Your Exercise Specialist is human.
Like many of my fellow Montanans, I was beginning to feel like I was living somewhere more like Seattle or Portland, after weeks upon weeks of rain and gloom. To make matters worse, it seemed the cycles of rainy stationary fronts would always arrive right around the beginning of the weekend and then park it.
So finally, on a mid-June weekend, when my phone’s weather app called for clearing skies on a Sunday afternoon, I bolted toward the Bridgers for some alpine hiking. I ended up going to one of my favorite trails, Middle Cottonwood, and on up to the summit of Saddle Peak. I did a bit of mixed hiking and trail running on the way up, and after a delicious PB&J on the summit, decided that I would run down.
It was a fun, lovely run through wildflower meadows and riparian forest, but I knew with a couple of miles to go my legs were going to be smoked. A couple of days afterward, I was barely getting down stairs, and my quads remained angry with me for a couple of days after that as well.
I exercise regularly, I consider myself to be in pretty good shape right now, especially aerobically, but the truth is that my legs were not accustomed to nearly five miles of descending trail.
The result? The dreaded Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. Most of us have experienced DOMS at one time or another. It usually occurs after a particularly heavy bout of exercise that we are not accustomed to. That’s the key—even highly trained athletes are not immune if they do something intense and out of the realm of their usual routine. Typically, the delay in delayed-onset-muscle-soreness is 24-48 hours after the exercise bout that causes the damage.
Another detail associated with DOMS, and why my case was particularly rough, is eccentric muscle contractions. Eccentric contractions happen when your muscles lengthen under load—think of putting down a heavy load, or in my case, hitting the brakes a bit each step while running down a mountain. Eccentric muscle contractions are a natural element of muscle function and movement, but an excess amount of them can easily lead to a painful case of DOMS.
Traditional thought blamed microscopic tears in the muscle fibers for the pain and soreness associated with DOMS, but lately, science is not so sure. In fact, the latest research is inconclusive about the mechanism that causes DOMS pain. Worse, there isn’t much solid evidence that any recovery modalities actually speed up the process. In other words, once the muscle soreness has set-in, there’s not much to do except hurry up and wait.
Sorry I don’t have better news, but a little knowledge can help you better cope with DOMS, or perhaps prevent it in the first place. So, to wrap up, here are a few key takeaways:
- Although science hasn’t agreed on what happens on the cellular level that causes the DOMS response, we do know that DOMS is incurred after intense exercise that an individual isn’t used to, and eccentric muscle contractions tend to lead to DOMS faster. So, if you’re doing something you haven’t done in a while (or ever), take it easy. Or, in my case, if it’s your first alpine hike of the season, perhaps walking down would been wiser.
- Know that in most instances, the peak of pain occurs around 24-48 hours after the bout of exercise. This too shall pass.
- Here’s that good news we were looking for—if you repeat similar exercise after your muscles have healed, you should not be as sore the next time, or the next, and so on. Therefore, don’t let a bout of DOMS deter you from consistently exercising, or convince you to give up an new exercise program you have just started!
- Some studies have suggested a link between Vitamin D and/or sleep deficiencies and occurrence/severity of DOMS. [Cristin, feel free to drop some Vitamin D knowledge and enlighten us.]
- Although there really haven’t been any scientifically validated studies that link certain recovery methods to relieving DOMS, that shouldn’t necessarily deter you from utilizing some of your favorites. After all, the brain is a powerful thing, and we’re all different and respond differently to certain recovery modalities. That being said, if you’re going through DOMS, or any muscular soreness or stiffness for that matter, things like stretching, massage, foam rolling, compression, elevation, a warm bath, and staying hydrated never hurt.