Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can leave your training lacklustre or have you skipping the next gym session entirely. Which means poor results, in slower time. So how can you recover better?
Whether your goal is to lose body fat, increase lean mass, get stronger or improve power and movement patterns, you need to train. What’s more, you need to train hard enough (or smart enough) to push your body past its usual limits and create an adaption.
Pushing through a tough workout can often result in the side-effect of DOMS. This is the muscle tenderness that kicks in 24 hours to 48 hours after exercise, due to microscopic damage in the muscle fibres. It happens when you force those muscles to work harder than usual, or you recruit different muscle groups not targeted regularly.
The microtrauma causes inflammation, which triggers immune cells to go in and repair the damage. The recovery period is when muscles rebuild and become stronger, denser and more resilient. But the pain can also make us less likely to hit our next training session with the same enthusiasm.
Does DOMS mean you have increased lean muscle?
For Dr Shayne Fryia, an Exercise Physiologist and Chiropractor at Primal Function Health and Rehab in Canada, how quickly you recover from training comes down to genetic efficiencies, which vary from person to person.
‘It all depends on how efficiently your body can get rid of waste produced by exercise, and how good you are at flushing it out,’ he says.
‘It’s not necessarily a symbol of more perceived effort because each body can respond to it very differently.’
How to reduce DOMS and aid recovery
While there is no one proven formula to prevent DOMS, Dr Fryia says sleep and hydration are critical.
‘Muscles are made up of a high percentage of water, so even mild dehydration can make your DOMS worse,’ he says.
Nutrition is another consideration. Following an extremely low-carb diet could lead to greater DOMS. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise, as they are broken down into glucose for our body to draw upon for energy or store in our muscles for later use. So ditch the carbs completely, and you’ll likely struggle both during and after your workout.
The same goes for essential amino acids – think those found in fish, poultry, lentils, eggs, and legumes. The building blocks of protein, they’re required for the growth and repair of body tissues, including muscle. If you don’t eat a lot of protein, or you regularly train intensely, ‘…supplementing post-workout has also been shown to help enhance muscle protein recovery, which will help to speed repair,’ says Dr Fryia.
How much protein you need to consume depends on your intake throughout the day, your muscle mass and gender. Many experts suggest aiming for 25g to 30g of protein and 40g to 100g of carbs in your post-workout meal. But this depends on the length and intensity of your session.
Taking the time to recover adequately is also key.
‘Recovery is so important because it is the time where your body is adapting to what it has just performed and returning to a level at which you can then appropriately train again – adding a new stimulus,’ says Dr Jason Wersland, Chiropractor and Founder of Therabody.
‘Recovery can really be thought of as two separate phases: resting and not providing another stimulus too quickly, and using tools or behaviours that enhance the natural recovery processes occurring in the body.’
Therapies that can aid recovery
There are a growing number of techniques and products for reducing the severity and duration of DOMS, but their effectiveness isn’t guaranteed. ‘There’s as much supported scientific evidence to say these methods work, as there is evidence to say they don’t,’ says Dr Fryia. ‘But my advice to anyone would be: if you feel one of these methods works for you, then stick with it.’
There’s a reason you see elite athletes getting massaged by trainers post-match. Massage – be it by a therapist or using a self-massage tool – can be helpful for reducing DOMs and improving mobility (or ‘how much movement around a joint you can control,’ says Dr Wersland). This can lead to better performance and reduced risk of injury.
Dr Wersland, who developed the Theragun Percussive Therapy devices following an injury, says the secret to self-massage devices is increased blood flow and oxidation of muscles.
‘Blood flow is obviously one of the key ways in which the body delivers oxygen and nutrients to areas that are recovering from training. And percussive therapy is a unique modality as it allows you to target the areas that need it the most – personalising your approach to recovery,’ says Dr Wersland.
P.S. The latest Theragun was released earlier this year and has been Editor-tested. Quieter than its predecessor, it’s perfect for getting into all those tight and sore spots post-workout. We love. Check it out here.
Not for the faint of heart, some athletes swear by the circulation-boosting and inflammation-dampening benefits of immersing in an ice bath for 15 to 20 minutes post- workout. That said, a 2016 study out of the University of the Sunshine Coast concluded that its effectiveness depends on factors such as body fat, muscle mass and gender. Women tend to be more sensitive to cold during particular times in their cycle. Plus, someone with higher body fat and muscle mass percentages will probably need to be dunked longer to reap the benefits.
A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that when compression garments are worn after heavy exercise, they appear to reduce muscle soreness and promote faster muscle recovery. They work by constricting your muscles to decrease the swelling and inflammatory response when you work certain muscle groups hard. Considering it’s socially acceptable to be clothed when working out publicly anyway, the compression version may be worth a shot?
Foam rolling is an effective therapeutic modality because it’s all about myofascial release, which alleviates the tension in the muscle’s connective tissue. While it may feel sore mid-roll, it can help to decrease and relax tight muscles, and increase circulation. Many people foam roll before as well as after a workout, to help prepare the body to move.
Light activity, such as gentle yoga, walking, or biking, helps to increase circulation and blood flow (which carries oxygen to muscle tissues) and reduces stiffness. So, take an hour walk around your local park or coastline, or take part in a yoga sesh to reap the benefits.
Many people swear by the recovery and stress-relief benefits of saunas, particularly those that utilise far infrared radiation (FIR). Infrared saunas create waves of radiant heat that can penetrate deeper inside the body. While studies are only preliminary, infrared saunas have been shown to help reduce muscle soreness and pain in those experiencing diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. And to also aid the recovery of power athletes from a tough training cycle. Can’t get to a sauna due to COVID? These new at-home sauna blankets might be worth a purchase.