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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Massage – It might not improve the function of DOMS-impaired muscles, but it does seem to help with the actual soreness .
- Ice Baths – Though there’s no clinical support, some people report an ice-water soak  after a workout helps reduce incidence of DOMS.
- 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.
- 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!