Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: What it is (and isn’t) and what to do about it 

In a recent presentation I watched, Dr. Mike T. Nelson spoke about his pet peeve of people attributing soreness to lactic acid. I had heard this before, but isn’t that what everyone says? “Oh I did Murph yesterday, the lactic acid is making me soooooree!” 

So if lactic acid is a misnomer, what is actually causing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)? Well, there are a few reasons you could be sore up to a week after a killer workout. 

Before we explain why, let’s clarify the workouts that will cause DOMS. 

The movements that are going to make you the most sore are those you are:
1) unaccustomed to with sufficient intensity and:
2) eccentric (muscle lengthening) exercises, like the downward motion of a squat or push-up or the lowering in a pull-up or crunch. 

That’s why when you haven’t worked out for a while, the soreness is worse than when you’re conditioned or when you do something like Murph, its “sufficient intensity” and it’s duration will bring on the pain. 

Lactic acid is the process where cells produce energy without oxygen (similar to how gut bacteria and yogurt are produced).In general, lactic acid will flood your muscles while working out, but it dissipates after seconds before turning into lactate and H ions. 

DOMS is hard for researchers to understand, but it goes something like this (1): 

  1. Muscles are damaged (in a good way) while working out
  2. White blood cells get attracted to these muscle sites
  3. White blood cells release chemicals to help clean up the injured cells and tissue
  4. A second wave of white blood cells come in to help out and penetrate the damaged tissue
  5.  These second wave produce a substance called prostaglandin E which organizes the inflammatory/healing process and is a pain inducer

I know, it’s not a clear picture like you were expecting, and it probably still seems easier to just blame the lactic acid. However, using the DOMS acronym will at least make you sound like you know a little bit about what’s going on in your body.  

Ok, so now that you have the pain, what do you do? If you feel like taking some ibuprofen or aspirin, it has been shown to help, but it’s dependent on dosage and timing, which varies person to person. 

Stretching has NOT been shown to help, however, massage may, but it’s also one of those things that can be hit or miss for individuals (2).  

Light exercise has been proven to be the best pain reducer, though the effects are temporary, meaning the pain may return after you’re done working out (2). Your best bet is to just take it easy and do some active recovery that does not target the muscles that are sore so that they can recover. Resting completely is also an option, but because we know getting the blood flowing lessens the pain, even temporarily, keeping your body moving might just help your mindset as well. 

The last piece of the DOMS puzzle: how do you prevent it for next time? As explained above, doing workouts that are heavy on eccentric moves will be the biggest culprits, as will doing workouts that you’re not accustomed to. The best way to hedge your bets is to slowly increase volume throughout your training so that you’re acclimated to the intensity of soreness-inducing workouts. Staying mindful of what eccentric movements are, will also help, so that you can prepare for the soreness and play with a mixture of massage, NSAIDs and active recovery to keep you feeling your best (2).