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Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) – Why Am I Sore After the Gym?

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As an Exercise Physiologist, I frequently encounter clients who experience muscle soreness after engaging in new or strenuous exercise. This phenomenon, known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), typically peaks 24 to 72 hours post-exercise. In this blog post, I aim to provide a comprehensive overview of DOMS, its underlying mechanisms, contributing factors, and strategies for management and prevention.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

DOMS is characterised by muscle pain and stiffness that typically arise after unfamiliar or intense physical activity. Unlike acute muscle soreness, which occurs during or immediately after exercise, DOMS manifests later, reaching its peak severity between 24 and 72 hours post-exercise.

Mechanisms Behind DOMS

The exact mechanisms underlying DOMS are not entirely understood, but several theories have been proposed. The most widely accepted theory involves microscopic damage to muscle fibres caused by eccentric contractions—when muscles lengthen while under tension. This damage triggers an inflammatory response, leading to the sensation of pain.

  1. Muscle Fibre Damage: Eccentric exercises, such as downhill running or lowering weights, cause greater muscle fibre strain compared to concentric or isometric exercises. This strain results in structural damage at the microscopic level, particularly to the sarcomeres (the basic contractile units of muscle).
  2. Inflammatory Response: The damage to muscle fibres activates an inflammatory response, involving the release of various biochemical substances such as histamines, prostaglandins, and cytokines. These substances increase the sensitivity of nerve endings in the muscles, leading to the perception of pain.
  3. Muscle Repair and Adaptation: The inflammatory response also initiates the repair process, where satellite cells (a type of stem cell in muscles) proliferate and fuse to damaged fibres, facilitating muscle repair and growth. This adaptation process helps the muscles become more resistant to similar stress in future workouts.

Factors Contributing to DOMS

Several factors can influence the severity and duration of DOMS:

  1. Type of Exercise: Activities involving eccentric contractions, such as downhill running, plyometric exercises, and resistance training with a focus on the eccentric phase, are more likely to cause DOMS.
  2. Intensity and Duration: Higher intensity and longer duration of exercise can increase the extent of muscle damage and, consequently, the severity of DOMS.
  3. Individual Variability: Genetics, training status, and previous exposure to exercise can affect an individual’s susceptibility. Those who are new to exercise or returning after a long break are more likely to experience DOMS.

Management and Prevention of DOMS

While DOMS is a natural and generally harmless part of the muscle adaptation process, it can be uncomfortable and hinder subsequent workouts. Here are some evidence-based strategies to manage and potentially reduce the severity of DOMS:

  1. Gradual Progression: Gradually increasing the intensity and volume of exercise allows the muscles to adapt and reduces the risk of severe DOMS. This approach is particularly important for beginners or those returning after a hiatus.
  2. Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Engaging in a proper warm-up before exercise increases blood flow to the muscles and prepares them for the upcoming activity. Similarly, a cool-down phase helps in gradually lowering the heart rate and may aid in the recovery process.
  3. Active Recovery: Light activities such as walking, swimming, or cycling can promote blood circulation and help alleviate DOMS symptoms. Active recovery helps in removing metabolic waste products from muscles and delivers nutrients needed for repair.
  4. Nutritional Support: Consuming a balanced diet rich in proteins, carbohydrates, and antioxidants supports muscle repair and reduces inflammation. Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D have also shown potential benefits in managing DOMS.
  5. Massage and Foam Rolling: These techniques can enhance blood flow to the affected muscles, reduce stiffness, and alleviate pain. They can be particularly effective when used immediately after exercise and in the days following .
  6. Hydration: Maintaining adequate hydration supports metabolic functions and muscle recovery. Dehydration can exacerbate muscle soreness and prolong recovery.
  7. Rest and Recovery: Allowing sufficient time for muscles to recover between intense workout sessions is crucial. Overtraining can lead to prolonged soreness and increase the risk of injury.


DOMS is a common experience for individuals engaging in physical activity, especially when the exercise involves eccentric muscle contractions or is performed at a higher intensity than usual. Understanding the mechanisms behind DOMS and employing strategies to manage and prevent it can enhance the exercise experience and promote long-term adherence to a fitness routine. As your exercise physiologist, I encourage you to listen to your body, progress gradually, and implement these evidence-based strategies to mitigate the effects of DOMS.

By recognizing that DOMS is a natural part of the muscle strengthening and adaptation process, you can better navigate your fitness journey and achieve your health and wellness goals.


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