You know the feeling: you had a crazy-good workout the other day and were feeling fantastic in the moment, but today you woke up and things just … hurt.
Welcome to delayed onset muscle soreness!
It’s not a serious injury, so it isn’t really anything to worry about in terms of your health, but delayed onset muscle soreness can nonetheless leave you feeling achy or in serious pain depending on its severity. It also makes you less likely to want to hit the gym on days you are sore, which can throw a wrench in your fitness goals.
It’s a normal but inconvenient side effect that comes from working out, so let’s talk about delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and figure out what’s happening, how to treat it, and how you can prevent it the next time around.
What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
Delayed onset muscle soreness comes a couple of days after your workout – you might not feel it at the moment, but you’ll start to feel the burn about a day after, and the pain can peak at about 48 hours and last for up to four days.
A common misconception is that soreness stems from a build-up of lactic acid after a workout, but that isn’t quite right. You get lactic acid buildup in the short term, which can lead to some stress in your muscles during your workout, but delayed onset muscle soreness actually happens because of inflammation.
Delayed onset muscle soreness is especially prevalent after you perform eccentric exercises. These kinds of workouts lengthen your muscles while putting them under tension, and as such, they’re an important feature of many weightlifting and strength-training routines. Think bicep curls, for example.
The movements put a significant amount of stress on your body and can cause microtears in your muscles. This is one of the reasons that it’s so important to refuel with protein after a good workout so that they can repair and build back bigger and stronger. But even though they’re important for progress, these microtears can also cause some inflammation, a natural reaction as your body works to repair, and this reaction can bring that discomfort and pain. [*]
It might be a natural reaction to a good workout, but that doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable. You can have a wide variety of symptoms ranging from a limited range of motion to tenderness, swelling, and muscle fatigue.
How To Treat Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
So, the bad news is that there really is no “cure” for delayed onset muscle soreness. However, there are several promising recovery techniques that you can use to give yourself some pain relief.
• Get a massage. More than just a relaxing spa treatment, a good massage can be a great way to alleviate some of the pain from delayed onset muscle soreness.
One study found that people who received a massage treatment after their workout experienced reduced soreness and discomfort 48 hours after their workout – and since the discomfort from DOMS usually peaks around this time frame, it’s a pretty significant result. [*]
You can get a massage from a professional massage therapist, or you can do it yourself or with a tool like a foam roller.
• Keep moving (but gently). Even if it doesn’t exactly sound too appealing, keeping up some gentle exercise might more beneficial for your achy body than taking the day off completely. In fact, studies have found that it’s actually the best strategy for reliving the pain from your muscle soreness! [*]
Obviously, you don’t want to push your sore muscles too much and cause an injury, so stick with gentle movements instead. Go for a walk instead of a sprint or practice yoga instead of power lifting. You want to keep your body moving without pushing yourself so hard that it messes with your recovery or makes things even worse.
And if your muscle soreness is mostly concentrated in one muscle group, you can also just stick with exercising a different part of your body to avoid aggravating the soreness and delaying recovery. For example, if your hamstrings and quads are burning from the heavy leg day you did yesterday, go for an upper-body-focused strength training workout. That way, you can stick to your regular fitness routine without hurting yourself.
• Take an Epsom Salt Bath. The magnesium in Epsom salts is proven to help relax and ease sore muscles, while the hot water can help loosen things up so that more blood and nutrients can begin circulating, helping you repair faster.
Tips To Prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Prevention is usually a better course than treatment when it comes to soreness, so you’re going to want to make sure that every time you’re about to get a good workout in, you’re keeping these two things in mind:
• Don’t skip your warmups and cool downs. It might be more tempting to just get to your lift right away and head straight home after, but slow your roll: having the right techniques for warming up and cooling down can be instrumental in preventing that sore uncomfortable feeling tomorrow.
Start every workout off on the right foot by adding some dynamic stretching and mobility exercises to get your muscles ready to work and increase your range of motion. And when you’re done, cool down with gentle movement and then some stretching to increase your flexibility and prevent issues down the road.
• Stay hydrated. Intense workouts usually lend themselves to sweating, and if you aren’t focusing on getting enough water to replenish your stores during and after your workouts you might find yourself dehydrated. Unfortunately, dehydration can contribute to soreness by increasing the amount of damage your skeletal muscle takes during exercise. [*]
So make sure you’re drinking up and drinking often if you don’t want to be sore tomorrow!
The Bottom Line
Remember, everyone (yes, even the most athletic among us) will experience delayed onset muscle soreness from time to time. It’s an inevitable part of working out, but the proper warm-up and recovery routine will go a long way in making sure that soreness doesn’t totally impact your workout schedule or your progress.
Check out our Daily Mobility Workouts on the Durable Athlete App, which can help ease delayed onset muscle soreness: