What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?

What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)? 1

This expert article comes from our friends and partners at UESCA, the leading provider of Endurance Sports Education.
UESCA’s running coach and ultrarunning coach certifications are considered industry-leading, with a science-backed, zero-bias approach.

We’ve all been there. You get back from an awesome run, feel healthy and energized, have a nice dinner, go to sleep, and then @$*%#!…

You can barely make it down the stairs the next morning (and the morning after that) because it feels like someone shortened your hamstrings by about an inch and then set them on fire!

Ah yes, the ever so fun experience of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

DOMS is most associated with upping the volume/intensity or performing a new exercise. But what exactly is DOMS, and what is the best way to deal with it?

In this article, we will discuss,

  • A (Very) Brief History of DOMS
  • What Is An Eccentric Contraction?
  • Why Do Eccentric Contractions Cause Damage?
  • What Is Passive Tension?
  • How Long Will It Suck?
  • What Can I Do To Make DOMS Go Away?
  • Good News!
  • How To Mitigate DOMS
A runner holding their quad in pain.

A (Very) Brief History of DOMS

While DOMS has obviously been making athletes’ lives painful for many years, it wasn’t until 1981 that the origin was discovered.

In 1981, Jan Frieden published his findings that were based on taking muscle biopsies from subjects who walked repeatedly down flights of stairs. This was the first real evidence of what DOMS is and what it is not.

Jan Frieden discovered that DOMS primarily results from eccentric contractions of muscles.

Great news! Now what the heck is an eccentric contraction?

What Is an Eccentric Contraction?

Most of the time, when we think about a muscle contraction, we think of a muscle shortening (termed: concentric contraction).

However, an eccentric contraction is the exact opposite.

An illustration showing an eccentric and concentric contraction.
Source: ETB

As illustrated, during an eccentric contraction, a muscle is lengthened to decelerate a limb that has a load applied to it. Essentially, an eccentrically contracting muscle acts as a brake.

For example, after performing a bicep curl, the bicep muscle must contract to decelerate the weight on the way back down to the starting position (arm extended downward).

With respect to running, the three most common areas of DOMS are the hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps.

  • Hamstrings: During the forward aspect of the gait cycle (before the foot strikes the ground), the hamstrings act to decelerate the lower leg to avoid hyperextension. The faster the stride rate and/or longer the forward aspect of one’s stride length is, the greater the stress is upon the hamstrings.
  • Quadriceps: The quads act as brakes upon footstrike to minimize the chance of you falling on your face or hurtling down a road at breakneck speeds!
  • Calves: Anyone who has tried to convert to a midfoot strike from a heel strike will likely experience some degree of DOMS on their calves – specifically the soleus muscle. This is because when a runner lands on the balls of their feet, the soleus acts not only to stabilize the foot but as a brake to lower the heel to the ground (eccentric contraction).
A runner holding their calf in pain.

Why Do Eccentric Contractions Cause Damage?

There are multiple reasons and theories why eccentric contractions cause us to want to stay in bed for a few days after a hard workout.

#1: Muscle Damage at the Sub-Cellular Level

The muscle fibers get pulled under stress lengthwise to the point where damage occurs at a sub-cellular level. This damage induces an inflammatory response in a muscle.

#2: Damage to the Excitation-Contraction (E-C) Coupling System

The most current research points to damage to the excitation-contraction (E-C) coupling system as being responsible for 75% of the decline in muscle tension.

This is why during a bout of DOMS, even if you can withstand the pain, you can’t exert the same amount of force as you normally could.

The E-C coupling system is essentially the link between nerves and muscles. The core of this ‘junction’ is the sarcoplasmic reticulum, a structure found within muscle cells which determines if a muscle contraction occurs or not.

A runner holding their calf in pain.

#3: Greater Stress Per Muscle Fiber

Lastly, eccentric contractions involve fewer motor units than concentric contractions to elicit the same force production.

Therefore, during an eccentric contraction, there is greater stress per muscle fiber than during a concentric muscle contraction. This added stress per muscle fiber may contribute to DOMS because of the disruption of the structures of the muscle.

This is akin to also having to do the job of your slacker co-worker – nobody likes to be overworked, including your muscle fibers!

What Is Passive Tension?

Passive tension relates to tension on a muscle that is not caused by a voluntary muscle contraction.

This term is more appropriately termed “stiffness.” This is why you walk around like a zombie during a bout of DOMS; because your affected muscles are stiff… and likely painful!

In a 1993 study by Howell et al., muscle stiffness doubled after the DOMS-inducing workout and stayed that way for four days post-exercise.

A 2001 paper by Proske and Morgan states that DOMS may also act as a protective mechanism against muscle injury by limiting one’s ability to exercise immediately post-DOMS.

A zombie.

Swelling and Soreness

Swelling of a DOMS-affected area(s) often accompanies the pain and stiffness.

The most current research suggests that this inflammation is caused by damage to sarcomeres (the contractile unit of a muscle fiber), as well as possibly the death of muscle fibers.

This inflammation response to injury is also theorized to be accompanied by oedema (fluid build-up).

How Long Will It Suck?

The question that you’ve been waiting for!

Based on research by MacIntyre et al, and Jones et al., DOMS-related soreness begins to set in 6-8 hours after the workout/exercise and peaks at around 48 hours post-exercise.

Now you have an excuse to binge on that Netflix show that you’ve been wanting to watch!

A runner holding their quad in pain.

What Can I Do To Make DOMS Go Away?

Given the discomfort level of DOMS, it’s unsurprising that a fair amount of research has been done regarding how to lessen the negative effects of DOMS.

Based on a number of studies, exercising at a low-intensity level can help increase blood flow to the affected muscle(s).

Secondarily, massage has been found to also help in reducing the time course of DOMS.

However, as you might have experienced, even touching a DOMS-affected body part can feel like a dagger. Therefore, the exact pressure and type of massage utilized will likely vary from person to person and will also likely determine if the massage is helpful or hurtful.

Based on research by Smith et al., stretching did not improve recovery time or pain levels.

Lastly, it is strongly advised not to take NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, as this can hinder the healing process.

Therefore, the best course of action when dealing with DOMS is light, active rest and possibly a light massage until the swelling/stiffness/pain has subsided.

A runner holding their calf in pain.

Good News!

Like most other aspects of physiology, the body adapts to stress.

In respect to DOMS, subsequent bouts of exercise (after allowing the body to recover from the initial DOMS episode) utilizing the same muscle(s) while performing the same volume/intensity will typically result in a lessened DOMS response (~ 1 week later).

This means that while the initial bout of DOMS is highly unpleasant, it sets the stage for the muscle(s) to adapt to future eccentric stress and, therefore, less pain and lack of range of motion.

How To Mitigate DOMS

As noted earlier, the degree to which DOMS sucks is highly correlated with the degree that one increases the volume/intensity or is performing a new exercise/movement. 

Therefore, the best way to minimize the effects of DOMS is to gradually and incrementally scale the intensity and volume of a particular activity or exercise.

This is not to say that you won’t experience DOMS by doing this, but it won’t likely be to the same degree as not running for a year and then racing a 10K!

Summary

No doubt about it – DOMS sucks.

But now that you know the mechanisms behind it, you can at least appreciate and understand why it happens in the first place and, more importantly, how the body adapts to become stronger and more resilient to future bouts of the same exercise or activity. 

For some active recovery ideas for runners, click here.

A person on an exercise bike.
Photo of author
Rick Prince is the founder and director of UESCA, the leading provider of Endurance Sports Education. UESCA's running coach and ultrarunning coach certifications are considered industry-leading, with a science-backed, zero bias approach. Rick holds a BS in Kinesiology from Springfield College and is a certified corrective exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), as well as a certified UESCA running and triathlon coach. Rick is a competitive runner and cyclist, having raced bikes nationally and internationally and run collegiate track and cross-country. Rick competes in running races and tries in vain to keep up with his 4-year old son.

Leave a Comment

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