If you have ever enthusiastically taken up a new exercise routine or sport, chances are you have had some aches and pains a day or two later, even if you felt great while you were exercising.
This phenomenon, to which everyone is susceptible, is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS.) This discomfort occurs 24-72 hours after a bout of a new physical activity or an increase in training intensity. It is characterized by a dull ache, tenderness, stiffness and sometimes swelling in the muscles that were stressed. Pain occurs with contraction, stretching or pressure on the muscle, and goes away when you are at rest.
DOMS usually occurs after eccentric exercise. This means the muscle was required to lengthen while it was contracting. Think of the biceps muscle in the front of your arm working as you lower a hand weight, or your quadriceps muscle tensing and you walk down a flight of stairs. This type of muscle contraction occurs with jogging, walking down a hill, jumping, doing step aerobics or lifting free weights. This kind of effort generates high tension inside the muscle and results in micro tears of muscle myofilaments and connective tissue. Apparently the inflammatory response to this damage takes at least 24 hours to develop and start triggering painful sensations.
Lactic acid buildup used to be blamed for DOMS, but this has been disproven. Lactic acid produced by muscle activity is gone from the muscle in a few hours.
How do you avoid falling prey to several days of aching muscles?
The best way is to gradually ease into an exercise routine, and increase the intensity gradually. Muscles adapt quickly to stresses placed upon them, and light eccentric activity will start getting them in shape. Then you can step your program sensibly without having major pain. This is known as the “repeated bout effect”.
Stretching and warming up may be good ideas for other reasons, but have not been shown to prevent DOMS.
So what if you just couldn’t curb your enthusiasm and you are now stiff and aching two days after your first day at the new gym?
The good news is that it will be all gone in 5-7 days, and you will be less likely to experience so much discomfort the next time, thanks to the repeated bout effect. In the meantime, you may be more comfortable if you try massage, a hot bath, or some LOW intensity exercise.
If your pain lasts more than a week, you may want to consult your physician or physical therapist to see if you need some professional attention to an injury.