Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is soreness that develops after any activity that forces the muscles to eccentrically contract, resulting in micro-tears that must then rebuild and repair. It's important to note, however, that the soreness doesn't actually come from the tears, but from the inflammation that takes place as a result of the micro-tears and the subsequent healing process.
An eccentric contraction occurs when the muscle lengthens and contracts at the same time. It's often considered the "return to start" movement during strength training. For instance, during a bicep curl, the eccentric contraction takes place as you "return to start" and lower the dumbbells from your shoulders. During a squat, the eccentric contraction occurs as you "return to start" by rising up out of a squat to a standing position. When working against weight, the strength and control of the muscles is particularly taxing during this lengthening phase, placing stress on the muscles engaged.
But, it's not just strength training that results in muscular micro-tears and DOMS. Any unfamiliar exercise, whether it's raking your yard or walking down a hill, can tax the muscles to the point of post-exercise soreness. And while you might think you'd be better off to avoid such stress altogether, you'd be wrong. The micro-tears that take place during exercise are actually beneficial. These tears must rebuild and repair, and it's during this process that muscle fibers grow in length and overall size. This doesn't mean you'll get "big and bulky" — it just means you'll improve your muscular health, which plays an important part in functional fitness, balance, coordination, metabolism and body composition.
The good news is, you don't have to just sit back and take the soreness, either. Dr. Holly Lucille, naturopathic doctor and CrossFit athlete and coach, understands that while DOMS won't kill you, it can certainly slow you down. There are ways you can minimize the pain while still pursuing an active lifestyle.
Dr. Lucille suggests starting your DOMS-reduction protocol before you even step foot in the gym or on the trail. "The following supplements, when taken 30 to 60 minutes before exercise, can delay the time to exhaustion during exercise while also enhancing muscle integrity and protecting against oxidative stress."
It's also important to note that all of these nutrients can be found in food sources. CoQ10 can be found in meat, poultry and fish; vitamin C is abundant in citrus, peppers and kiwi; and BCAAs are readily available in meats, eggs and even milk. If you're not carefully monitoring your intake to ensure you're eating appropriate amounts prior to a workout, you may not reap the benefits of reduced DOMS, making supplementation an easier soreness-flagging option.
Once your workout is done, there are ways to further reduce the effects of DOMS. Dr. Lucille swears by the addition of BCM-95 curcumin found in the product Curamin as a solution to CrossFit soreness, but that's not the only thing on her list:
As long as you're not lactose intolerant, chocolate milk or a combination of milk and cereal are great post-exercise meals because they naturally deliver the right combination of carbohydrates and proteins, along with the perfect ratio of the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine to enhance muscle recovery.
The most important thing to remember is that DOMS is not going to kill you, and as long as you respect the soreness, it won't lead to further injury. In other words, keep moving, but take things slowly. If you're experiencing soreness, you may not want to do another high-intensity workout for a day or two, but instead take a walk with a friend or enjoy a yoga class. DOMS will naturally dissipate within three to seven days, and continuing to exercise at a lower intensity during this process can actually improve blood flow to the inflamed muscles and speed recovery time.
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