Everyone has experienced Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness (DoMS), but few know the causes or even what they are experiencing.
So you have finished a great arm workout the day before with a superset that really squeezed every last bit you had to give from your body. Your arms were sore and burning as if the entire muscle was being bitten on by an army of fire ants on that very last rep. This is caused by lactic acid buildup, which is a by-product of anaerobic respiration. In short, when your muscles cannot generate enough energy from aerobic respiration (producing energy from food and energy) alone, it activates a secondary process called anaerobic respiration which generates extra energy from food without needing oxygen, but also produces lactic acid. After a few minutes of rest however, you are able to move your arms again, and hours later in bed, you arms feel almost normal already.
The next day however, your arms are no longer part of your body: they feel gross, heavy, stiff, and dead. Conventionally, this is believed to be caused by the residual lactic acid in your muscles as the pain is so similar to what you experience right after a workout set. However, this has been proven to be false and has instead been shown to be caused by microscopic tears in your muscles.
Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness
Also known as “Muscle Fever”, DoMS is the deep, prolonged soreness you start experiencing 6-8 hours after a workout, peaks at around 48 hours, and lasts for up to 72 hours. This is distinct from the lactic acid ‘ burn’ you feel during workout, which is caused by hypoxia(low oxygen levels) and lasts only a few minutes.
DoMS is caused by microscopic tears in your muscle – aptly called microtears – accumulated during your workout.
DoMS and Muscle-building
During high intensity workouts like weightlifting, the mechanical tension causes microtears on that muscle group, a form of muscle damage. The most microtears are induced during the eccentric phase of movement – or controlled elongation – like lowering the barbell to your chest during a bench press.
Post-workout, your body repairs this damage by sending protein and other nutrients to build new muscle cells over these tears. The repair isn’t perfect however, and becomes like a scarring effect. As a result, your muscle accumulates more cells and grows bigger, becoming stronger. Remember getting that contusion from a fall and have a scar form over it later? The same thing is happening in your muscles during workouts, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Whenever your body experiences damage or injury, toxic radicals released by damaged cells induce inflammation – specifically 3 effects:
- Arterioles supplying blood and nutrients to the damaged region dilate, resulting in increased blood flow
- The capillaries become more permeable, so fluid and blood proteins can move into spaces between cells
- Immunity agents also move into the spaces between cells
In short, more blood and fluid is supplied to the area, carrying with nutrients with it to kickstart your recovery and build muscle. This is manifested as a swollen ankle or a heavy and swollen muscle. In other words, inflammation is NECESSARY to build muscle by producing new tissues over microtears induced by workouts.
How does DoMS fit into all of this? DoMS is strongly correlated to the degree of inflammation in your muscle tissues. This means when you workout harder, your muscles accumulate more microtears, gets more inflammed, stimulates more muscle growth, but also gives you a worse ache the next day. The graph below illustrates the relationship between soreness (DoMS) and inflammation:
But is there a way to experience muscle gains without the accompanying soreness?
How Do I Alleviate DoMS?
There are a few things you can do to reduce the intensity and duration of DoMS:
Take Adequate and Proper Nutrition
You are what you eat.
You muscles are built from the raw materials you feed it. Not taking enough food or taking the wrong food will not supply enough building blocks to heal those tears and will prolong your recovery process, leaving you aching for longer. In addition, you are likely not to gain as much muscle, or even lose some.
Avoid calorie-loaded but nutrient-deficient food like fried food, sugary sweets and drinks, processed meat etc. Calorie-rich foods contain a lot of energy and keeps you full longer, but its lack of nutrients – especially protein – will hamper muscle recovery. The result is that you take in even less food into your already protein-deficient body. Without protein and other nutrients to heal the microtears, the inflammation continues and you remain sore. They will also leave you wondering why your workout isn’t making you any leaner nor more muscular.
Do take in foods rich in protein, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fat: lean meats like chicken breast, dark coloured berries like blueberries, and fatty fruit and fish like avocadoes and salmon are great examples.
Protein is a major component of new muscle cells and hence your microtears can only start healing with enough protein supplied to the muscles. Protein is used to build contractile filaments in muscles called actin and myosin, which are the source of contractions in muscles, but is also the causes of inflexibility. Egg protein is one of the cheapest and most easily absorbed natural protein sources you can find.
Antioxidants are important in removing the free radicals that are causing the inflammation and ache in the first place.
Omega-3 fatty acids boost anti-inflammatory activity in the body, again reducing DoMS. They also bring a whole host of health benefits: preventing coronary heart disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia among others. I make it a point to make salmon or tuna a part of my meal at least 4 times a week.
Proper nutrition throughout the day is more important than your protein shake or whatever gimmicky health food you are consuming to meet your fitness goals. Think about it – a protein shake gives you about 25g of protein. Based 2.2g of protein per pound of body weight for bodybuilders, an average person weighing 70kg will be consuming up to 165g of protein a day. That means your protein shake constitutes just above 15% of your daily nutrition – not the biggest factor influencing your recovery.
Drink Plenty of Water
Water plays important roles in the process of muscle building, and makes up about 80% of your muscle cells by mass. How can you build muscle without this vital ingredient? A good rule for physically active people is about 43 mL/kg of water a day.
What’s more, water may actually help you look better. Personally, I take 3.5L of plain water (excluding coffee/tea/juices) at 75kg body weight rationed throughout the day.
If you don’t know how much to drink, ask MyoTrigger’s Water Walter for a recommendation!
Get More Than ‘Enough’ Sleep
Contrary to what you might think, muscle growth doesn’t take place in the gym. Most of your muscle gains are made during sleep.
Sleep is the time when our body recovers from the day’s damages, chemically and physically. Heard of the infamous Human Growth Hormone (HGH) that professional bodybuilders use as a steroid? HGH is actually naturally produced in our body and most of it is produced during sleep. HGH is the primary hormone that stimulates growth, whether in adolescents’ growth spurts or in synthesising new muscle. So yes, by sleeping more, you are in effect naturally ‘doping’, which is perfectly healthy. What’s more, adequate sleep actually boosts metabolism and burns fat. If you are physically active, you should sleep more than the minimum 7 hours as you have more to recover from. I make it a personal goal to get 8 hours of sleep a day, although I always fall short. Professional athletes can sleep up to 10 hours a day.
The quality, not just the quantity, of sleep matters as well. HGH is secreted during Stage 3 of the sleep cycle. This is the deepest part of your sleep and it takes about 45 minutes to get here. That means getting awakened every 10 minutes will not do much for your recovery. Studies have also found people who do not follow the usual sleep pattern to produce less HGH even if they sleep the same amount of time e.g people working night shifts. This is due to our biological body clock called the Circadian rhythm, which cannot be entirely recalibrated.
In short, sleep enough, sleep well, and keep to a proper bedtime to relieve that pesky DoMS!
Foam rolling is a revolutionary new method of recovering from workouts and preventing injury, among numerous other benefits. Also termed “self-myofascial release”, it is a method of self massage that uses your bodyweight imitate a deep tissue massage. Foam rolling loosens muscle knots, improves flexibility, and increases circulation to improve posture, prevent injury, and boost recovery. This is achieved through applying pressure on “trigger points” in your muscle and on the fascial layer around your muscles.
When foam rolling, the foam roller is forcing nutrient-depleted blood out of your muscles to allow nutrient-rich blood to enter it and boost recovery. Think of it like a pump. This improves its access to muscle building blocks such as protein, boosting muscle growth and reducing DoMS.
In addition, your muscles accumulate permanently contracted fibres while exercising called muscle knots that does not go away with stretching – this is why foam rolling is recommended over stretching if you are short of time. Muscle knots inhibit blood flow to the area and slow recovery A good foam roller will apply the right pressure to these muscle knots and cause them to relax, resuming normal flow of blood, aiding recovery and reducing muscle soreness. Releasing these trigger points also increases your range of motion and prevents injury.
It is recommended that you foam roll to increase circulation in your muscles as a warm-up before workouts, and also to release the muscle tension as a cool-down after workouts. Stretching should be done after the post-workout foam rolling. If you have no time, opt for the foam roller instead of your hamstring stretch as both increase flexibility and helps you cool-down properly, but stretching is unable to target muscle knots like a foam roller does.
Foam rolling works – even elite NBA athletes like Lebron James and Tony Parker are starting to foam roll in order to preserve their prized bodies and keep them in optimum condition. With a 82-game season over a year, the last thing these athletes need is muscle soreness from a workout during an important game.
However, foam rolling is not just for the physically active, even people working at a desk job will benefit greatly from one too. If you are wondering how to start foam rolling, check out our guide on how to foam roll your lower body!
That said, there are many types of foam rollers, and each person will need a different one depending on their lifestyle. In fact, different body parts will require different foam rollers that apply pressure differently for you to reap maximum benefits. The best foam rollers are made of high-density, closed-cell EVA foam that is supremely durable, provides the right firmness, and waterproof.
If you are unsure which foam roller you should get, ask FoamFinder Fred – he will recommend a roller best suited to your lifestyle!
Post-workout Protein Shake
While not the most important, a protein shake also plays a significant role in preventing DoMS and boosting muscle gains. Try to take this with a small portion of sugary fruit like an orange.
At then end of a workout, your muscles are depleted and in a catabolic state (breaking down tissue to provide energy). Whey protein is specifically pre-digested and engineered to be fast absorbing and will provide a nutrient boost to your muscles when consumed right after a workout. The surge in protein and sugar will provide energy and signal for your body to go into an anabolic state instead, whereby it starts repairing damage and building your muscles. Earlier recovery means less soreness!
Just like EVA foam is the king of foam rollers, whey protein is the king of protein sources. It has the highest Biological Value (BV) at 104, which means that the highest percentage of ingested protein is absorbed by your body from why. Compare this to egg, which has a BV of 100, and chicken breast, with a BV of 79. This means that if you eat 100 g of protein from whey, egg, and chicken, your body absorbs most of the 100 g protein in whey, followed by egg, and then chicken. It is also low in calories, meaning that it will help you build muscle while staying lean.
A good whey protein supplement is more than 75% protein by mass, contains almost no carbohydrates, and is usually called a “hydrolysed whey isolate” or “whey concentrate”.
Try out this one secret trick I use to further reduce DoMS after workouts: add cinnamon powder into your protein shake. Not only does cinnamon have anti-inflammatory properties, it adds a whole new exotic flavour to your protein shake too! Check out our article on other foods you should eat to reduce DoMS.
While your first instinct while sore and stiff is to lay in bed or sit in a chair all day, this actually hampers your recovery.
Because the veins (carrying blood from the muscle to the heart) has a much lower pressure gradient than in arteries (carrying blood from heart to muscles), blood does not flow in veins by itself like it does in arteries. Instead they rely on contractions of the muscle to provide the pressure to push the blood.
Lying in bed or not moving all day inhibits circulation and keeps nutrient depleted blood in your muscles and less fresh, nutrient-rich blood reaches them.
While recovering from DoMS, there is no need for strenuous activity, but taking a short walk frequently throughout the day is vital to speeding up recovery. Just like foam rolling, it improves your circulation to help your muscles heal faster.