This morning I woke up suffering from DOMS. You may be wondering why a health and wellness blog is writing about avoiding self-inflicted excess but the lesson in this case is not to moderate my consumption of expensive champagne but rather to reconsider my approach to exercise. Good pain, sweet pain or the more formally designated term Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) refers to sensations of stiffness, discomfort or pain that doesn’t come on immediately, but is felt for several days after exercise.
Some consider these sensations as essential. They don’t believe they have had a good enough workout unless this deep ache reassures them that they have taken it to the Max. Although these pains are not uncommon when starting a new workout, like the hangover, DOMS is a marker that not only did we reach our limit, we have overdone it.
Why do I feel muscle soreness after exercise?
Looking at DOMS from the cellular level provides insight into the cause of these sensations as they are markers that the intensity of your workout has been sufficient to destroy muscle cells. It is the process of myonecrosis (muscle death) that comes from tearing tissues which creates the irritation you feel. Fortunately, unless you have over done it, this localized tissue injury does not affect the entire muscle. This micro-trauma acts as a catalyst, telling your body that these muscles need to be rebuilt stronger to prevent future strains.
Rest builds strength
Creating a catalyst to build strength is the primary goal of exercise however it is not the exercise that builds the strength but rather whether you have provided sufficient time for recovery. It is important to shift your thinking to recognize that exercise causes weakness. During the process of myonecrosis you have fewer muscle cells to draw on and your strength is less, not more. During the DOMS period you are more prone to injury and the harder you have exercised the longer you are at risk.
Our knowledge that this initial period of weakness is followed by the rebuilding of the muscle is why most exercise programs are built on a day on, day off strategy. Providing you have not done too much damage, following this format will give your muscles sufficient time to repair before you expose them to the next catalyst – when we demand even more than we asked for the last time. The key is to repeat the exercise to keep getting stronger, but not until the DOMS is gone.
Although it is occasionally okay to experience DOMS in an exercise program I prefer to avoid it in therapy. I find the period of waiting for DOMS to abate slows your recovery as it can take days or weeks before your recovery allows us to apply the next catalyst. I also find that for some people the line can be too fine for avoiding injury if we select the maximum level to build strength. Working at a lower intensity still gets me what I want, and lowers your risk for set-backs.
This perspective is permeating the training world as even for athletes the presence of DOMS is now controversial. My exercise physiology text tells me that a good workout prevents DOMS, not causes it. In other words, you may get some soreness when you first start a program but the right exercises ultimately protect you from these symptoms.
How to build strength and avoid injury
To build strength and avoid DOMS I use the following guidelines:
- Begin by thinking about your current level of strength. How active have you been recently? What does your activity APP tell you about the number of steps you have been taking per day? This provides a baseline for the intensity of your program.
- If you are returning to exercise after an hiatus consider having a fitness assessment with a knowledgeable fitness professional. This should help you to select the initial level of demand.
- If you are returning to fitness after injury or have had difficulty avoiding injury when you exercise, then I recommend you work with a health professional who looks for underlying problems. Often injuries leave behind specific weakness, tightness and/or compensatory patterns which need to be corrected before you can successfully engage in a general fitness program.
- Tax your muscles at a level to create the catalyst to build strength but below the level of DOMS. As my colleague, John Gray referenced in his recent Blog you should increase your exercises by 5-10% to avoid re-injury. Working at a 4-6/10 effort level is another good rule which I find prevents over-strain.
- Use a higher repetition, lower load format. A good general rule is if you can’t do at least 8 reps, the exercise is too hard. If you can do over 25 – you are likely dogging it, go to the next level.
- Always build in recovery time. The harder you exercise the longer you need to recover. If you want to work out every day have more than one workout. A well-planned program will allow you to rest one set of muscles while you work out another.
Training for success
Right now I am rethinking my exercise strategy. As my DOMS recedes I know I dodged the bullet. I pushed to the Max but fortunately avoided injury. However I don’t plan to keep testing my luck even though I am still planning to go back to that killer Yoga class. Right now I am including some treatment with our registered massage therapists as research shows that this treatment hastens exercise recovery. I am starting to do a bit more work on my own. I plan to take some instruction from my physiotherapy colleague and Yoga instructor to improve my technique. This prep will help me to raise my strength and limit my exercise hangover.
 Your goal should be to average between 8-10,000 steps per day.