DOMS Explained: A Runner’s Guide To Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness

Most every long-distance runner has experienced DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness:

they run a race such as a half marathon or marathon and they don’t have much muscle soreness the next day. They wonder, maybe they could have gone faster, pushed harder? Maybe they are invincible superheroes?

Then a day or so later, reality strikes: in the form of intense muscle soreness that renders them almost completely useless for several days.

This muscle soreness is called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. And, running and DOMS almost go hand-in-hand. 

But don’t worry, we are here to answer all your questions about this mysterious muscle achiness, and how to tell when it should be a cause for concern. 

In this article, we will cover:

  • What is DOMS
  • What causes DOMS?
  • Why is the muscle pain delayed for DOMS?
  • Can you prevent DOMS?
  • How can you make DOMS go away fast?
  • How can a runner tell if the pain is DOMS or an acute running injury?
  • When a runner should talk to a doctor about muscle soreness?
  • And, whether a runner should be worried if she or he experiences DOMS.
DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

What is DOMS?

DOMS stands for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and it is aptly named because the muscles soreness comes on days after the triggering event. Most people experience DOMS 24-72 hours after exertion with the feeling of sore, tight, stiff, and painful muscle aches. The muscle soreness usually last between 3-5 days.

DOMS usually occurs after a particularly hard workout, or a challenging race. In essence, a runner will usually know what effort triggered the DOMS.

As Zeth Pugh, a certified neuromuscular therapist, explains: “Delayed-onset muscle soreness has plagued workout aficionados, athletes, and runners since the dawn of time. And it can be confusing to know the difference between sore muscles and injury.” 

DOMS is mostly annoying,” says Pugh. “The person with an average case of DOMS should still be able to do basic activities such as walk, climb a flight of stairs, or put away a bag of groceries.” 

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

What causes DOMS?

DOMS is caused by the controlled elongation of the muscle tissue from strenuous running or exercise. 

You get DOMS because your body isn’t used to the volume that you’ve exposed it to,” explains Tobias Sjösten, an online fitness and nutrition coach.

“Perhaps you’re newly off the sofa and have gone straight for a 10k run, or maybe you’re an experienced runner but you’ve started doing trail runs, running faster or for longer distances than you’re used to. These can all cause DOMS.”

Other factors, such as nutrient deficiency, dehydration, inflammation, sleep deprivation, and significant stress, can trigger or exacerbate DOMS, adds Pugh.

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Can you prevent DOMS? The 5 Mitigation Methods

There’s no surefire way to prevent DOMS but there are ways to mitigate it by:

1. Gradually adding volume. 

Runners who ease into their training have a smaller risk of delayed onset muscle soreness. 

When runners go too hard, too soon, their bodies cannot handle the load yet.

“They show up when the alarm goes off, not once the house is burnt to the ground. In other words, your training only needs to be hard enough to signal a call, not burn down your body,” shares Jake Harcoff, head coach and owner of AIM Athletic.

Related: Is the 10% Rule a Valid Way to Increase Mileage?

2. Resting between hard running sessions.

Most runners know not to do two days of hard effort in a row but instead, have an easy recovery run day in between. Runners who ignore this schedule risk delayed onset muscle soreness or a running injury, says Brett Durney, co-founder and personal trainer at Fitness Lab

“If you don’t give yourself enough time or chance to recover between sessions, you aren’t allowing your body to adapt to the stimulus you are putting on it,” he says. 

This can actually end up decreasing your ability to get stronger and faster since your muscles never have a chance to build themselves back up.

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

3. Warming-up and cooling down 

Runners who do a proper warm-up involving foam rolling, dynamic stretching, running drills, mobility exercises, and/or light jogging have a decreased risk of DOMS.

Runners who also take time to recover after a run or workout with light jogging, foam rolling, and dynamic stretching also mitigate the risk for DOMS. 

Related: 5 Common Mistakes New Runners Make

4. Fuelling right

Skimping on fueling your body before and after a run can certainly lead to DOMS and a running injury, warns Durney. 

“If you aren’t eating enough calories to support your training or enough protein in your diet for the body to use to rebuild and adapt, you are hurting yourself,” he says. “Your body needs the fuel and protein in order to rebuild after your workouts.”

Potassium from a banana and inflammatory elements of low sugar cranberry juice have also been shown to help repair muscle.

5. Sleeping

Recovery happens between the sheets, adds Durney. So, make sure you are getting enough sleep!

Your body recovers and gets better when sleeping. Not on the track or in the gym. You actually break your body down when running hard or lifting, and then need the time to allow it to rebuild to become a better version of what it was.”

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

How can you make DOMS go away fast? 4 Methods

Unfortunately, there is no known way to treat DOMS or make it go away faster. The good news is, DOMS will usually decrease over a few days as the body adapts to the new demands of the exercise. 

In the meantime, there are some treatments that MAY lessen the pain: 

Pain medication and creams. 

Pain relief by over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and topical pain relief creams may reduce the discomfort, but they do not accelerate the healing process. 

Stretching, foam rolling, and massage.

Doctor of physical therapy Lisa Mitro says taking care of your body by massaging, stretching and foam rolling before and after workouts can help decrease the occurrence of DOMS and mitigate its effects.

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Ice. 

Ice may help reduce the inflammation that accompanies the discomfort of DOMS, suggests Hannah Daugherty, certified personal trainer and fitness writer for NextLuxury.com

Active recovery.

Going for a light jog or walk when you have delayed onset muscle soreness may not sound appealing, but it can help flush the toxins out of your system and alleviate the pain faster, suggests Denise Cervantes, sports performance and fitness specialist for Herbalife Nutrition.

“Once you get moving and warm, the stiff muscles will loosen up and you will feel much better. Make sure after your light activity, you take the time to stretch out,” she says.

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

How can a runner tell if the pain is DOMS or an acute running injury?

An acute muscle injury typically happens suddenly, and the pain is in a contained area. DOMS, on the other hand, happens about one to three days after the event, and feels more like general muscle soreness, explains personal trainer integrative nutrition health coach Jordan Hardin:

“If it’s DOMS, your muscles will feel tight and fatigued. But you could continue the workout. If you feel a sharp pain beneath the skin that feels abnormal, It’s possibly an injury.”

In that case, STOP running!

Related: How to start running again after a break or injury

DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

When should a runner talk to a doctor about DOMS?

Therefore, DOMS is not a sign of a future running injury but is a first-hand sign of where strength is being built as long as you allow your muscles to recover!

If a runner’s muscle pain is worse in one particular area, this can indicate a muscle strain and may need medical attention, notes Pugh. Look for local discoloration, bulging, swelling, hot tissue, and sensitivity to touch. 

In rare cases, DOMS can signify a systemic issue or disorder. If it happens frequently, is severe, or lasts longer than a few days, it may be worth seeing a physician, says Pugh.

“For example, if the pain is bad all over, check to see what color urine your urine is. Dark-colored urine can be a sign of rhabdomyolysis (death of the muscle) caused by overexertion. If this is present along with feeling unwell, hospital care is recommended.” 

Should a runner be worried if she has DOMS?

A runner should not be worried if he or she has DOMS. Experiencing DOMS is common among runners as running stresses the muscles, causing tiny tears and inflammation. As the muscles get accustomed to working, the soreness decreases. 

As Pugh notes: “Think of it this way, you’re teaching your muscles a new skill, it takes practice to learn.” 

If you allow your muscles to recover after experiencing DOMS, you’re one step closer to being that superhero. 

DOMS
Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

3 thoughts on “DOMS Explained: A Runner’s Guide To Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness”

  1. Mostly spot on, except for the athletic trainer you quoted perpetuating the lactic acid myth. Lactic acid has nothing to do with DOMS. It is not a neural irritant; it is a fuel. When your cells burn sugar in the presence of oxygen, one of the temporary products of that burning is lactic acid. If there’s enough oxygen, you will continue burning the lactic acid to release energy, and the eventual products will be carbon dioxide and water.

    In the absence of enough oxygen, you will build up lactic acid in your cells. Lactic acid doesn’t irritate nerve endings, and will be burned as soon as enough oxygen is available. That will usually happen long before the 24 hours between exercise and DOMS. If lactic acid were a neural irritant, you would experience soreness immediately and it would be gone within 24 hours. Instead, you experience no soreness when the lactic acid is present, and you experience soreness once it is gone. https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20823206/the-unkillable-lactate-myth/

    Reply
    • Hey Joe!
      Thanks for taking the time to correct us on this one and share the information you have. We’ve removed the erroneous information and won’t be using that particular source again.
      Have a great weekend!

      Reply
    • Hey Joe!
      Thanks for taking the time to correct us on this one and share the information you have. We’ve removed the erroneous information and won’t be using that particular source again.
      Have a great weekend!

      Reply

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