Delayed onset muscle soreness, commonly referred to as DOMS, is that unpleasant side effect that you usually feel after a new or intense workout where your muscles start to feel sore and stiff. It’s annoying, and it can range from mild discomfort to a point where you don’t even want to get out of bed the next day, let alone workout. This affects beginners a lot since they’re not used to working out their muscles, but it’s also pretty common among those who are more advanced and are working out to build muscle or resistance since they’re always changing up their workout routine to make it more challenging.
You may think that muscle soreness is the price to pay in order to have your ideal body and fitness level - and it sure is worth it - but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make it easier or even prevent it in the first place! We have all of the info that you need right here, but first, let’s talk a little bit more about DOMS and what actually causes it in order to better understand it.
What causes DOMS?
To put it simply: Delayed onset muscle soreness is your body’s (completely normal) inflammatory response to the breakdown of muscle. When you’re exercising, your muscles are working very hard to help you get your workout done, and this effort causes your muscle tissue to take damage, usually in the form of microtears to your muscle fibers. Your body naturally begins the muscle repair process by triggering inflammation around the injured areas, which is why your muscles start feeling sore and tight around 12 to 24 hours after your workout, usually peaking at around 48 hours. And if this process sounds a bit too familiar, it’s because that’s the exact same thing that’s behind muscle building! In order to build muscle, you need to break down your existing muscle in order to repair and basically build new, stronger muscle tissue on top.
So, DOMS sounds like it’s a good sign right? It’s just the result of your muscles working hard and getting stronger. Well, not always! While muscle soreness is indeed a sign that you’re making progress, which is inherently a positive thing, being in too much pain after a workout can be widely counterproductive. This would mean that you’ve done a lot of damage to your muscle tissue, which may need some time to get properly repaired, so if you’re working out constantly you’re not letting your body do that job for you and you can end up straining your muscles or injuring yourself. Severe muscle soreness can also cause you to skip workouts if you’re not feeling your best at the time of your exercise, and while getting proper rest is always ideal, repeatedly skipping your workouts due to muscle pain or soreness will not take you anywhere.
Feeling very sore after a new workout or after you’ve made a significant change to improve your routine is perfectly normal, but your body gets adapted to your regular routine after a while, so muscle soreness should not be a recurring issue unless you’re increasing your workout intensity very often, which isn’t ideal. If you find yourself dealing with DOMS constantly, you need to review your routine and make the necessary changes in order to work out at a level that’s comfortable for your body without overworking it.
How can you ease muscle soreness after a workout?
You’ve finished an intense workout, and the (literal) damage is done. You’re feeling great and pumped right now, but you know you’ll start feeling sore and stiff very soon, so what can you do to ease that upcoming muscle pain? Here are a few ways to get through it:
Don’t stop moving
OK, we know how this sounds, but a big part of good muscle recovery and soreness relief is staying active. Engaging and moving your muscles will increase your blood circulation, which in turn speeds up the muscle repair process that your body goes through by carrying oxygen and nutrients over to your damaged muscles more quickly. If you just lay in bed all day after a demanding workout, that repair process will take longer, and you will feel the soreness and stiffness more intensely. You don’t need to have a full workout for this to work, since that could actually tear your muscles even more, just try to engage in active recovery like walking or practicing flexibility exercises in order to get your blood flow going!
Apply heat and cold therapy
Both heat and cold therapy can help you relieve your soreness after a workout! On one hand, heat therapy can help reduce the tension and pain that you feel in your muscles, while cold therapy helps reduce the swelling and nerve activity around the damaged areas, which in turn also reduces the pain. So, it’s really up to you! You can take a warm bath or wrap a warm towel around your sore muscles, or grab a couple of ice packs and put them on your body. Ice baths may not sound like a fun idea to some people, but if that’s something that works for you then go ahead! Just pick your favorite kind of therapy and go with it, your body will thank you for it.
Try the foam roll method
Foam rolling is one of the preferred methods for DOMS relief since it’s very easy to do and it feels really good! All you have to do is get a foam roller (a lacrosse ball also works) and roll your muscles with it like you’re making bread, preferably by getting on top of the foam roller and rolling your body over it in order to increase the pressure with your body weight. This method is called self-myofascial release, and it helps release tension and increase the flexibility and range of motion of your muscles and connective tissue after a workout. Similar to active recovery days, foam rolling also helps increase blood flow, speeding up your recovery process by bringing oxygen and nutrients over to the damaged muscles. It’s basically a form of self-massage that you can do after your workout for about 10 or 15 minutes, or even later in the day when you feel like your muscles could use a little bit of tension release!
Get a massage
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Foam rolling is great because you can do it yourself, but getting a nice massage from someone else is truly a restoring experience. It follows the same logic as foam rolling since it helps relieve the tension from your muscles and speeds up the recovery process by improving your circulation. Not to mention that it feels great! But of course, going to a massage place every time may not be the ideal move, but it’s a great option from time to time, especially when you feel like your muscles have been working really hard lately. So you could treat yourself to a nice massage in order to fight off a bad DOMS day, or you could ask your partner or workout buddy to help you out with that!
Focus on different muscles the day after
If the next day is also a workout day, make sure to focus on different muscles than before! This is because your sore muscles need to rest properly, so working out the same muscles constantly will only hinder your progress and make you feel sore more often. A great way to deal with this in order to ensure that your muscles can recover properly and avoid overworking them is by splitting your workouts. Training splits allow you to focus on a specific set of muscles each day, like doing upper and lower body days, in order to let your muscles rest properly in between workouts. Implementing a training split for your routine can help reduce your overall soreness since you’ll be able to rest properly right after.
These are just a few ways to ease muscle soreness after a workout, but there are a few other things that may be helpful, like using topical analgesics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen) to relieve the pain. Adding Epsom salt to your warm or cold bath may also help reduce the swelling!
Ways to prevent DOMS in the future
If you’ve already experienced muscle soreness before, then you know it’s no fun at all, especially when you’re working out towards a specific goal and you feel like the pain is keeping you from progressing. But don’t worry, here are a few things that you can do to help prevent DOMS in your next workout:
- Drink lots of water
It may sound obvious, but drinking water and staying properly hydrated is key in order to stay healthy - and that includes muscle recovery! Drinking water keeps your body fluids moving through your system, helping to ease inflammation, transport nutrients to your muscle tissues, and dispose of waste products and toxins that are associated with muscle soreness. Although further research is needed, dehydration has been linked to an increase in muscle microdamage during an intense workout.  Even if you’re not experiencing DOMS at the moment because your body is already used to your usual routine, staying hydrated is essential in order to restore the electrolytes that are lost through sweat and that your body needs to stay in tip-top shape, so don’t forget to hydrate your body!
- Take it slow
This one is a given. As we mentioned earlier, muscle soreness is the side effect of working your muscles too hard, either because you’re new to the exercise or because you’re doing a tough workout. Easing into any kind of athletic training or physical activity is key in order to get your body used to it and really make progress, but if you jump head-first into a really intense or demanding exercise that your body is not ready for yet, you’ll experience DOMS - and possibly a painful one. So try to take it one step at a time, at a level that you know you can handle, and with lighter weights at first if you’re going to be lifting in order to build up your strength and resistance. With time, you can start gradually increasing the intensity and adding more exercises to your routine. You’ll probably experience muscle soreness at first, but if you’re doing it right, the pain shouldn’t be unbearable and you’ll be able to get used to the new movements in no time!
- Warm up and cool down properly
Doing a good warm-up before you exercise and then cooling down immediately after is one of the best ways to avoid feeling sore later in the day, or the day after. Warming up is crucial because your muscles are usually in a resting state before going into your workout, so you need to ease them into it by performing light stretching and mimicking the movements that you’re going to be doing in your workout in order to prevent future soreness and possible injuries. Cooling down post-exercise, on the other hand, helps your muscles get back to that initial resting state slowly but surely. Stopping on your tracks after a workout leaves you with a lot of tension in your muscles, which adds to muscle soreness later on. So make sure to properly warm up and cool down before and after your workouts!
So there you have it! DOMS can be an annoyance, but if you take care of your body properly you’ll have an easier time going through it, and you’ll even be able to prevent it. Just make sure to follow our tips to have a good experience next time, and don’t forget to take it easy with your workout routine. But keep in mind that if you experience muscle soreness constantly even after reducing the intensity of your workouts or you experience severe swelling after exercising then you should seek medical advice - your wellness comes first!
And if you’re interested in splitting your workouts in order to really focus on each muscle group and give them enough time to rest in between workout days, try the Fit With Iulia app! Iulia plans goal-focused home and gym workouts with proper training splits to help you achieve the results that you’re looking for. You can try your first workout for free by downloading the Fit With Iulia app, going to Goals & Workouts, and trying the first workout for any goal - no subscription required!