We’ve all been there. You wake up the morning after a particularly gruelling gym sesh with post-workout aches that have you wincing with every movement and, far apart from seeking sympathy for said pains, you give yourself a big pat on the back, wear your aches like a badge of honour and claim full bragging rights.
Because DOMS are good, right? That delayed onset muscle soreness is a sign that you've worked to your and after a few workouts you'll see the results from it?
Well, no. Not entirely.
Let’s break it down why DOMS are good for your ego but less so for your body.
DOMS: WHAT IS IT AND WHY HAVE I GOT IT?
“DOMS is the feeling of being sore a day or so after training,” says Andy Vincent, elite PT at Third Space. “Depending on the level of damage caused to the muscle, it can take 12-48 hours for the onset of pain to be noticeable, and it can last up to 72 hours after training.”
But, while there’s no knowing whether a workout will trigger a two-day ache, some exercises are more likely to make you sore than others.
“Pain from exercising usually comes about from doing slow eccentric (lowering phase) training,” Vincent says. Think deadlifts, pull-ups and single-arm rows.
“Over-stretching tissue under load, not effectively warming up before loading a muscle and trying totally new exercises can also increase your chances of experiencing DOMS,” says Vincent. “The soreness can be caused by the breaking down of tissue, swelling of the sheath that surrounds the tissue or it can be the connective tissue itself.”
So, if the aches can be attributed to deadlift day, surely that means your DOMS is a sign of a good workout?
ARE DOMS GOOD? IS IT A SIGN OF A GOOD WORKOUT?
In short, no.
“It’s a common misconception that you can judge the quality of a workout based solely on the presence of DOMS,” says Vincent. “Feeling mild discomfort is to be expected in the first 1-2 weeks of a new training plan, however, feeling sore for three days suggests bad programme design. It usually comes about from poor load selection, a lack of understanding of volume (total reps and sets), too many similar movement patterns creating stress on tissue, or lack of correct warm up.”
And equally, while the presence of DOMS following a class doesn't mean you’ve had a good quality, effective workout, a lack of DOMS doesn't mean that your workout sucked either.
“So many people, myself included, fall into the trap of thinking that if they don’t feel sore the next day then their exercise programme is no longer working for them, which isn’t always the case,” says PT, Carly Rowena. “Once you’ve established a consistent workout routine you may find that you only feel sore when you introduce a new exercise that forces your muscles to move in a different way.”
The answer? A quality training plan that focuses on progressive overload so you’re consistently challenging your body, but not pushing it to the point of suffering week-long DOMS.
Vincent recommends mastering movement patterns, technique and speed of lift, as opposed to smashing out high-intensity workouts every evening in the hope you’ll “feel it” the following day (because as we’ve established, not having doms is a sign of a good workout).
“Building muscle and strength both take time,” says Vincent. “When you train so hard and create soreness, you’ve effectively injured yourself, which will reduce the output of your next session. If your overall goal is to lose body fat then repeated bouts of training and being active outside of the gym (cycling to work and taking the stairs, for example) are both really important. If you feel sore for days it will affect how active you are, thus reducing the overall amount of calories you use daily.”
But if we can’t gauge the effectiveness of a workout by our DOMS, how can we?
3 WAYS TO JUDGE THE QUALITY OF A WORKOUT
1. Use a tracker
If your goals are geared towards calorie burn or totting up steps, nab yourself a fitness tracker to keep an eye on your output. Bear in mind that they aren’t always 100% accurate, but it will give you a good idea of your energy expenditure and steps walked nonetheless.
2. Take measurements
If you’re aiming to shed body fat and are following a structured plan, be sure to take weekly body measurements so you can keep track of inches lost. You should stop using your BMI to determine a 'healthy' weight, but consider getting your body fat percentage calculated before starting and after completing your plan, and don’t forget to take frequent selfies too.
3. Monitor performance
Even if you do have a physical goal in mind, work towards performance-focused goals, too. Every time you manage an extra rep, lift an extra couple of kgs or master a new move, you are progressing. Therefore, the workout plan you’re following? A resounding success! Consider keeping a fitness journal to remember your mini wins.
5 WAYS TO REDUCE DOMS
Although sometimes unavoidable, there are a few ways in which you can reduce symptoms of DOMS…
1. Allow time to recover
Remember what we said about having a good plan in place? Good. If you’re following a quality regime, you’ll have adequate time to rest and recover. “Making sure your workouts aren’t making your body really sore in the first place is always the priority,” advises Vincent. “Schedule the week so you have enough days to recover.”
2. Indulge in a treatment or two
According to a study published by the Journal of Athletic Training, massage therapy and foam rolling is effective in reducing DOMS “Hot and cold treatments, such as using a sauna after you train or taking an ice bath in the evening, can help too,” Vincent says.
3. Keep moving
“Although during the first 1-2 weeks of a new training plan you might feel some soreness,” says Vincent. “Try to get into the gym the next day to do a recovery session (light cardio, for example) to increase blood flow. Just be sure to avoid anything high intensity. Light stretching will feel nice but be mindful not to overstretch tissue that’s very painful.”
4. Eat and drink mindfully
It goes without saying that hydration is key for recovery, but so is sodium - it can ease muscle cramping and help the body rid itself of toxic waste products of exercise. “If you eat a fairly low-sodium diet you could try having a pinch of salt with lemon and hot water first thing in the morning,” Vincent says.
5. Stick to natural remedies
“Never take pain killers or anti-inflammatory medication post training,” says Vincent. “You could try natural remedies such as curcumin but bear in mind that inflammation is a key part of the healing process so blocking it with medication will only slow down the recovery.”
This article originally appeared on Women's Health UK