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Why do Muscles Feel Sore After Exercise?

August 24, 2017 by HealthyFamiliesBC

Why do Muscles Feel Sore After Exercise?

If you’ve ever started a new workout routine or taken a break from your current one before returning to it, you may have felt muscle soreness for the next few days. In scientific terms, this is called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short.

What is it?

DOMS is considered a form of muscle strain. While you might feel sore, with DOMS there is usually no need to worry. If you have swelling, redness or bruising as well as pain, then you may have a “true” muscle strain. These symptoms show up quickly and are usually caused by a sudden and forceful movement or impact. If you`re concerned, call 8-1-1 or see your doctor.

When does DOMS happen?

It can happen when you overdo an activity that you’re not used to. Certain types of muscle contractions also increase the risk of getting DOMS. These are called eccentric contractions and are when your muscle contracts while lengthening, like when running downhill.

DOMS usually begins 12 to 24 hrs after exercise, peaks after about 48 hrs and can last for up to a week.

What causes it?

The cause of DOMS is not fully understood. There is a misconception that DOMS is caused by lactic acid. Experts do not think that’s the case. Instead, DOMS is thought to be a combination of muscle and tendon damage, changes in muscle enzyme levels, and inflammation of the affected areas.

Rhabdomyolysis is a medical emergency and can happen if someone really overdoes a physical activity. Symptoms include severe muscle pain, stiffness, fever, nausea, and dark coloured urine. See a doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.

How can I prevent it?

Start activities slowly. For example, if you want to go hiking but haven’t done much for the past six months, doing an eight hour hike with lots of elevation change will almost guarantee you have muscle soreness afterwards. A better approach would be too slowly increase the length and elevation change of your hikes over a few months before tackling that big one.

The 10 per cent rule is a good guide to follow: avoid increasing your activity level by more than 10 per cent per week. As always, warming up and cooling down is recommended.

How can I make sore muscles go away?

Much has been written and researched on how to decrease DOMS, but there are no firm recommendations. DOMS usually goes away on its own after three-five days, depending on your fitness level and what you did. A few important things will help:

  • get enough sleep
  • eat well balanced meals
  • be active while you recover (for example, go for a light walk or easy swim.)

Some studies have looked at wearing compression socks afterwards, contrast baths, or getting a massage but no one is 100 per cent sure these work. You know your body, listen to it and do what works for you. If soaking in a hot bath makes your muscles feel better after a run, then by all means do that.

In the end, don’t be scared to do big and bold things. The trick is to build up to it. The Qualified Exercise Professionals at Healthlink BC can help you gradually increase your physical activity and help with your recovery.

Related blogs

Workout Smart: Muscle and Strength
Is the Short HIIT Workout Too Good to be True?
Are Functional Fitness Workouts for You?

Recommended resources

American College of Sports Medicine: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness



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