Muscle soreness happens not only to first-time exercisers but also to athletes and regular exercisers if they significantly increase the intensity and/or duration of their workouts. Post-exercise soreness is a signal that you have exercised in a way your muscles aren’t used to.
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In fact, sore muscles are a sign of microscopic damage and swelling that occurs in the sarcomere—the smallest contractile unit of a muscle. The damage is predominantly caused by eccentric muscle contractions in which the muscle works as it lengthens.
For example, running, and especially downhill running, is a major source of eccentric contractions since the leg muscles work hard to slow and/or control the descent of the body. Weightlifting can also produce high levels of eccentric contractions, since after the bar is lifted it needs to be lowered under control with each repetition of a set.
Since this kind of soreness typically does not peak until post-workout, it is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
DOMS begins fairly soon after exercise and typically peaks between 24 and 72 hours thereafter. It generally dissipates within 6-7 days depending on mode, intensity and duration of exercise, as well as the performer’s fitness status. While the delayed soreness can range from mild to debilitating pain, DOMS also produces immediate weakness in the affected muscle, which generally lasts as long as the pain. DOMS can also produce swelling, tense muscles, reduced coordination and a limited range of motion.
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In general, time is the only dependable healer for DOMS. However, a number of approaches have been proposed to treat or minimize its effect. Below are five such approaches, grouped into three categories: physiological, mechanical and nutritional.
Repeated Bout Effect
As its name implies, an initial bout of eccentric exercise reduces the impact of DOMS in future bouts. For example, an initial session of downhill running would produce significant DOMS; however, a second, similar downhill run would produce far less DOMS, and this adaptation would continue to reduce muscle soreness over several sessions. A similar affect occurs in weight training, as long as the initial lifts are at or close to maximum. Studies have shown that working at 50 percent of a maximal eccentric load does not provide protection against a subsequent maximal bout. The repeated bout effect is by far the most effective method of limited the effects of DOMS.
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Easy-paced exercise such as walking, jogging or cycling is generally accepted as an effective method of reducing DOMS. However, the reduction in discomfort is temporary and disappears soon after the exercise has ended.
Some research has suggested that post-exercise massage and/or foam rolling can help reduce DOMS. The mechanisms are unclear, though they may be related to a physical “flushing out” of the swelling-related fluid in the muscle. Also, the benefit appears to only be related to soreness, with no impact on DOMS-related muscle weakness. One potential downside to this approach is that on occasion, DOMS-affected muscles can be tender to the touch and massage is contraindicated.
Compression garments are typically associated with medical and/or therapeutic treatments. More recently, however, they have been studied for the relief of DOMS. Research has shown that wearing compression clothing—including both compression socks and compression tights—relieves the soreness and weakness associated with DOMS-producing exercise. A personal fitting is recommended if you adopt this approach, since the benefits of compression clothing are likely to vary with the particular garment, how well it fits and the amount of pressure. No research to date has investigated the effect on post-exercise recovery of wearing compression clothing during DOMS-producing exercise.
Carbs & Protein
Muscles begin to repair themselves after DOMS-related damage, and an optimal nutritional approach can speed the process. Most research has shown that protein intake reduces muscle weakness after DOMS-producing exercise. However, while carbohydrates alone have no effect on DOMS, a mixture of protein and carbohydrates in a ratio of approximately 1:3 has been shown to be far more effective than protein and carbohydrates taken separately. The timing of such mixtures is also important. They need to be consumed no later than two hours after, and preferably immediately after, exercise for their greatest effect. Dietary intake prior to exercise has been shown to have no effect on DOMS.