DOMS stands for ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ and is what its name suggests. A soreness in your muscles that comes on later after exposing your body to unfamiliar or intense exercise. For example, if you go for a 5km run after 3 years of no running, you will wake up sore the next day. Your body is not used to running and therefore needs time to adapt to this load.
DOMS is thought to be a temporary inflammation and damage to the muscle which most commonly comes on after eccentric exercise. Eccentric exercise is when load is put on the muscle as it is getting longer. For example, if you do a bicep curl fast on the way up and slow on the way down as the bicep gets longer, you are biasing the eccentric phase of the movement.
Is DOMS an indication of a good workout?
A common belief is, unless you are sore after a workout, you did not work hard enough. This is incorrect. DOMS is indicative of exposure to a load you are not used to. As you build your strength and become more consistent with working out, your body will pull up less sore. This does not mean you are not making ‘gains’, it means your body is getting better at adapting. If you are continuously pulling up really sore, this is actually an indication you are pushing too hard and this will over time increase your risk of injury. A gradual increase in load will reduce soreness and will provide sustainable improvements.
How do I improve DOMS?
DOMS will naturally reduce up to 72hours after onset. However, if you are looking to speed up recovery, there are many different recovery techniques that can help to reduce soreness and improve performance. There are numerous different techniques out there, however, not all are created equally. The techniques with good evidence include:
Foam rolling is a great technique that is cost effective and can be done in the comfort of your own home. This technique involves a cylindrical tube made of foam, which you roll on for a self-massage. Research shows that foam rolling immediately after and every 24hours post will reduce muscle soreness and improve performance (1). The best part is, you do not need to do it for very long, we recommend 45 seconds per muscle group. If you have tried foam rolling and find it too painful, check out our beginner rollers – they are made from a softer foam. Gentler on the muscles allowing you to tolerate the technique and reap the benefits. If you enjoy an intense release, we have a roller for you too, check out our performance rollers.
A compression garment is clothing often used in the athletic population which applies pressure (compression) to your muscles. A randomised controlled trial (high level research) was conducted and it was found that those who wore compression garments after eccentric exercise had significantly less muscle soreness and faster recovery in isometric strength (2). If you are an athlete or need to recover quickly, these can be a great option. However, in the general population, it can be an unnecessary cost.
Should I get in an ice bath?
There is some evidence that cold water immersion reduces muscle soreness, but there is also evidence that shows no effect. We must also consider that there is no current evidence that outlines how long, how cold or how safe the technique is. As a result, it is a very uncomfortable technique, so if you don’t enjoy it, you don’t need to do it. If you are going to do it, we recommend using contrast water therapy. This means you spend some time in an ice bath and then switch to a spa with warm water and move back and forth. There is some evidence that this type of water immersion shows an improvement in neuromuscular performance decrements 24hours after exercise (3).
Whilst we know DOMS will naturally improve on its own, in a busy lifestyle or intense training regime, improving performance and reducing DOMS in less than 72hours becomes important. As a result, based on the techniques discussed above, we recommend foam rolling as the most cost-effective method that can be completely wherever you go.
- Pearcey, G. E., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J. E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of athletic training, 50(1), 5-13.
- Kim, J., Kim, J., & Lee, J. (2017). Effect of compression garments on delayed-onset muscle soreness and blood inflammatory markers after eccentric exercise: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of exercise rehabilitation, 13(5), 541.
- Higgins, T. R., Greene, D. A., & Baker, M. K. (2017). Effects of cold water immersion and contrast water therapy for recovery from team sport: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(5), 1443-1460.