fbpx

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

Legs tired two days after your run? Here's why…

All our injury and recovery resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Injury Guidelines.

Almost everyone has experienced acute muscle soreness after exercise, which is referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness can be uncomfortable because the ensuing muscle stiffness and muscle pain can decrease your range of motion, leave you feeling achy and tight, and could even make it difficult to sleep, let alone fathom running the next day.

Understanding what causes sore muscles after exercise and what to do when experiencing the discomfort of delayed-onset muscle soreness can help you manage symptoms and maybe even help you prevent it.

In this guide to the DOMS, we will discuss what causes sore muscles after intense exercise or a new exercise and how to help alleviate post-exercise sore muscles, muscle stiffness, and decreased range of motion.

A person holding their quad from the DOMS.

What is DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?

Before we look at what causes muscle stiffness and muscle pain associated with delayed-onset muscle soreness, we present the disclaimer that this should not be taken as medical advice.

It is important to work with a physical therapist or speak with a sports medicine doctor if you have concerns about acute muscle soreness that seems to be more indicative of an injury or ongoing muscle stiffness and pain.

Prior to delving into specific tips for how to relieve muscle soreness after exercise, let’s discuss what actually causes muscle soreness after working out.

Being able to distinguish delayed onset muscle soreness from an actual connective tissue or muscle injury is important.

There are two general types of muscle soreness after a workout: acute muscle soreness and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). 

Acute muscle soreness happens immediately after your workout is over or anywhere within a few hours after stopping exercise.

Although not always true, acute muscle soreness is generally described as post-exercise muscle pain and tends to be due to overexertion or actual injuries to your muscle fibers or connective tissues.

For example, if you perform squats with heavier weights than you are ready for, or you do strenuous exercise without a thorough warm-up, you may pull a muscle and experience immediate muscle pain, limited range of motion, and swelling or inflammation in the affected muscles.

In contrast, DOMS may appear approximately 12-24 hours after exercise—rather than immediately post-workout—and linger for 24-72 hours or so.1Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2012). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005

A person holding their neck.

What Causes Muscle Soreness After Exercise?

Historically, sports medicine specialists thought that delayed-onset muscle soreness was caused by lactic acid, but subsequent research elucidated the fact that lactic acid as a molecule cannot really exist in its intact form in the body because the pH of human blood is too high.2Robergs, R. A., McNulty, C. R., Minett, G. M., Holland, J., & Trajano, G. (2018). Lactate, not Lactic Acid, is Produced by Cellular Cytosolic Energy Catabolism. Physiology33(1), 10–12. https://doi.org/10.1152/physiol.00033.2017

Instead, DOMS is due to inflammation in the muscles due to microscopic tears in the muscle fibers induced by your physical activity.

An inflammatory cascade is triggered in the muscles due to the tiny tears in the muscle fibers. Fluid accumulates in the muscles and can cause tightness, stiffness, minor swelling, and pain associated with DOMS.

When it comes to the likelihood that your muscles will be sore after working out, the type of exercise or workout you did, as well as your fitness level or consistency in doing that type of workout, matters.

DOMS has been shown to be more significant or more likely following eccentric exercise,3Hody, S., Croisier, J.-L., Bury, T., Rogister, B., & Leprince, P. (2019). Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Frontiers in Physiology10(10), 536. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00536 and markers of skeletal muscle damage—including elevated levels of creatine kinase—are higher following eccentric exercises.4Sudhakar, S., S, V. K., J, C., M, S. K., Sudhakar, S., S, V. K., Iii, C. J., & M, S. K. (2023). Enhancing Skeletal Muscle Rehabilitation: The Effects of Diclofenac Phonophoresis and Shock Wave Therapy on Serum Creatine Kinase in Athletes With Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. Cureus15(9). https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.46267

‌Eccentric contractions are lengthening contractions done under a load or resistance of some sort, such as your quads, when lowering down during squats.

DOMS or muscle soreness is also more likely to occur after working out after high-intensity or strenuous exercise or if your body is not accustomed to the type of exercise you did or to working out in general. 

For example, if you normally run every day but do a rowing workout instead, you may experience muscle soreness in the muscle groups you don’t normally train, such as your lats. 

If you’re a beginner just starting your fitness journey, you’re also more likely to feel sore after exercise because your muscles have not yet adapted to the movements and loads of physical activity.

The severity of DOMS or any muscle soreness after exercise can vary from mild discomfort to almost very limiting and uncomfortable stiffness and discomfort. 

People warming up.

How to Prevent Muscle Soreness After Running

It isn’t always possible to completely prevent muscle soreness after running, particularly if you are a beginner ramping up your training or doing some new exercise or high-intensity workout.

For example, almost every marathon runner has experienced sore quads after running their first marathon, despite months of consistent training.

However, here are a few tips that will help reduce the risk of post-exercise DOMS, muscle stiffness, and more concerning acute muscle pain:

#1: Build Up Gradually

You are more likely to experience sore muscles or achiness if you are doing new exercise that your body is not accustomed to.

Make sure that you are progressing the intensity, frequency, and duration of your workouts gradually to give your muscles and connective tissues time to adapt.

Typically, the cardiovascular system makes physiological adaptations faster than you build muscle strength.

This can cause new runners to do too much too soon because they feel like their fitness level is improving quickly.

Incorporate plenty of cross-training and rest days while you build muscle and increase muscle strength for running or whatever type of strenuous exercise you are starting.

#2: Do a Warm-Up and Cool Down

A warm-up increases blood flow and prepares your muscles for physical activity.

Cool-downs have been shown to promote recovery and reduce fatigue.5Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PLoS ONE11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216

A person drinking a bottle of water.

#3: Hydrate Properly

Dehydration can contribute to muscle stiffness and even joint swelling.

Make sure that you are working on your hydration before, during, and immediately after exercise as well as throughout the day to maintain proper blood circulation to your muscles and circulation of joint fluid.

When your joints are stiff, you are more likely to pull a muscle due to restricted mobility. 

#4: Refuel 

A post-run snack with carbohydrates and protein will help replenish glycogen stores and supply amino acids to help repair the microtrauma to your muscle fibers.

#5: Limit Downhill Running

Most meta-analysis and research studies have found that eccentric muscle contractions are mostly responsible for the microtears in the muscle fibers that cause the inflammation and pain associated with sore muscles from running.

Although you do not need to avoid downhill running altogether, progress any type of concentric exercise gradually so your body can get used to lengthening contractions under a load.

A person stretching.

#6: Stretch After Your Run

Studies have found that incorporating a stretching routine into a cool down can ease muscle soreness and minimize the extent of post-exercise muscle discomfort. 

This is thought to be due to the enhanced blood circulation and nutrient transport brought on by stretching and the prevention of stiffness and contraction of connective tissues.

#7: Wear Compression Garments

Although the evidence from scientific studies hasn’t been overwhelmingly conclusive, wearing compression socks and sleeves may reduce muscle soreness after a workout.6Hettchen, M., Glöckler, K., von Stengel, S., Piechele, A., Lötzerich, H., Kohl, M., & Kemmler, W. (2019). Effects of Compression Tights on Recovery Parameters after Exercise Induced Muscle Damage: A Randomized Controlled Crossover Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2019, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/5698460

What Can I Do to Relieve DOMS Symptoms?

Here are some tips for managing DOMS symptoms:

#1: Try Ice Baths or Heat Therapy

A systematic review found that both cryotherapy (ice baths, ice packs, cold water immersion, etc.) and heat therapy can reduce DOMS symptoms when applied within one hour after exercise.7Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical Therapy in Sport48(1), 177–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.01.004

Ice baths have been shown to reduce the severity of DOMS symptoms. 

Moist and dry heat therapy can also reduce the severity of DOMS to varying degrees.8Petrofsky. (2013). Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research. https://doi.org/10.4021/jocmr1521w

A person getting a leg massage.

#2: Get a Massage

One meta-analysis9Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403 that compared the effectiveness of numerous popular techniques to relieve DOMS found that massage was the most effective modality for reducing muscle soreness after exercise.

#3: Use a Foam Roller

Research has found that foam rolling on the affected muscles can relieve muscle soreness after exercise.10Pearcey, G. E. P., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J.-E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01

#4: Do an Active Recovery Workout

If you’re super sore, you might need a full rest day, but low-intensity active recovery workouts can help reduce muscle stiffness and swelling by promoting blood flow.11Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403

‌Examples of active recovery workouts include walking, swimming, yoga, hiking with your dog, or even just a session of foam rolling.

A heat pack.

#5: Try Natural Anti-Inflammatories

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen are tempting analgesics, but they may compromise muscle recovery.12Parisien, M., Lima, L. V., Dagostino, C., El-Hachem, N., Drury, G. L., Grant, A. V., Huising, J., Verma, V., Meloto, C. B., Silva, J. R., Dutra, G. G. S., Markova, T., Dang, H., Tessier, P. A., Slade, G. D., Nackley, A. G., Ghasemlou, N., Mogil, J. S., Allegri, M., & Diatchenko, L. (2022). Acute inflammatory response via neutrophil activation protects against the development of chronic pain. Science Translational Medicine14(644). https://doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.abj9954

However, natural anti-inflammatory supplements such as tart cherry juice,13Levers, K., Dalton, R., Galvan, E., Goodenough, C., O’Connor, A., Simbo, S., Barringer, N., Carter, J., Seesselberg, C., Jung, Y., Coletta, A., Mertens-Talcott, S., Rasmussen, C., Greenwood, M., & Kreider, R. (2014). Powdered tart cherry supplementation demonstrates benefit on markers of catabolism and muscle soreness following an acute bout of intense lower body resistance exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition11(Suppl 1), P31. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-S1-P31 and curcumin, the active compound in the spice turmeric, may be useful at relieving sore muscles.14Rawson, E. S., Miles, M. P., & Larson-Meyer, D. E. (2018). Dietary Supplements for Health, Adaptation, and Recovery in Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(2), 188–199. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0340

It’s important to remember that the muscle soreness associated with DOMS can be uncomfortable, but it is not the same thing as muscle pain. True pain is more severe and restrictive, and can signal an injury.

For some of the most common running injuries, check out our next guide:

References

  • 1
    Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2012). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005
  • 2
    Robergs, R. A., McNulty, C. R., Minett, G. M., Holland, J., & Trajano, G. (2018). Lactate, not Lactic Acid, is Produced by Cellular Cytosolic Energy Catabolism. Physiology33(1), 10–12. https://doi.org/10.1152/physiol.00033.2017
  • 3
    Hody, S., Croisier, J.-L., Bury, T., Rogister, B., & Leprince, P. (2019). Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Frontiers in Physiology10(10), 536. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00536
  • 4
    Sudhakar, S., S, V. K., J, C., M, S. K., Sudhakar, S., S, V. K., Iii, C. J., & M, S. K. (2023). Enhancing Skeletal Muscle Rehabilitation: The Effects of Diclofenac Phonophoresis and Shock Wave Therapy on Serum Creatine Kinase in Athletes With Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. Cureus15(9). https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.46267
  • 5
    Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PLoS ONE11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216
  • 6
    Hettchen, M., Glöckler, K., von Stengel, S., Piechele, A., Lötzerich, H., Kohl, M., & Kemmler, W. (2019). Effects of Compression Tights on Recovery Parameters after Exercise Induced Muscle Damage: A Randomized Controlled Crossover Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2019, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/5698460
  • 7
    Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical Therapy in Sport48(1), 177–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.01.004
  • 8
    Petrofsky. (2013). Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research. https://doi.org/10.4021/jocmr1521w
  • 9
    Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • 10
    Pearcey, G. E. P., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J.-E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01
  • 11
    Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • 12
    Parisien, M., Lima, L. V., Dagostino, C., El-Hachem, N., Drury, G. L., Grant, A. V., Huising, J., Verma, V., Meloto, C. B., Silva, J. R., Dutra, G. G. S., Markova, T., Dang, H., Tessier, P. A., Slade, G. D., Nackley, A. G., Ghasemlou, N., Mogil, J. S., Allegri, M., & Diatchenko, L. (2022). Acute inflammatory response via neutrophil activation protects against the development of chronic pain. Science Translational Medicine14(644). https://doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.abj9954
  • 13
    Levers, K., Dalton, R., Galvan, E., Goodenough, C., O’Connor, A., Simbo, S., Barringer, N., Carter, J., Seesselberg, C., Jung, Y., Coletta, A., Mertens-Talcott, S., Rasmussen, C., Greenwood, M., & Kreider, R. (2014). Powdered tart cherry supplementation demonstrates benefit on markers of catabolism and muscle soreness following an acute bout of intense lower body resistance exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition11(Suppl 1), P31. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-S1-P31
  • 14
    Rawson, E. S., Miles, M. P., & Larson-Meyer, D. E. (2018). Dietary Supplements for Health, Adaptation, and Recovery in Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(2), 188–199. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0340
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.