I’m willing to bet that anyone reading this article has experienced muscle soreness in his or her life. Any time your muscles are placed under a new stress that they have not been prepared for, the result will be soreness.

For many years, the popular thought was that lactic acid was the cause of muscle soreness. We now know that this is not completely accurate. It is true that lactic acid does accumulate within the muscle when working at a high intensity. Too much will cause you to fatigue and prevent you from continuing to work at high intensities. However, after exercise is over, the lactic acid will be removed from the muscle tissue long before the actual soreness begins. So what is the explanation for that sore feeling you get the next couple of day?

DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)
DOMS is the main reason you’re slow to get out of bed the next day. Theodore Hough first described this phenomenon in 1902, stating that DOMS is “fundamentally the result of ruptures within the muscle.”

Don’t fret; it’s not as bad as it sounds. However, his statement still rings mostly true to this day. Research has found that eccentric muscle contractions cause tiny tears to the connective tissue and units of muscle known as myofilaments, which collectively make up a muscle fiber. It is this structural damage to the muscle that causes the pain and tenderness associated with DOMS.

Soreness usually starts around 24 hours after activity and peaks between 48 and 72 hours. From there, it usually dissipates and is gone completely 5 to 7 days after activity. The more strenuous the activity, the longer the soreness will last. You’re more likely to suffer from DOMS if you have taken a long break from exercise and are just getting started back, or, similarly, if you are engaging in physical activity for the first time.

The good news is that DOMS can be easily prevented. If you haven’t worked out in a while and want to get back into it, or are looking to start a particularly strenuous workout for the first time, it is imperative to remember that you can’t overdo it when you start exercising. It might feel great to spend an hour at the gym working up a nice sweat, but you will certainly regret it if you’ve doing nothing but be a couch potato for the weeks of months before.

In fact, extreme soreness is one reason that people are turned off from exercise, since they mistakenly believe that they will always feel like that after exercise. Soreness also limits your ability to perform exercise, thereby throwing you off your planned routine, which can also cause some to throw in the towel.

The key to preventing DOMS is to start slowly, and gradually work your way up to more intense, longer bouts of activity. Although you will still experience some soreness when starting to exercise, the intensity will be much less if you ease your way into it instead of jumping all the way in. As you progress, your body will adapt to the new demands placed upon it, and DOMS shouldn’t be an issue for as long as you maintain a regular routine of physical activity.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to cure DOMS, however there are some methods to alleviate the pain. Activities that increase bloodflow to the sore area such as massage, a hot bath, a trip to the sauna, or low-intensity exercise may help with the pain. Also, taking NSAIDs like Ibuprofen is a technique used by some, although there has yet to be definitive research that proves this works, and it is currently not a highly recommend method.

The bottom line on DOMS is simple: doing too much too fast will result in soreness and keep you on the shelf for a couple of days.  Easing back into exercise and gradually ramping up the intensity is the best way to go to ensure that your transition to an active lifestyle is an easy one.