The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends that you get 150 minutes of exercise each week. Simply going for a brisk walk each day can help you meet this goal, but the government also recommends weekly strength training. If you're just getting started, you'll likely experience some sore muscles and tightness after both walking and lifting. These changes are symptoms of a muscle injury known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
Know the Triggers of DOMS
Only certain types of movements — eccentric exercises — will trigger the symptoms of DOMS, according to a 2016 report in Frontiers in Physiology. In these exercises, the force applied and the resulting movement are in the opposite direction. For example, you push up as the bar moves down at the end of a leg-extension exercise. The fibers in the target muscle — the quadriceps — lengthen during such a movement.
Other type of movements — concentric exercises — don't trigger DOMS. The force applied and the resulting movement are in the same direction during these exercises. You push up as the bar moves up at the beginning of a leg-extension exercise. The fibers in the quadriceps muscle shorten during such a movement.
Isometric exercises also don't trigger DOMS. Technically, no work occurs in these exercises. A bodybuilder does this type of movement when they pose and flex. Without movement, the fibers of the target muscle stay the same length during these exercises.
Eccentric movements are more common during everyday exercise than you might think. Activities like running downhill, playing soccer and lifting weights make you extend your leg muscles. Thus, each of these exercises can make you sore after a workout.
Know the Symptoms of DOMS
You will notice many symptoms — as well as sore muscles — when DOMS kicks in, according to a 2016 review in the Journal of Physiological Sciences. You'll feel fatigued, and your legs will tighten up. Your flexibility, endurance and strength will shrink to their lowest levels.
Know the Timing of DOMS
Physical therapists distinguish DOMS from a muscle strain by the timing. Strains send an immediate pain sensation to your brain. In contrast, DOMS doesn't happen for a few hours, or even days.
You'll likely notice swelling in your legs a few hours after eccentric exercise, according a 2018 report in the journal Methods. That's because your body releases toxic chemicals within four hours of exercise. Fortunately, these chemicals begin disappearing on their own within 24 hours.
Evidence of muscle damage may stay in your legs for up to 80 days, according to a 2017 paper in Radiology. You, however, probably won't notice any negative effects after about a week. At that point, you will have restored your leg muscles and made them more resistant to injury.
Know the Causes of DOMS
You alter the physiology of your leg muscles during lower-body exercise. For example, the muscle lengthening needed to complete an eccentric movement causes some fibers to break. Doctors can see evidence of this change using ultrasound, according to the 2017 paper in Radiology.
Many people think that exercise causes tiny tears in your muscles. Yet the ultrasound recordings don't show any evidence of the alleged microscopic tears. Instead, there's a consistent swelling throughout the muscle and fascia.
This exercise-induced swelling doesn't cause the symptoms of DOMS. Toxic chemicals released from your altered lower-body muscles trigger an immune response. White blood cells accumulate in the space between your leg muscles. This change causes inflammation and pain.
Know the Effects of DOMS
The symptoms of DOMS will negatively affect lower-body performance, according to a 2015 article in the Journal of Athletic Training. In this study, DOMS decreased participants' jumping height and running speed. It also decreased their strength and agility.
Sore and stiff leg muscles also make you more vulnerable to disease and injury. Consider, for example, the relationship between the muscles surrounding your knees and the knee joints themselves. Under normal conditions, your hamstrings and quadriceps stabilize the knee joint. A hard day of hiking triggers DOMS and inflames these muscles. Swollen tissues are less functional and supportive. Thus, you have now increased your risk of getting a knee injury.
The effects of DOMS also spread, according to a 2018 report in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. This study showed that experimentally inducing DOMS in one leg affected the strength of the other leg. Such a finding confirms the important role that circulating immune chemicals like nerve growth factor play in mediating DOMS.
Know the Remedies for DOMS
The symptoms of DOMS are actually a natural process leading to adaptation and recovery. Thus, getting in shape gives you the best remedy for DOMS. Scientists call this phenomenon the repeated bout effect. A 2015 paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology nicely illustrates this phenomenon:
Sedentary subjects did two sessions of resistance exercises, separated by a week. These weightlifting sessions focused on the lower body, and the participants did aerobic tests 24 and 48 hours after each bout. Results indicated that a smaller DOMS response occurred after the second workout — but only for the resistance exercises. Thus, the fitness needed to prevent DOMS will vary based on the exercise type.
Researchers have put great effort into finding ways to duplicate the repeated bout effect without making people actually exercise. They have tested nutritional supplements, mechanical devices, toxic drugs and many other methods. Yet natural treatments have produced the best results for relieving sore and stiff legs after exercise.
Use Massage Therapy for DOMS
Massage provides many health benefits. For example, Thai massage will increase skin temperature and blood flow in your legs. These positive effects suggest that massage may help you prevent DOMS following lower-body exercise. A 2016 report in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy tested this hypothesis in ultramarathon runners.
Not surprisingly, 95 percent of ultramarathoners experience leg pain. This population, therefore, provides an excellent model to test the alleged effects of massage. Participants received 20 minutes of massage after running 100 miles. Compared to controls, getting treatment had a positive impact on soreness, fatigue and pain. Massage had an immediate effect on these measures, but it didn't produce any long-term benefits on lower-body performance.
Use Foam Rolling for DOMS
Symptoms of DOMS include tight muscles, so foam rolling may help you fight the sore and stiff legs associated with exercise. A study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise explored this possibility in fit adults.
The authors used an intense session of leg squats to induce DOMS. After this session, some subjects foam rolled their legs while others rested. Compared to the control group, participants in the treatment group had more athletic ability and less leg soreness. Electrographic tests showed that foam rolling worked by altering muscle physiology and not through a psychological process.
Use Gentle Stretching for DOMS
Many athletes use stretching to hasten recovery and prevent DOMS. Several authors, however, argue that stretching offers no benefits to runners. Yet finding the right stretching protocol might help you decrease the lower-body soreness caused by intense or novel exercise. A 2018 article in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism looked for the best stretching protocol to fight DOMS.
These researchers first induced DOMS in healthy adults using novel, eccentric exercises for the lower body. After these leg exercises, they randomly assigned the participants to one of three conditions: no stretching, low-intensity stretching and high-intensity stretching. The static stretching protocols used targeted the hip flexors, hamstrings and quadriceps.
The data indicated that only the low-intensity group showed decreased DOMS. The lack of improvement in the high-intensity stretching group may show that a stress response occurred. In fact, this group showed an increase in creatine kinase — a common symptom of DOMS. This biochemical response could have negated the positive effects of stretching found in the low-intensity group.
Be Aware of Your Limits
These results suggest that you should take a conservative approach to healing post-exercise muscle injury. This way, you can avoid contributing to the damage. It's also important to work with a health care professional, because all treatments can have unexpected consequences. A therapist, trainer or doctor can help you enjoy the many benefits of exercise.
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- Frontiers in Physiology: Moderate Load Eccentric Exercise
- Journal of Physiological Sciences: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Methods: Combining Single Molecule Counting With Bead-Based Multiplexing to Quantify Biological Inflammation Time Course Following Skeletal Muscle Injury
- Radiology: Imaging of Muscle Injuries in Sports Medicine
- Journal of Athletic Training: Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures
- Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology: Effect of Eccentric Exercise and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness on the Homologous Muscle of the Contralateral Limb
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: Repeated Bout Effect of Typical Lower Body Strength Training Sessions on Sub-Maximal Running Performance and Hormonal Response
- Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy: Randomized Controlled Trial of Massage and Pneumatic Compression for Ultramarathon Recovery
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool After an Intense Bout of Physical Activity
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism: Effects of Different Passive Static Stretching Intensities on Recovery From Unaccustomed Eccentric Exercise