Exercising causes internal activity in your body and muscles, and that can lead to soreness or pain. According to the National Institutes of Health, workout-related pain comes in three basic forms: pain during the exercise, delayed onset muscle soreness and pain associated with muscle cramps.
Discomfort that comes from cramps and pain during your workout aren’t abnormal, but too much pain can be an indication that you’re not performing movements correctly or are overextending yourself. Working with a qualified trainer or fitness instructor to develop and ramp up an appropriate exercise routine can help you avoid unnecessary pain of these types.
Delayed onset muscle soreness, however, is something anyone — of any fitness level — can experience. Sometimes, that pain is just a sign that you’re building muscle.
Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, typically occurs within 48 hours after a workout that challenges your muscles, pushing them slightly beyond their current “comfort” level.
When you engage in exercise that goes beyond what your muscles are conditioned to perform regularly, slight tears occur in those muscles. It’s called microtrauma, and it’s actually a good thing. In repairing those small tears, your muscles build themselves up and become stronger. In the meantime, though, you deal with DOMS, which can last from one to five days depending on how hard you pushed those muscles during the workout.
The pain comes from a combination of things, including muscle damage, inflammation and even potential acid buildup (through a belief that post-workout pain is due largely to lactic acid buildup has been examined and rejected in a number of studies).
Note that DOMS is not the same thing as an actual muscle injury or large tear, which may require professional treatment. DOMS is usually felt as a dull ache or stiffness, and you may feel it more when you move that particular muscle group.
For example, if you engage in a challenging squat routine, you might feel discomfort in your legs when you sit down later. Other types of pain, such as shooting, stabbing, burning or pulsing sensations, could indicate a different type of issue. It’s a good idea to bring them up to your trainer or healthcare provider if they are persistent.
Because DOMS is associated with building new muscles and increasing your physical fitness capability, you might always experience it after challenging exercise.
Even someone that works out regularly and is in fantastic shape can have muscle soreness, especially if they are increasing the intensity of their exercise.
According to fitness coach Will Levy, DOMS can hit within six to eight hours of exercise, though the discomfort level usually peaks around 48-hours post workout. Without any intervention or repeat exercise, DOMS usually goes away in five or less days.
If you’re seeking an improved fitness level, you’re not going to stop working out altogether, so you should expect to experience DOMs at least occasionally. You don’t have to suffer through the discomfort without acting to remediate it, though.
Here are some common and proven methods for reducing or treating post-workout muscle soreness.
You can also take an over-the-counter pain medication if DOMS is impacting your ability to function normally. Ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) do reduce pain associated with muscle inflammation.
You probably don’t want to rely on these medications long-term, as there’s still some question about whether they delay natural muscle healing processes.
Stretching before, during and after exercise is often touted as a way to reduce future DOMS, but studies examined by The George Institute for Global Health found no indication that stretching reduced this type of muscle pain. Stretching is still important, though, because it does help prevent real injury during workouts.
Delayed onset muscle soreness isn’t something you’re going to avoid fully if you workout regularly. Know that it’s normal and that you can typically manage it with simple home therapies.