Ever wonder if the post-exercise wobble is an indicator of a good workout or a sign you overdid it? Well, the truth lies somewhere in between. While some fitness fans wear their soreness like a badge of honor, others rarely feel anything the next day. Both outcomes are completely normal and appropriate. So, what gives? Does it really mean anything? The quick answer is yes, but it’s complicated!
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
The soreness you feel after a workout is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS for short. While discomfort is the most noticeable characteristic of DOMS, reduced range of motion, joint stiffness, and diminished muscle strength are also common. For some, DOMS is immediate and lasts for days, while for others, the discomfort appears one to two days after a workout and is short-lived. (We’ll get a little more into that below.)
Some believe DOMS is caused by a lactic acid build-up in the body, but this is not true. Lactate is a by-product of muscle metabolism and is usually cleared from the body within one hour of the workout ending. But you do cause tiny tears in your muscles when you exercise. These tears are the very things that cause the muscles to repair themselves, which leads to your gains! This microtrauma is likely the culprit that creates DOMS.
Factors That Cause DOMS
While the amount of tearing does depend on the workload and intensity of your workout, there are many other factors that contribute to the amount of soreness (and its timing) you may or may not experience. Genetics, hydration, cumulative movement, and warm-up and cool-down activities all play a part in whether or not you’re in pain. Let’s discuss that a little more.
Genetics play a big part in whether you feel DOMS. Some people are no- or low-responders, while others are high-responders to the effects of muscle conditioning. There’s nothing you can do about that. For example: Two similarly trained women lifting the same amount of weight during an exercise will feel soreness at a different level the following days if one is a high-responder and the other a low.
Hydration during and after a workout session can also affect the amount of soreness you feel. Drinking water before, during, and after a workout will help. You also might experiment with an electrolyte replacement if you’re planning a more intense or longer workout. Of course, building in breaks during your workout will help as well. And keep in mind, you’ll need more hydration at all times the hotter and more humid your location.
Do you work out vigorously in the morning, but sit for an extended period of time while at work? This could be leading to the soreness you feel as well. Good news here: You might be able to help ward off some of the discomfort by adding more movement into your day—especially in the hours following the workout. Try standing up when you are on the phone, taking the stairs, parking in the last row of the lot, or roaming while your kids are at practice instead of hitting the bleachers.
How to Help Reduce DOMS
For years, we thought that static stretching (holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more) pre- and post- workout would eliminate DOMS. Sadly, it’s just not true. Research shows that including a proper warm-up and cool-down can help prepare the muscles for the work ahead, which may help in the DOMS department. But they’re helpful either way! Think of these two as transition periods, rather than workout “stages.” The warm-up helps you transition into intense movements; moving from smaller movements to larger ranges of motion over time is the most important ingredient of this pre-workout phase! Then, the cool-down helps you transition back into your daily life by reversing what you just did to your body.
So, mystery solved—well, kind of! Ultimately, soreness is not an effective way to measure your workout. Far too many factors exist outside of your control that affect the sensation. Sure, for many, getting out of a chair is painful after a great workout and it does serve as a nice reminder that something is happening! (Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?!) But instead of placing importance on soreness—or a lack thereof—focus on how a workout makes you feel in the moment and once you’re done. Set goals based on performance improvement versus the amount of muscle relief cream you go through!