

Is it DOMS or something else?

It’s important to know the difference between DOMS and pain caused by a strain or injury. DOMS comes on after you’ve exercised. Stop exercise if you have sudden pain during exercise, as this could be an injury or a pulled muscle that needs to be treated differently.

How can I reduce or treat DOMS?

There are various things you can do to help reduce DOMS, but it’s about finding the best one that works for you. The following tips may help to prepare your muscles for exercise.

Build up gradually

Change your exercise routine or the intensity of it gradually. Or if you’re new to the exercise altogether, then build it up slowly.

Doing this gives your muscles a chance to get used to the exercise you’re doing.

Let your muscles recover

Light activity shouldn’t harm your recovery but if your muscles really hurt then give yourself rest days to recover before repeating the same activity. If you still want to exercise you could try a different type of exercise that won’t place much force or stress on the sore muscles.

Warm up and cool down

Before doing any exercise, make sure you warm up your muscles properly. And also cool down well with some stretching. This won’t directly reduce DOMS but it will help prepare your muscles for future exercises.

What else might help?

There are also some methods that may help reduce the pain of DOMs, though not always the damage to the muscles.

Ice pack or ice bath

Some research has suggested that a dip for 10 minutes at six degrees can reduce the symptoms of DOMS, whilst also improving the range of motion after an intense bout of exercise. An ice bath may not be appealing, so you could try easing the soreness with an ice pack instead. Wrap it in a towel first though so you don’t apply it directly to your skin.

Compression garments

These are items of clothing that fit tightly around your affected arm or leg; so you might wear a sleeve for example, if the muscles in your arms are sore. It’s thought that compression increases the blood flow and reduces muscle inflammation, which can reduce the effects of DOMS.

Foam rolling

Post-exercise foam rolling for 20 minutes may seem like a long time but it has been shown to help with recovering from DOMS and tender muscles. Foam rolling is a bit like giving yourself a massage where you roll different muscles groups on a foam pipe or cylinder. The pressure is similar to that of a massage.

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Adam Keenan
Adam Keenan
Health Adviser and sports enthusiast

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