This is why you have sore muscles days after exercising

Have you ever wondered why your muscles ache painfully days after a rigorous workout? This phenomenon, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), affects everyone from weekend warriors to professional athletes [1]. 

Surprisingly, about 90% of people who engage in any new exercise activity experience DOMS to some extent, making it a common yet poorly understood part of fitness routines.

DOMS and the science behind the pain

Delayed onset muscle soreness typically occurs 24-72 hours after intense physical activity that pushes your muscles beyond what they are accustomed to [2]. 

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not caused by lactic acid buildup. Instead, DOMS is believed to stem from microtrauma – tiny tears in the muscle fibers caused by eccentric (lengthening) exercises like downhill running or lowering weights.

According to research, microtrauma leads to an inflammatory response that activates nerve fibers and results in the sensation of pain [3]. This is a natural part of the repair and strengthening process, which ultimately helps muscles grow stronger and more efficient. 

The soreness is often accompanied by stiffness, swelling, and reduced range of motion, but gradually subsides as the muscles heal and adapt.

Moreover, the study of DOMS provides crucial insights into the neurochemical pathways involved in muscular pain [4], a topic that has garnered increasing attention in recent years. 

DOMS, primarily triggered by lengthening contractions during physical activities, has also served as a model for understanding various muscle pain syndromes, including myofascial pain syndromes.

Prevention and management of DOMS

While DOMS is somewhat inevitable if you are challenging your muscles to grow, there are ways to mitigate its severity. Gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts allows your muscles to adapt over time, reducing the likelihood of severe soreness. 

Effective management and prevention strategies can minimize its impact and improve recovery. Some of these strategies include:

  • Warm-up: Engage in low-intensity exercises to increase blood circulation and prepare the muscles for the upcoming activity.
  • Balanced workouts: Incorporate a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility exercises into your routine. This balance helps prevent the overuse of any muscle group.
  • Hydration: Staying hydrated helps regulate inflammation and facilitate muscle repair.
  • Proper nutrition: Consuming proteins and carbohydrates after workouts aids in muscle recovery.
  • Cool down: Gentle stretching after exercise can reduce muscle tightness and lessen the effects of DOMS.
  • Active recovery: Engage in low-intensity exercise, such as walking or light cycling. This can stimulate blood flow and aid in the removal of waste products accumulated during intense workouts.
  • Supplementation: Certain supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, and antioxidants may reduce inflammation and perceived pain. Additionally, supplements like creatine can aid muscle recovery by reducing muscle damage during workouts.

While DOMS is a normal part of the fitness journey, not all muscle pain is benign. Pain that begins during or immediately after exercise can indicate an acute injury, such as a muscle strain or sprain

Furthermore, if the soreness persists for over a week or is debilitating, it may be wise to consult a healthcare provider.

DOMS is a sign that your muscles are adapting to your fitness regime. While uncomfortable, it is a normal response to unusual exertion and is part of an adaptation process that leads to greater stamina and strength as the muscles recover and build. 

By understanding and managing DOMS effectively, you can continue to progress in your fitness goals without unnecessary pain or risk of injury.


Photograph: shotprime/Envato
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