We all know what it’s like to wake up sore the day after a workout, a strenuous hike, or a long bike ride. Many of us have heard that the pain comes from damaged muscles that will then rebuild and make us stronger. But is that true? Why do our muscles get sore after physical exertion, what causes it, and are there things we can do to avoid it or make it better? Read on to learn about the phenomenon of delayed-onset muscle soreness, more commonly referred to as DOMS.

What is DOMS?

There’s a widely circulated theory that the second day after a workout is when you feel the sorest. Science has revealed this is actually somewhat true. Feeling soreness set in 24-72 hours after exercising—in ways you’re not accustomed to—is referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Different than the acute pain or burning felt while exercising, DOMS generally peaks one to three days after physical exertion before subsiding (4).

You may experience DOMS intermittently and not after every workout or every strenuous activity. This is because DOMS occurs after engaging in physical stresses that are outside of your normal range of intensity, explaining why you feel soreness when you first start a new exercise regimen, but generally less sore as your body adapts to regular workouts. Even so, everyone is susceptible to experiencing DOMS, even elite athletes. Changing up your exercise routine, upping the intensity, or performing eccentric muscle movements (tensing a muscle while lengthening it) are all triggers for DOMS (3).

What causes DOMS?

Unfortunately, science doesn’t conclusively explain the exact cause of DOMS, other than to specify it comes from applying mechanical and metabolic stresses on the body (1). There are several theories that have been proposed to explain DOMS over the decades, including buildup of lactic acid, muscle spasm, connective tissue or muscle damage, and inflammation.

There are studies (as well as anecdotal evidence) helping to both support and debunk several of these theories, leaving the exact causes of DOMS largely a mystery. The general consensus amongst researchers is that DOMS can’t be explained by a single theory, leading them to believe its caused by a sequence of events rather than one isolated factor. Ultimately, further research is needed to validate the true cause of the phenomenon (2).

Is there a treatment for DOMS?

Despite the mystery behind the exact causes of DOMS, there are comfort measures that may help overcome some of its effects, though time is the only proven treatment (3). Care options include things like cryotherapy, stretching, self-myofascial release (SMR), anti-inflammatory drugs, ultrasound, massage, and exercise (2).

With or without scientific proof, finding the care methods that work for your body to bring relief or relaxation is a worthwhile pursuit. One crucial thing to do is to try and get moving. While feeling sore might tempt you to rest and stay sedentary, getting in some gentle movement can help lessen stiffness. It’s important to avoid high-intensity workouts and weightlifting when soreness is at its worst, but things like walking, swimming, or other low impact movements can bring some relief and increase range of motion. The most important thing to do is always listen to your body to assess your needs.

Can DOMS be prevented?

The short answer is no, but not all hope is lost. When we exercise in increasing intensity as we tend to do while getting fitter, we open ourselves up to the possibility of DOMS. It’s important to note that, contrary to popular belief, experiencing soreness after a workout is not a good indicator of how effective the workout was. In fact, chronic DOMS, or pain lasting more than a few days can be an indication of overtraining.

If you’re overtraining, your body doesn’t have ample time to repair itself to be ready to adapt to greater stress being placed on it. This means you’re constantly in a state of disrepair and you won’t see as much progression in strength or muscle gains. It’s critical to train at a slow and steady pace appropriate to where your body is starting from. This is an area where a properly credentialed personal trainer can add a lot of value. Smart programming progresses clients at a rate appropriate for them, avoiding overtraining and unnecessary post-workout soreness.

Other things that might aid in lessening the intensity of DOMS include good hydration (aim for drinking half your bodyweight in ounces per day, i.e. a 200-pound person would consume 100 ounces of water), properly warming up and cooling down, and resting an appropriate amount for your training regimen.


Hyatt Training personal trainer intern Elana WittAuthor Elana Witt is a personal trainer at Hyatt Training. She believes all people possess the ability to get stronger and feel better, no matter where they’re starting from. Through learning correct, functional movements, she wants each of her clients to better understand their body and their capabilities while feeling empowered to achieve their goals. Elana is a NASM certified. Learn more about Elana, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.

Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more holistic health related posts like this one, follow this link.