Nothing's quite as rewarding after a tough sweat session like sore muscles—except maybe larger, more defined muscles (but that's a story for another time). What you're feeling anywhere from 12-48 hours after a workout is something specialists refer to as DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It's also the stuff that's got you dreading stairs and struggling to lift your arms to wash your hair in the shower.
WHAT IS DOMS It results from microscopic tears within muscle tissues, which is what you're creating when you workout. The pain response is your body's way of signaling to you that repair work is going on and that you'd best leave it be for a few days. Your body is smart like that, and it always lets you know when it's time to get back to it, by way of alleviating the soreness. Interestingly, DOMS seems to be the result of eccentric muscle contractions—as in negative reps—rather than concentric ones. However, since you can't have a negative rep without a positive rep, you're going to experience DOMS if you have any intention of being active in your life.
TREAT DOMS There is no tried-and-true treatment for DOMS, but there are several steps you can take to help minimize its severity:
- Ibuprofen: Low-dose, over-the-counter painkillers—and Ibuprofen in particular, which has specifically been shown to decrease muscle soreness—will help take the edge off of severe cases of DOMS.
- Gentle Stretching: When muscles are in recovery mode they tend to tighten up, exacerbating feelings of soreness. Slow, gentle stretching of the area will relieve that tight feeling and diffuse the pain.
- Light Massage: Massaging a sore muscle can help reduce tightness while promoting blood flow, which in turn helps speed recovery, thus shortening the duration of DOMS.
- Warm Bath: As with massage, warm water will loosen up tight muscles and improve circulation. Better circulation means more oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood coming to the rescue of your aching muscles.
- Hot/Cold Treatment: Apply an ice pack for 15 minutes, followed by a heat pack for another 15, and back again. Studies have shown alternating cold with hot to be highly effective in promoting both circulation and muscle recuperation.
BEAT DOMS In short, you can't. No one has yet figured a way to circumvent DOMS, and maybe that's a good thing. After all, it is the body's signal to your brain that it needs a rest. Plus, you have to admit, there's something supremely satisfying about the feeling you get from having to walk like Betty White for a couple of days after a kick-ass leg workout.