Don’t Let Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness Mess Up Your Plans To Get Into The Best Shape Ever.

If you’re dreading getting back to your workout routine because you know you’ll be sore again, there are some things you can do to diminish, and even prevent, the pain.

It’s the start of a new year and many people have resolved to get in shape – or back in shape – again.  The second week of January is when the fitness centers and Ys are flooded with new members, and former members returning from a hiatus.

So You’ve Resolved To Get In Better Shape (Or Back In Shape) . . . 

It’s exciting to set a goal at the start of a new year to get in better shape, lose weight, build some muscle mass, or train to compete in a five or 10K. Nothing can put a damper on that enthusiasm quicker than the pain that sets in the day after a rigorous workout.  In some cases the pain can be so serious you kick the fitness goal to the curb and take your seat back on the couch.

I have known people that were so sore after starting a workout program that they quit because it just wasn’t worth the pain.  Don’t let that be you. The pain that comes the day after a workout, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is both preventable and manageable if you do suffer from it.

Using weights that are too heavy or doing too many repetitions can cause DOMS.

Using weights that are too heavy or doing too many repetitions can cause DOMS.

What Causes DOMS?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness usually appears 12 to 24 hours after you work out and is a by-product of the microscopic damage to the muscle fibers that occurs when you exercise.  DOMS is often believed to be caused from a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles but, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, this is a myth.  “DOMS is a side effect of the repair process that develops in response to microscopic muscle damage.”

Exercises that are known to cause DOMS are strength training, walking down hills, jogging, step aerobics, body weight workouts, and jumping.  All of these activities require muscles to lengthen when force is applied and is called eccentric muscle action.  The severity of the pain is related to to the amount of force placed on the muscles.  The good news is that the post-workout pain reduces the chance of developing soreness from doing that same activity for weeks, maybe even months into the future.

Delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t have to damper your enthusiasm or keep you from the fulfilling the promise you’ve made to stick to an exercise program this year.  There are ways to prevent DOMS, and some simple, effective treatment options that will help if it does occur.


Whether you’re exercising for the first time in your life, coming back after few years, or getting ready for your first workout this year, don’t plan on picking up where you left off.  Start slow and ease yourself into the routine.

Start with a short (10 minute), low intensity program. Begin increasing the duration by a couple of minutes each time and gradually intensify your routine over the next few weeks or months.  Going from three -10 minute workouts a week for a month to four -15 minute workouts a week the next month is a good goal.

In a short amount of time you will be up to doing full-length, higher intensity workouts, minus the DOMS.  If you jump in too hard and too fast you risk suffering from serious post-workout pain and that can lead to defeat.

Tips For Easing DOMS

Sometimes post- exercise pain is unpreventable despite your best efforts to start out slow.  Even people that have been exercising on a regular basis experience DOMS.  Generally this occurs when we:

  • Do something different (ex. add new core work to the end of our cardio routine).
  • Increase the duration of the workout (ex. add mileage to our training runs to prepare for a race).
  • Work at a higher intensity (ex. increase the weight load when we decide we want to build muscle mass).
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There are some ways to ease the pain when it does occur:

  • Ice – Apply an ice pack to the affected area for no more than 20 minutes at a time, or take a dip in an ice bath.  One of my friends takes an ice bath  when she knows she’s going to be sore after running.  It’s something I’ve never been able to bring myself to do, but she swears by it.
  • Massage – A deep tissue massage can relieve the pain of DOMS and may help you feel normal again sooner.
  • Oral pain relief – Over the counter remedies like Advil and Ibuprofen contain an anti-inflammatory that can ease the pain.
  • Allow time for muscle recovery.  Wait at least 48 hours before you work out again. If you feel you have to do something, pick lower-intensity exercises or ones that use different muscle groups.
  • Foam Roller – Using a foam roller will reduce muscle soreness and possibly speed recovery.  You can purchase a foam roller from your local sports store or on-line for about $35.
  • A good warm-up before exercising and a cool-down that includes stretching afterwards should always be part of your routine. Stretching after exercising has not been proven to reduce muscle soreness, but it does make the muscles feel better and is worth a try even if there’s no science to back it up.

While none of these methods have been proven to speed recovery, they will help you feel better in the interim and that’s the most important thing when you’re hurting.

When To Call The Doctor

If you feel a sudden onset of pain during a workout – acute pain – you may have an injury which requires a much longer rest period and additional treatment.  Contact your doctor if you have any pain that is unbearable and/or lasts more than a couple of day.

You’ve Got All Year

If you’ve just started on your 2013 resolution to get in better shape and are struggling to walk up a flight of stairs or use your hair dryer because of DOMS, don’t depair.  Take a couple of days off and scale back the intensity of your next several workouts.  We all want to see dramatic results instantly, but that’s not realistic.  If you’re patient and pay attention to the cues that your body is giving you, you can be pain free and in the best shape of your life a year by this time next year!

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