Managing Muscle Soreness: Fact, Fiction & Recommendations
by Jake Gifford
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a phenomenon, described as muscle soreness which tends to be felt a day or two after high volume and/or high intensity movement.
To make it clear, DOMS is not a badge of honour and should never be the goal when you want to move your body. It isn’t the sign of a productive or enjoyable workout and I abject to the premise that some fitness professionals will go out of their way to induce it. There are many factors, which can affect DOMS, which include exercise history, age, genetics, and psychosocial factors so the idea that DOMS is a reflection of work ethic is unfounded.
As I’ve mentioned before, movement at any intensity is valid and something which you have the option of choosing, so if you’ve never experienced DOMS, do not feel like your sessions aren’t valid, because they are. That said, DOMS can often be a common occurrence for many active people and something many of us look to reduce or eliminate.
There are a variety of strategies and products out there which claim to minimise or eliminate the impact of DOMS, but which are actually worth your time and which aren’t all they’re hyped up to be?
Despite stretching being used frequently in a variety of physical activity settings and assumed to be an effective method of recovery, no evidence to suggest that stretching whether before or after physical activity reduces muscle soreness post exercise (1). This isn’t to say that stretching does not have its uses, for example dynamic stretching in particular may be part of a useful warm up to help gently bring the heart rate and increase readiness for movement itself.
2. Thermal Therapies
You might have commonly seen influencers on social media use cryotherapy chambers or similar strategies such as ice, ice baths, heat or a combination of both to enhance recovery.
Whilst some studies have demonstrated some effectiveness in the short term for some of these therapies, many of these studies are low quality and vary greatly in the method of application (temperature, frequency, duration) of such therapies on the reduction of DOMS (2–4).
We’re also unsure on the longer-term impact these therapies have on some responses to exercise. Another issue is that for some therapies such as cryotherapy there isn’t any evidence using women as participants so it’s difficult to determine whether there are differences in impact based on application.
This isn’t to negate the application of heat or ice on the treatment of injuries, and if you enjoy using them as part of your routine or personally find them beneficial then by all means go ahead. However currently there’s insufficient evidence to definitively suggest they promote recovery and muscle adaptations or provide appropriate guidelines for usage.
3. Physical Therapies
Again usage of strategies such as sports massage, acupuncture, self-massage tools and electrical current modalities such as TENS machines are common in the fitness and sporting worlds.
Whilst some studies have demonstrated some effectiveness in muscle recovery for strategies such as sports massage, the effects are highly variable amongst participants and the methods used vary greatly so it’s difficult to say what duration, technique and pressure is most effective.
Regarding the use of self-massage tools and electrical current modalities, the quality of evidence isn’t there to support the recommendation of them in supporting muscle recovery (5,6). I can appreciate that you might be thinking “it’s not looking good so far” and in reality the wide array of options out there aren’t appropriate enough for me to be recommending.
Beyond the obvious answers of ensuring adequate nutrition to support recovery and minimising sleep debt, I’ll pop a few considerations below in terms of supporting management, which you may or may not find useful.
Recommendations for reducing DOMS
Whilst it isn’t a miraculous method, utilising active recovery via light exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling with low resistance or gentle yoga has been found to be relatively effective, although it might largely be an analgesic effect for some as opposed to other participants (5).
I would recommend finding a duration and modality appropriate for you as there are still some inherent limitations. I also recognize that this isn’t feasible for a lot of people trying to build a more appropriate relationship with movement.
Recommendations for preemptively minimising DOMS
If you’re someone who designs their own workouts, starting out for the first time or making your return to exercise after a sabbatical, building up the volume and intensity steadily over the course of a few weeks is likely to minimise the likelihood of DOMS as you progress onto more intense workouts or programs. Movement isn’t about punishing your body, there are many options and you don’t need to jump in feet first for it to be worthwhile.
From what we know, the eccentric component of an exercise, where the muscles elongate under load, has a considerable effect on the occurrence of DOMS. Adjusting this early on when first starting or making a return to exercise is likely to help minimise the level of DOMS but not eliminate it. However, this isn’t always possible.
Monitoring your load and adjusting workouts as needed is an important consideration when minmising DOMS. With the complexities of life and the barriers which can often prevent us from utilising recovery strategies, it’s important to listen to your body too and don’t beat yourself up if you need to reduce the intensity, load or frequency. You don’t need to go all out and endure high intensity sessions every time you set foot in a gym or fitness space and finding what works for you and is enjoyable is key.
I understand the basic strategies of adequate nutrition, sleep and potentially using light movement (time, cost, ability, and opportunity permitting) are probably common knowledge to some, and some strategies that you may already be doing. However, these are the strategies I’d rather people focus on as opposed to spending money on approaches that we simply don’t know enough about to determine how effective they are and what’s the appropriate dosage.
One final caveat is that one of the biggest challenges with measuring the effectiveness of recovery strategies in reducing muscle soreness is that it’s actually quite difficult to objectively measure muscle soreness. Consequently, you’re likely to get highly varied experiences by those who use them particularly amongst varying populations, so I can appreciate that some people may anecdotally disagree with me regarding recovery.
So my best advice is to be cautious of claims from companies and influencers who uncritically promote these products, because there’s still much we don’t know, especially beyond a male demographic. I’d rather you focus on managing the intensity of your workouts appropriately and listening to your body, but ultimately find works for you.
And remember despite DOMS sometimes being a common occurrence, it isn’t a badge of honour or sign of a good workout. Moving at whatever intensity you’re capable of is perfectly valid.
- Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2011;(7). Available from: https://doi.org//10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3
- Costello JT, Baker PRA, Minett GM, Bieuzen F, Stewart IB, Bleakley C. Whole‐body cryotherapy (extreme cold air exposure) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2015;(9). Available from: https://doi.org//10.1002/14651858.CD010789.pub2
- Bleakley C, McDonough S, Gardner E, Baxter GD, Hopkins JT, Davison GW. Cold‐water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2012;(2). Available from: https://doi.org//10.1002/14651858.CD008262.pub2
- McGorm H, Roberts LA, Coombes JS, Peake JM. Turning Up the Heat: An Evaluation of the Evidence for Heating to Promote Exercise Recovery, Muscle Rehabilitation and Adaptation. Sport Med [Internet]. 2018;48(6):1311–28. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0876-6
- Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L. Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Med. New Zealand; 2003;33(2):145–64.
- Nelson N. Delayed onset muscle soreness: Is massage effective? J Bodyw Mov Ther [Internet]. Elsevier Ltd; 2013;17(4):475–82. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2013.03.002