There is something wonderfully exhilarating about pushing yourself to your fullest potential during every workout. Whether your passion involves bench-pressing in the gym, sprinting on the track or mountain-biking through rough terrain, there is no greater feeling than that sense of accomplishment, mastery over a difficult task and the knowledge that every last ounce of glycogen has been squeezed from your body.

 

That positive glow can usually last about 24 to 36 hours; then, the moment arrives when we are humbly reminded that we are, after all, merely human. That painful moment when Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) announces its arrival.

The phenomenon of DOMS is one with which most serious athletes are quite familiar: the ache and stiffness of muscles that have been put to the test. Different from acute pain, which usually results from an injury or serious trauma, DOMS is an indication that you have most assuredly demanded quite a bit from your muscles, and they are simply reminding you of that fact.

It has long been believed that the accumulation of lactic acid resulting from a higher-intensity workout is the root cause of DOMS. However, researchers are working hard to dispel this myth.

According to Dr. David J. Szymanski, Assistant Professor and the Director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at Louisiana Tech University, any elevation in lactate production brought on by a new or higher-intensity workout will return to a normal level within half an hour of completing the exercise. Dr. Szymanski adds, “Because of that, the pain that somebody associates with delayed onset muscle soreness 24-72 hours later cannot be because of that lactate that was built up while they were running.” He feels the true culprit is the exercise itself. The eccentric component of a new, unfamiliar or higher-than-normal intensity workout — movements that cause a muscle to forcefully contract while it lengthens– has the potential of damaging the integrity of the cell membrane.

Examples of eccentric muscle contractions include running downhill, lowering weights following the concentric burst of explosive energy and the downward motion of squats and push-ups. The resultant micro tears created in the muscle fibers during this process can lead to inflammation, which then results in the soreness and fatigue we have come to associate with DOMS a day or so later.

In support of the muscle tissue breakdown theory, muscle biopsies taken from marathon runners after a training session indicate significant amounts of cell damage. As noted above, if the cell membrane has been ruptured, the contents of the cell are allowed to seep out and pool between other nearby muscle fibers. Damage to the z disc configuration, which is largely responsible for the structural integrity and support of the muscle, has also been observed.

More evidence corroborating the contribution of an inflammatory response to delayed onset muscle soreness is the demonstration of an elevated white blood cell count following strenuous exercise. Thus, the spilling out of intracellular contents following cell membrane damage, coupled with the by-products of a cascade of immune-response activities, can result in the stimulation of the nerve endings of a muscle, which our brains interpret as soreness and a decreased range of motion.

Being aware that DOMS is forthcoming is sometimes all we need in order to deal effectively with the discomfort. However, expected or not, this muscle pain is never pleasant and often can get in the way of other planned activities.

There are several ways to mitigate the results of your new and intense training:

1. Engage in a warm-up: According to Dr. Priscilla Clarkson, a leading expert on the topic and a researcher at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, engaging in a warm-up activity which elicits a rise in the muscle temperature by just one degree Celsius can significantly reduce the amount of muscle soreness experienced by athletes.

2. Sports-specific training: Exposing the muscles to repeated bouts of a specific exercise, or training in a manner mimicking that which the muscles will face during a particular event, allows for continual adaptation and lessens the likelihood of the body feeling quite as much punishment on (and after) the day of a big event.

3. Active recovery: Although this may be the last thing in which you wish to engage while coping with the pain of DOMS, gentle low-impact aerobic exercise may actually increase blood flow, which has been linked to diminished muscle soreness. This can be an effective cool-down after intense workouts, too.

4. Heat: David O. Draper, Director of the graduate program in Sports Medicine/Athletic Training at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, has been researching the use of heat remedies to treat DOMS. “When muscle temperature is increased, blood flow increases, bringing fresh oxygen and healing nutrients to the injured site,” he says. “This increased blood flow also helps to wash away the chemical irritants responsible for pain.”

The human body possesses amazing recovery and adaptation abilities. As such, the workout, which first elicited the DOMS, will not necessarily cause it in the future. In general, one or two exposures to a higher level of training intensity is all that is required for the body to adjust it complexity of recovery mechanisms, thereby enabling most athletes to slowly progress in a positive direction. Always train hard, perform to the best of your abilities and add a challenge once in a while; as painful as it may be, the resultant growth will be worth the DOMS!

References

1. www.webmd.com

2. www.sport-fitness-advisor.com

3. www.sportsmedicine.about.com

4. www.runningtimes.com

5. Hagerman FC, Hikida RS, Staron RS, Sherman WM and Costill DL. Muscle damage in marathon runners. Physician and sportsmedicine 1984 12 39-28

6. Armstrong RB. Mechanisms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscular soreness: a brief review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1984 Dec;16(6):529-38

7. Natale VM, Brenner IK, Moldoveanu AI, Vasiliou P, Shek P, Shephard RJ. Effects of three different types of exercise on blood leukocyte count during and following exercise. Sao Paulo Med J. 2003 Jan 2;121(1):9-14. Epub 2003 Jul 4.

About the Author

Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com.

She welcomes your feedback and your comments!