Any type of activity can cause DOMS, especially if the exercise is strenuous or something to which your body isn’t accustomed. However, DOMS is most likely to occur after muscle-lengthening (or eccentric) movements such as lowering a dumbbell or running downhill.
For nearly a century, DOMS was widely attributed to the buildup of lactic acid in muscles. Today, lactic acid retains its reputation among some in the fitness world as a pain-causing waste product. But science has shown that to be a bum rap. Our muscles break down glucose into lactic acid (technically lactate), which is used as fuel. Lactate is removed from muscle within a few hours after exercise, so lactic acid can’t explain soreness that occurs a day or two later.
Instead, researchers now believe that the discomfort is due to the process by which the body repairs micro-tears in muscle caused by exercise. Soreness isn’t the only symptom; swelling, stiffness, tenderness and a reduction in strength and range of motion can also occur. When you do the same activity again, your DOMS will likely be milder — or won’t occur at all. And you’ll be stronger.
It’s generally fine to exercise with DOMS, though you may need to dial back the intensity or focus on areas not affected. Taking a day off to rest is OK, but don’t use DOMS as an excuse for an extended (or permanent) break from exercise.
In fact, physical activity may decrease your soreness, at least while you’re doing the activity. Other methods may provide some relief as well. Here’s the lowdown on three of them.
Heat and cold
Cold wraps were placed on both legs for 20 minutes. Heat wraps were left on subjects’ legs for eight hours to give adequate time for the heat to penetrate deeply into muscle. (The temperature — about 104 degrees Fahrenheit — was low enough so as not to burn the skin.) The verdict: Both heat and cold therapy reduced soreness, but cold — whether applied immediately after exercise or 24 hours later — was superior to heat.
Though scientists aren’t sure exactly why cold or heat might reduce DOMS, it is known that the two have opposite physiological effects: Cold constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow, while heat dilates vessels and increases flow. Based on this, some athletes alternate between cold and heat, which they claim creates a “pumping action” of constriction and dilation that removes waste products from muscles and brings in fresh blood. Known as contrast therapy, this approach typically involves spending one or two minutes in a cold bath followed by a warm bath, and then repeating the sequence multiple times.
Because studies have used different massage techniques, it’s unclear which methods are most effective. There’s also uncertainty about timing and duration, though in most of the studies that showed a benefit, massages were done two or three hours after exercise and lasted 20 to 30 minutes.
One possible downside of massage is the cost. But self-massage performed with a foam roller may be a relatively inexpensive alternative.
Tart cherry juice
Though the optimal dose is unknown, subjects in studies consumed the equivalent of about 100 cherries per day, which you can typically get in two cups of tart cherry juice or a smaller amount of concentrate. If you follow the regimen for multiple days, as was done in research, the extra calories and sugar can quickly add up. That may be a price for pain relief that you don’t want to pay.
The take-away is that while some methods touted for reducing soreness may provide a bit of relief, all have shortcomings and none is guaranteed to keep DOMS at bay. With or without these remedies, you’ll likely experience some degree of soreness after intense workouts. But don’t let this scare you off or stop you from continuing. Remind yourself that the soreness is only temporary, but the benefits of exercise, if you keep at it, are lasting.