Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the feeling of pain and weakness that begins to set in after a person tries a new exercise for the first time. The symptoms of DOMS can begin to manifest hours after the exercise is carried out, becoming more noticeable the following day, and peaking about 48 hours later.
Despite the deterrent of the pain, most people recognise that it is a result of trying out a new exercise, and that their bodies will get used to it in time. But while those people understand the basic principle of DOMS, there are also many prevalent myths about the condition.
No Pain, No Gain
This motto may be a staple of gym life in general, but it is often applied to DOMS in particular. The belief here is that the pain and stiffness felt are a result of the fact that these muscles are being pushed for the first time, and that you just have to work through the pain.
The reality however is quite different. Although DOMS is not an unusual side-effect of working out muscle groups for the first time, it is not an indicator of a good workout, which many people seem to believe. Various factors, such as genetics or your existing fitness levels, play a role in how people experience DOMS, so it is not something that can be compared from one person to the next.
And while it is normal to experience pain and stiffness, you should be able to repeat the exercise after 3 days. Being unable to do so means you pushed yourself too far, and will need longer to recover.
Beginner’s (Bad) Luck
As stated above, your overall fitness levels can affect the extreme to which DOMS is felt. Even if you are working out a new muscle group for the first time, having strong, healthy muscles elsewhere can help alleviate the pressure on targeted area.
That being said, this has led to a situation where DOMS is seen as a problem that mainly affects beginners, but this is not the case. In reality, every individual has their own pain threshold and responds differently to pain, meaning an experienced athlete can still suffer a worse case of DOMS than a newcomer.
Lactic Acid Buildup
The burning sensation associated with a rigorous workout comes from an increase in the acidity of your cells, which comes as a result of your body metabolising nutrients for energy. Lactic acid is a byproduct produced by this process, but the fact that your cells are becoming more acidic while your body is also producing something with “acid” in its name has led people to incorrectly link the two.
In fact, lactic acid is not the cause of the increase in acidity, but actually slows it down, and will usually clear within an hour of the workout. This obviously means the so-called buildup of lactic acid is gone long before the symptoms of DOMS set in, and so cannot be held responsible.
The true cause of the pain and stiffness experienced comes from the tearing of the microfibres in the muscles, which then become inflamed. For all intents and purposes, the tearing of these microfibres is inevitable, you just need to avoid working too hard and causing too much tearing.
Massages are a popular form of both preparation and relief for many athletes, so it’s no surprise that they would be recommended as a way to alleviate DOMS. Massage has even made the headlines as a treatment for DOMS, with various stories claiming that its ability to detoxify or reduce inflammation can ease the pain.
But when the studies making these claims are examined, you find that they are unscientific, or have incredibly small sample sizes. The real scientific studies of the link between massage and easing DOMS suggests not only that massage is an ineffective treatment, but may actually exacerbate the problem.
When it comes to DOMS, there are a lot of myths and misinformed statements floating around the gym that will eventually make their way to you in the form of advice. The two main things you need to remember are that DOMS is a normal side-effect of starting a new workout, and that your experience with it will be unique.
When taking up a new exercise, always start off slowly, and try to underdo it, rather than overdo it. In time, you will learn to listen to your own body, and this will enable you to manage DOMS in the way that works best for you.