DOMS, short for delayed onset muscle soreness, is the bane of every serious exerciser. DOMS is the often severe stiffness and pain you feel after an especially tough workout. A little DOMS is no big deal; you feel tender but are able to carry on with your normal everyday activities. Severe DOMS is a different matter – it can make walking a chore, limit your range of movement so even tying your shoe laces is a stretch too far, and make may even cause you to miss your next few workouts. This is especially true after a big leg training session.

The cause of DOMS is unclear but experts suggest it is one or a combination of the following:

  • Micro tears in your muscles that are accompanied by inflammation
  • Lactic acid that has not been cleared from your muscles
  • Accumulated metabolic waste products
  • Severe glycogen depletion

DOMS usually comes on 12 to 36 hours after a hard workout and can be triggered by working harder or longer than usual or doing new exercises. It is most commonly associated with the lowering portion of an exercise – the eccentric phase – which is why running downhill can cause very severe DOMS.

Whatever the cause, there are several strategies you can use to avoid or minimize DOMS.

1. Post-training carbs

Exercise, especially hard strength training, depletes your muscle glycogen stores – glycogen being stored carbohydrate. The sooner you can replenish your glycogen stores, the sooner growth and recovery can occur and the less DOMS you are likely to experience. As soon as you finish your workout, and before you hit the showers, consume a fast-acting carb drink to replenish your depleted glycogen stores. Throw in some protein to further enhance recovery. Try mixing 50 grams of glucose powder with a scoop of whey protein or buy a post-workout carb and protein supplement.

2. Cool down properly

The last thing you probably feel like doing after your workout is more exercise but a few more minutes of activity may reduce DOMS. Do five to ten minutes of light cardio during which you gradually reduce the intensity. For example, run, jog, and then walk. Once your heart and breathing rate are back to normal, spend a few minutes stretching the muscles you have just been training. Hold each stretch for 30 to 60-seconds without bouncing. A proper cool down should not take very long but could save you several days of lost training due to DOMS.

3. Alternating hot and cold showers

Alternating hot and cold showers increase micro circulation that may help flush out some of the causes of DOMS. The cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict while hot water causes them to open up and dilate. This increases blood flow at a vascular level. Focus the water jet on the muscles you have just exercised and alternate 30-seconds cold with 30-seconds hot. Make sure you always finish on hot to leave your blood vessels dilated.

4. Do a 50/50/50 workout

While it can be tempting to wait out DOMS, it’ll pass in a few days after all, you can speed up recovery by doing a 50/50/50 workout the following day. Simply do the same workout but use 50% of the weight, do 50% of the reps, and perform 50% of the sets of the day before. This helps get you up and moving again which will facilitate a faster recovery. This should be very easy and not feel like a workout and can be completed on what might normally be a rest day. Wear compression gear to help warm and support your muscles to make this strategy more effective.

5. Apply some heat

While your muscles might be too sore to touch making massage inadvisable, passive heat can be very beneficial for reducing DOMS. Use a heat pad, hot towels, a hot bath, or a hot water bottle to help relax your muscles, reduce DOMS pain, and increase micro circulation. Combined with some gentle stretching and light movements, heat will reduce stiffness and help get you up and moving again.

DOMS is nature’s way of saying that, maybe, you trained too hard yesterday. Occasional DOMS is fine but if you constantly have severe DOMS, you may be training a little too intensely for your recovery abilities. A little DOMS means you simply worked harder than normal but crippling DOMS that makes moving around difficult should not happen that often. And if DOMS is negatively affecting subsequent workouts, you are definitely doing too much!