So you've ramped up your leg workout on the weight machine circuit -- or it's your first leg workout after a long period of being sedentary. Any reasonable person would expect to be sore the next day, right? But one day goes by and then another. And on the third day, you awake feeling like evil robots have wrapped searing bands of metal around your legs. Your calves, shins, quadriceps and glutes feel like they've been invaded by red ants.
Believe it or not, there's a name for this. What you're experiencing is delayed onset muscle soreness, otherwise known as DOMS.
No Pain, No Yeah Whatever
DOMS is that not-so-sweet sensation of your muscles regenerating. They do this by forming new fibers where vigorous exercise has damaged the tissue. In other words, it's the process that gives validity to the "no pain, no gain" school of exercise philosophy.
In years past, the discomfort of DOMS was attributed to the build-up of lactic acid in the muscle tissue, but that's no longer understood as the cause. However, exercise does inspire the body to release all kinds of waste products that most likely irritate the finer nerve endings around the particular muscles that you've offended.
What's mostly agreed upon is that muscles respond to injury by releasing hormones called cytokines. These critters sound the gong for replacement cells to come to the rescue and heal them. This wagon train of cells starts out slowly but picks up speed a couple of days later. In addition to soreness, DOMS can cause loss of strength loss, muscle tenderness, stiffness, pain and swelling.
Onset and Duration
DOMS most typically occurs between 24 and 48 hours of exercise, though 72 hours (or three days, as it were) it not unusual. It's most likely to happen after you've done something new or started exercising after a lazy spell. If all that soreness is hitting you three days later, that's probably just your body's time frame for conducting its own healing process.
Muscle weakness typically maxes out within the first 48 hours after a workout. Full recovery may take up to five days. Pain and tenderness are at their most intense within one to three days after exercise and usually resolve within a week. Stiffness and swelling can last longer, peaking three or four days after the workout and lasting up to 10 days. The various symptoms of DOMS may come at different times, according to a paper by the University of New Mexico.
DOMS is perhaps easier to avoid than treat by building duration and intensity of a workout gradually. Rather like a common cold, DOMS seems to follow its own course and there's not a lot of agreement on what actually helps. It's worth trying non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin, which may mitigate the inflammation process and take the sting along with it. Heating pads, balms, hot baths or ice packs will at least distract you from the discomfort.
So will getting back to your workout, which under normal circumstances won't hurt a thing. DOMS isn't an injury, and although you should give your muscles an appropriate amount of time to regenerate between workouts -- usually a day or two -- you won't harm them by pushing though the pain. That said, if you're so sore that your form is compromised when you're pushing through the pain, you're risking injury and probably doing yourself more harm than good.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Treatment and Prevention of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Sports Medicine: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Treatment Strategies and Performance Factors
- The Journal of Physiology: Muscle Damage From Eccentric Exercise: Mechanism, Mechanical Signs, Adaptation and Clinical Applications
- University of California: Muscle Physiology: Types of Contractions
- UNM Exercise Research: DOMS
- Women's Health: Why You're MORE Sore Later