Easing through the initial soreness

Posted: January 30, 2015 in Strength and Conditioning for Health and Fitness
Tags: , ,

One of the things that may discourage people from continuing or from starting a regular exercise program is the experience of feeling sore a day or two after an unaccustomed exercise. This is described as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). To help people go through with this, here are some suggestions, based on evidence and actual experiences, on how to minimize DOMS. Educating ourselves about the process that we undergo when we engage in a new physical activity is a good way to start too. It will change our perception about training into a more positive and rewarding process.

The reader is also encouraged to read an earlier post entitled “Setting initial training expectations by understanding a natural process called GAS”.

Why does it occur?

DOMS is theorized to occur because of microscopic disruptions or “damages” within the muscle fibers after an intense muscular activity. This causes an inflammatory process wherein chemicals are released that act on the nerve fibers within the muscle that sense pain.

Our muscles are composed of fibrous structures that have microscopic structures that attach, detach, and reattach during contraction or active movement. During an intense muscular activity, small disruptions in the fibers happen. This process causes the release of chemicals which stimulate nerve endings. This is felt as soreness. This is a normal process. The good thing is that the body would repair this mini-damages and the end result is a muscle fiber which is stronger and more resistant to damage caused by the same magnitude of contraction that caused the initial disruption. As long as we give our body a chance to recover, it will. And it will make itself more prepared to overcome the stimulus which caused it to feel sore.

 

When does it occur?

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) generally occurs between 24 and 72 hours after a bout of unaccustomed exercise that involves eccentric muscle action. It is most pronounced when there is a challenging stimulus to the musculoskeletal system. In other words, it is the soreness felt 1 to 3 days after a hard physical activity. Some authors state that it would resolve in 96 hours.

Most new activities can be challenging and muscle soreness is usually observed after a new physical activity or when the same physical activity is made even more challenging- e.g.: increasing the load in the same exercise.

 

Will it happen to everyone?

For most people, yes, but the severity of soreness would be different for each person. In a research paper, Schoenfeld & Contreras states that the precise time, course and extent of DOMS is highly variable and can last for many days depending on factors such as exercise intensity, training status, and genetics. So if you are training as a group, expect that some would be able to recover faster, some may feel it earlier, while some may not be sore (the stronger ones). As long as the activity is challenging enough for the musculoskeletal system, disruptions occur which would likely cause DOMS.

 

Will I experience DOMS again after I recovered?

Since the severity and duration of DOMS can be highly variable, and the ability to recover is individualized, the safe answer is Yes and No. Yes, if the intensity is significantly higher than the previous one or the exercise is totally different and demanding. And it can be No, if you do the same training routine and the intensity is not too high compared to the previous one.

In a research published in the Journal of Physiology, Proske & Morgan discussed that a second period of exercise, a week after the first, produces much less damage. This is the result of an adaptation process. This leads to a secondary shift in the muscle’s optimum length for active tension. This makes the muscles better at handling the same type of stress.

To make it simple, depending on your innate ability to recover, and take into consideration other factors like the training intensity, there maybe a some muscle soreness again but the good news is that it would not be as severe as the initial soreness due to the adaptations within the muscle fiber.

The good thing is that your body has experienced some type of stress, has reacted to it by rebuilding its composition to be able to handle the stress. And the result is that subsequent stress of the same nature would not cause the same amount of “damage” and pain.

Be patient when starting a new training program, the DOMS is a normal occurrence and it would disappear as you proceed with your training. Treat it as a sort of “milestone” that you passed by on your journey to a better you. You would encounter this every once in a while as your ability increases.

 

Does it occur more in some types of exercises?

Yes, since there are many varying intensities due to the nature of the exercise. Some exercises also emphasize the eccentric portion more. Movement occurs due to muscle contraction and there are three types of muscle contraction. Concentric contraction occurs when the muscle belly shortens against a load – like when standing up from a sitting position. Isometric contraction occurs when the muscles exert effort but there is no visible movement in the limbs- example is clenching a closed fist. And eccentric contraction is the part of movement wherein the load is lowered by virtue of gravity, or recoil for elastic equipment, but still under conscious controlled lengthening of a contracted or shortened muscle belly. The muscles lengthen at a controlled rate during this part of the movement and the force that lengthens it is the external load. An example is sitting down from a standing position.

All three types of muscular contraction has the potential to cause DOMS but it is mostly observed in physical activities requiring higher relative intensity. Studies and observations show that DOMS is often precipitated predominantly by eccentric exercise. Activities with higher intensity usually have more eccentric action involvement. An example would be downhill running. A research published in the Journal of Sports Physical Therapy suggests that concentric forces decrease as velocity of movement increases but eccentric force remains the same even as the velocity increases. Eccentric muscle action produces forces which are greater than concentric muscle action.

This means that DOMS is usually felt after an intense and physically challenging training and it is usually observed after activities which emphasize a lot of eccentric component like in downhill running, or doing the Negative Sets system of training in the weights room. And the prevailing body of literature does not support gender related differences in the manifestation of DOMS. It happens to both men & women. The severity is not due to gender but due to the type of exercise and intensity relative to the person as well as the level of fitness of the individual.

 

What can I do to lessen the soreness?

Recovery from DOMS can be enhanced by doing a light intensity exercise. Exercise the body part that is sore but at a very low intensity. If the thighs are sore, do some brisk walking or jogging for 5 to 10 minutes. Then stretch the sore muscle belly to facilitate relaxation. Drink a lot of water. Some would prefer soup or clear broth. Gentle massage along with stretching helps a lot in relaxing the muscle belly. A warm bath may help in relaxation too. Results for massage would vary depending on the time of application and the technique used. As per personal experience, used to go for massage from a friend who I used to work with in a Sports Medicine Center at the end of the week. I go for massage when I trained really hard for the past two weeks or so and it is my reward to myself for working and training hard. I trust the masseuse since she is certified in her trade and also has years of experience working with the top athletes. This approach helped me to recover from the demands of work and training and would make me ready for the coming weeks. A word of caution though- massage sessions usually would go from 30 minutes to an hour. There was one time I was really sore after a half marathon and I insisted for 2 hours of hard massage. Hard massage is when more pressure is applied to the muscle bellies. Just after the massage my muscles got swollen and I ended up being sore longer than I had to be. So the lesson is: be patient, recovery takes time. The process can be made to go a bit faster, but not too much. If we try to do short cuts, it will even take a longer time to recover than usual.

If you have no drug allergies, over the counter NSAIDS would help, but it is best to consult a qualified Medical Doctor. For practical reasons, it is ok not to take painkillers for DOMS as long as the soreness does not interfere or hinder you from performing very important and delicate tasks. DOMS is only transient and would usually disappear faster after a light training session. And it is interesting to note that exercise is the most effective means of alleviating pain during DOMS, however the analgesic effect is also temporary. Alternatively, exercises targeting less affected body parts should be encouraged in order to allow the most affected muscle groups to recover.

As with everything new, there is a period of time needed for us to adjust. Our bodies react accordingly to what we let it undergo. Understanding more about the processes that we undergo when we engage in a strength training program makes us respond positively and persist until we achieve our goals. That way, we train better, we live better!

 

 

References:

  1. Causes of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and the Impact on Athletic Performance: A Review. Smith, Lucille L., Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: August 1992
  2. Eccentric and concentric force-velocity relationships of the quadriceps femoris muscle. Cress NMPeters KSChandler JM., J Orthop Sports Phys Ther.1992;16(2):82-6.
  3. Is Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS, CSPS, FNSCA, Bret Contreras, MA, CSCS, 1. CUNY Lehman College, Department of Health Sciences, Program of Exercise Science, Bronx, NY, 2.  AUT University, Aukland, NZ
  4. Muscle soreness, swelling, stiffness and strength loss after intense eccentric exercise. M J Cleakand R G Eston Br J Sports Med. Dec 1992; 26(4): 267–272.
  5. Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors. Cheung K1, Hume PMaxwell LSports Med.2003;33(2):145-64.
Comments
  1. […] but are going to start a different type of training. The body’s initial reaction is called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). The muscles are sore after 24 hours or more after starting with the new training routine. When you […]

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  2. […] future. This means we gain a bit of strength after we recover. Our body may be sore for a few days (see related post) but if we do it for a few more training sessions with regular intervals our body will respond. And […]

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