Ahhh, the first day of crew practice every spring: whizzing through burpees, running a quick mile, pushing off of the dock, and rowing up and down the lake I grew up on. I always loved the first day of practice. And I always dreaded the second.
I’d come home, eat early, and go to bed, and the next day I’d wake up gingerly, hoping I could walk to bathroom without pain. Fat chance. I was usually in so much pain that it actually hurt to raise my cereal spoon to my mouth. Welcome to delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.
What is DOMS?
When you exercise in a way your body isn’t used to, you put stress on the muscle groups you’re using. Microtears happen as the body tries to keep up with the new demands. For the rest of the day you likely feel fine, if perhaps a little tired from the exertion. But at some point during the next 24 to 72 hours that soreness will peak, and your muscles will be squawking at you if you use them. They can even be tender to the touch.
Here’s the cool thing: your body adapts very quickly to the new load placed on it. If you do an overly aggressive workout, your body will immediately begin building new muscle fibers to meet the demand. This is called “repeated-bout effect.” By the end of my first week of crew practice, I was doing more burpees, running faster, and rowing farther, but I wasn’t sore anymore. Your body adapts that fast.
Cause of Muscle Stiffness: Eccentric Work
I did not know this little factoid! According to wikipedia, eccentric muscle work is what causes the microtears. Your muscles move in two ways: concentric and eccentric. Concentric is the act of contracting the muscle, so if you’re doing a bicep curl, it’s the act of pulling a weight in your hand from your hip to your shoulder by bending your elbow. Eccentric work is the exact opposite; it’s the act of resisting the fall of the weight as it returns from the shoulder to the hip.
What to Do For Muscle Aches
It might seem like the worst thing to do, but light to moderate workouts can help alleviate the pain of DOMS. Studies show that ice has been effective for some people, but not for others. Heat does seem to be the most consistently effective treatment, such as a hot bath or sauna, and I swear by a nice healing massage. Basically you’ll need to experiment with what works best for you.
By the way, working out those same muscles again does NOT delay healing; you can work out with sore muscles. Keep in mind that if you did damage to yourself worse than DOMS (say a muscle sprain), then you’d want to check with a doctor for when it’s best to work out again.
DOMS is Different for Everyone
I actually don’t suffer my worst pain 24 hours later like most people do. I am a 48-hour DOMS gal. I know if I wake up sore a day after my workout, I’m going to be a mess the very next day. So I take extra showers, as hot as I can stand, to try and head off as much soreness as possible. I’ll also do some light stretching and move as much as I can. I never push back a workout though; I just keep chugging, and even if I’m still sore, I find I’m already a little bit stronger.
That’s the basics of DOMS. It can be avoided by progressing at small, incremental segments of either increasing weight or increasing reps. Sometimes, like with crew practice, that’s not possible. But know that if it happens to you, it’s not the end of the world, and you shouldn’t stop the new activity that you just tried. Instead, you should embrace it, knowing that you’ve challenged your body in a way that will make it much stronger.
Related post: “Traumeel for Muscle Pain Relief”
photo credit: Jon Tunnell