Marks Daily Apple
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9 Mar

How to Relieve Sore Muscles

Dear Mark,

Been eating primal for a few months now, loving it, but I just started doing some workouts and the soreness that comes a day or two later is just killing me. Does it get better? Maybe I’m doing them wrong?


Thanks, Jill, for the question. It’s a subject that, had you not mentioned it, might never have popped up. What you’re describing is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it’s completely normal – especially for people just getting started exercising. The symptoms include muscle tenderness, soreness, weakness, and even swelling. As you’ve noticed, DOMS usually manifests a day or two after a particularly strenuous workout. It afflicts millions of people, from weekend warriors to hard-core athletes. Some dread it; others relish the feeling for days as proof that they’re making progress. But despite its ubiquity, science still hasn’t been able to nail down the precise cause of DOMS.

That hasn’t stopped several popular theories from circulating. You’ve probably heard about a few of them in the weight room.

One is that lactic acid is to blame. Lactic acid is what causes the “burn” during a workout, so it might sound natural and perfectly believable that lingering lactic acid is what causes DOMS, but it’s not. For one, the intense lactic “burn” feels nothing like DOMS, which is a duller type of pain. Two, lactic acid concentrations return to pre-workout levels within 60 minutes of working out, while DOMS occurs days later. Lactic acid has nothing to do with DOMS.

Another popular notion is that DOMS occurs because intense exercise breaks down your muscle fibers: you tear the muscle fibers apart with resistance training and they respond by coming back stronger than ever. The pain, then, comes with breaking down and rebuilding muscle fibers. Either that or it’s inflammation. Or it’s increased pressure on your nerves as a result of expanding muscle. There are a ton of possibilities thrown out there, and they all sound vaguely plausible, but the science is still murky. Whatever the cause, we do know that it can’t be neatly explained by a single factor. This article approaches DOMS by examining various research studies in an attempt to figure out the mystery, but the basic conclusion seems to be “DOMS simply is” (as if Descartes were a sports medicine physician).

It has been firmly established that a certain type of exercise – eccentric contraction – is more likely to cause DOMS. Eccentric contractions include walking downstairs, running downhill, and negative movements when weight training (lowering weights in a controlled motion, as opposed to letting gravity take over). I suppose eliminating as many eccentric contractions from your workouts as possible might reduce DOMS, but you’d be losing a major aspect of total strength building. It’d also be completely unfeasible, unless you plan on starting all your squats from the lowered position or somehow constructing a bench press rack that allows you to start each rep from your chest. No, negative movements are just as (possibly more) important, and it’s better and healthier to simply accept DOMS. You don’t have to like it, but you have to understand that it’s a normal part of working out.

That said, it might be possible to mitigate the intensity of DOMS. No silver bullets, of course, but there are methods that some people swear by.

  1. Time – Sometimes, you just need to give it time. The severest cases of DOMS shouldn’t last longer than 3-4 days. Most will subside after 1-2.
  2. Stretching – Stretching is just a good general policy already, and although the research doesn’t support it as a valid treatment for DOMS, stretching might at least make you feel better.
  3. Massage – It might not improve the function of DOMS-impaired muscles, but it does seem to help with the actual soreness.
  4. Ice Baths – Though there’s no clinical support, some people report an ice-water soak after a workout helps reduce incidence of DOMS.
  5. Anti-Inflammatories – Try ibuprofen or a chemical equivalent. Better yet try these 10 natural ways to reduce inflammation. They might reduce the pain, but – like with massage – your strength will still be impaired.
  6. Exercise – Warming up before your workout is always a good idea. Afterward, beset by DOMS, light exercise can “train” your body to work through the pain. Don’t work through any particularly severe DOMS, but it’s safe to get back on the wagon on the tail end of the soreness. Eventually, you should stop getting it altogether.

Remember – DOMS is different from a pulled or torn muscle, or a strained joint. As animals with pretty complex nervous systems, we should be able to instinctively tell the difference. DOMS shouldn’t be sharp and biting, and it shouldn’t affect the joints.

Above all, I consider DOMS to be a crucial step in the adaptive process. Not everyone gets it, but if you do you can rest assured you’re doing something right. I know from personal experience that introducing a completely new exercise into my routine or making a substantial jump in weight or intensity can induce DOMS. So for a beginner, like you, DOMS is probably inevitable. You can try the above methods, but ultimately your best option is to embrace the pain. Some sickos (like myself, actually) actually learn to love it and use it as a yardstick for progress (although a lack of DOMS does not indicate a lack of progress).

Believe it or not, I think that suffices. Muscles get sore. It may or may not be a concrete sign that our muscles are repairing, but I don’t think it really matters. At the very least, DOMS is a sign that our muscles are becoming attenuated to our workouts (after time, DOMS does significantly lessen – I, for instance, rarely get it anymore). The more we do them, the less sore we get. It’s a war of attrition. It’s supposed to hurt, at least a bit.

Anyone out there have a good method for dealing with DOMS? Let me know!

Further Reading:

Exercising Through Injury

Insects: Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

Tips for Getting the Best Massage

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Coffee as a muscle relaxant? Pshhh, caffine dilates + shortens blood vessels, which is good for your pain–but not for strength building. Plus caffine may keep you up and you may not realize how tired you actually are, and a lot of sleep is integral for getting big.

    Bryan wrote on June 13th, 2009
  2. I use DOMS as my way of measuring if I’m over training or not. If I don’t get much then my muscles don’t seem to grow much so I usually don’t do any weights for a week. This really helps me avoid plateaus.

    This leads me to think that it is more to do with muscle growth then lactic acid or muscle repair.

    Mike wrote on June 26th, 2009
  3. Eat/drink “fast carbs” like cooked carrots,raw, organic vegetable juices, fruits and fruit juices etc. post workout w/ protien/fat meal or shake. seems to work best for me to alleviate DOMS.Im guessing that the insulin is feeding my cells and restoring glycogen stores.

    Chris wrote on April 15th, 2010
  4. According to this study, carbing up before exercise can actually increase muscle soreness and inflammation:

    S-252 wrote on April 15th, 2010
  5. I worry a lot when I’m not sore the day after. For some odd reason, I have associated muscle growth and soreness in my head — can’t have one without the other.

    Ben Marks wrote on April 21st, 2010
  6. I am not a big exerciser and so I joined a fitness boot camp with another friend of mine. I’m supposed to go 5 days a week for an hour each morning. I had to skip the second day already because I couldn’t imagine it would be worthwhile for me to go when I can’t even lift up my leg to put my pants on. The pain is embarrassing actually. I’m 33 years old, 2 kids and 150 lbs. I just want to lose about 15 pounds. I think dove in a little too deep here. I’m embarrased that I’m so incapacitated after 1 strenuous workout.
    So, you guys are saying I should have just gone anyway and pushed myself through the pain? I was afraid I would make things even worse.

    Laura wrote on May 6th, 2010
  7. I’ve found that stretching after doing the activity helps the recovery. Massages are amazing for helping the soreness go away.

    Jeff wrote on November 10th, 2010
  8. Good clean low fat protein like chicken breasts or tuna.

    Food high in potassium like oranges or bananas.

    TONS and TONS of water. Done.

    Irish wrote on November 14th, 2010
  9. I’ve stretching can be really good for muscle soreness. Plus try having a really hot bath too and let yourself soak.

    whey protein shakes wrote on December 4th, 2010
  10. My foam roller takes care of any doms

    WildGrok wrote on July 5th, 2011
  11. I’m not sore today and it makes me sad… I guess I didn’t push myself enough yesterday. I love moderate DOMS!

    milestone10 wrote on November 4th, 2011
  12. I’ve never tried the ribose that Big John writes about, but you can basically eliminate DOMS completely. One bight of banana in your after workout feed is all it takes. Timing is everything though, don’t wait too long.

    Edgar Westmoreland wrote on April 15th, 2012

    I drink 2 Litres of water when I work out and 2-3 litres of water after; plus another one or two during the day. This has completely removed muscle soreness. I eat a protein bar before and after my work out. I am working out for 2-3 hours 3-4 days a week, and I feel GREAT the next day.

    steve wrote on April 18th, 2012
  14. I love DOMS!! Hurts so good. :) Massage really feels good too, and if you are good at relaxing into the pain, it makes it go away pretty significantly. Even more affective than that is working out the same muscles again, even though they are sore. Both activities involve, possible, breaking up tissues in the muscle, which hurts like hell, but then feels better afterwards. I wonder if the muscles just get really tight in the same way trigger points are formed.

    Cristina wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  15. As someone who gets excessive doms, here are some things I’ve learned.

    1) don’t ignore any muscle group, when you eventually work it again, expect doms.

    2) ibuprofen doesn’t seem to help much besides taking the edge off the pain. According to my doctors, ibuprofen doesn’t have any anti inflammatory properties unless you take a lot for about a week, or longer.

    3) if the doms is really bad, light exercise similar to what made you sore can give you back your ability to use that muscle group for a while. If you got sore doing squats, for example, do 10 light squats using your hands to pull yourself up, if it’s too much on your legs. Then you will have near normal use of legs until you let then cool down for a while.

    Eric wrote on June 7th, 2013
  16. Ha! So glad I found this post!

    I actually started working out again 2 days ago, went pretty heavy (probably more than I should have) and I have to go back today. I’m in quite a lot of pain, which seems to get better when I stretch my legs and start walking.

    I was wondering if going through my workout in this condition would be asking for trouble but it seems it might just be what I need after all :)

    ClassickQC wrote on July 17th, 2013
  17. I’ve found muscle soreness varies greatly at different periods of my life and training schedules. If I get really sore the next day I know I’ve pushed too hard and recovery takes 5-7 days. If I’m mildly sore 2-3 days in I’ve hit it right and I recover in the next 24-48 hours and make the most gains. The other thing I’ve noticed is that if you train really hard on a regular basis it becomes very difficult or even impossible to achieve that level of soreness. And I’m not talking about making gains so that a specific amount of exercise becomes easier, I’m talking about extreme training to exhaustion on a regular basis. If I maintain this level of training with proper recovery times I will stop getting sore and recovery time will get shorter even though I am pushing myself just as far and hard as before. I have no explanation for this but I have personally experienced this change in my body’s response at many points in time when I have maintained a high level of training as well as the fall back to getting sore again if my intensity level falls off for a while. I have not found any supplements, warm up, cool down, stretching or anything else that will prevent muscle soreness , it’s purely based on how hard I go and what my body is used to. Light exercise does seem to help alleviate the pain and stiffness once you’re already sore but I haven’t experienced any definite improvement in recovery time with exercising again while I’m sore. You will learn to read your body to guage how hard you can go when you aren’t primed for full intensity so that you can get to that well balanced 2nd day soreness that goes away in a couple of days and isn’t debilitating. If you keep it up you will eventually get to where you can go really hard without suffering much at all.

    Nisseman wrote on August 14th, 2013
  18. I use a golf ball muscle roller, it definitely helps my body be way less sore then before i used it. Anyone else have one?

    Paige wrote on December 15th, 2013
  19. Soooo things to try:

    Less stress post workout,
    Eat more protein,
    Post workout drink,
    Micronutrient supplements (esp magnesium and zinc),
    Light exercise of the same muscle group (at end of workout, or day after),
    More frequent exercise so the muscles will be used to recovery

    Cameron wrote on February 11th, 2014
  20. Massage is the best thing to do to your muscles. When you exercise to exhaustion, tiny tears occur in muscle fibers. The body’s natural response to these tears is inflammation. Massage helps reduce the amount of cytokines the body produces, which play a role in inflammation.[1] Massage also seems to increase the amount of mitochondria in your muscle, which enhances the muscles’ ability to extract oxygen.

    railway sleepers wrote on February 12th, 2014

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