Written by Isabelle Nadeau, PhD, METS-1
Today I’m feeling sore. I was fine yesterday, exercised, and then I woke up this morning feeling old and grumpy, and the next day? Even older and grumpier! I have been running with DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
DOMS is a natural part of the exercise experience. However, sometimes it can be too much, leading to fatigue, pain, and discomfort—none of which sound like fun.
Fortunately, running with DOMS isn’t an inescapable fate. Learn how to get rid of DOMS (for good) with the right nutrition, supplementation, and exercise advice.
So, what is DOMS? Good question. Let’s break it down.
There are many theories but nobody knows for sure how it happens. It’s biology so it is a mix of things. Among the popular explanations are:
It mostly happens doing the eccentric exercise phase of movement, when muscles have to lengthen in a controlled manner. When does this happen when you run? Basically, every time your feet hit the ground, your quads and hamstrings eccentrically load to control your speed and stabilize you.
The eccentric is always worse for muscle soreness versus the concentric movements (the short explosive phase) which is why we always feel our quads and hamstrings locked up after those long downhills!
In theory, DOMS is minor muscular damage, so RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) should apply here to speed up blood flow and help you recover post-exercise.
Rest: It will go away in a couple of days. However, you can still exercise and the pain will disappear temporarily but come back shortly after.
Ice: The idea is to reduce inflammation and it has definitely mixed results in the literature. It could also blunt the training adaptation, more on this below. I don’t know about you, but ice is torture to me. However, putting an ice pack on sore muscles can reduce inflammation.
Compression and Elevation: From what I’ve seen it has some potential, and I’ve tried it myself. I love the 2XU pants and I’ll wear them at work sometimes under everything. It removes some of the pain and makes my legs feel lighter.
Nothing works for me better than a hot bath with magnesium salts. And from the literature, it looks like two days before an event would also benefit recovery after. Last but not least: massage. Ouch! My husband always thinks that I’m having a leisurely relaxing one hour massage.
Let me tell you the truth. It hurts like hell and is even more painful than the training. I usually do not like to get a massage when I have DOMS, same reason as ice bath, why create more pain? But after a couple of days, it is always a good idea to remove the remaining knots in your muscle to reduce soreness and improve your range of motion.
A lot can be done there too. The key answer: proteins and carbohydrates together.
That is how the Got Chocolate Milk campaign was born. BUT: it is a bit of a big FAT scam or I should say a big SUGAR scam since most of these studies supporting milk chocolate for recovery were founded by the milk industry…
TRY THIS INSTEAD:
The milk industry is not wrong per se, but try this option for better taste and significantly less sugar:
Milk has the advantage of having electrolytes compared to the whey, plus none of the sugar and the same effect. Additionally, quercetin, found in chocolate powder, is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
But beware, more on this below.
After a hard session, papers report that in general 0.8g/kg of carbs + 0.4g/kg of whey protein works magic or 2:1 ratio carbs to protein to replenish your glycogen stores and keep protein synthesis up and running. That is between 20 and 35g of protein depending on your weight.
Above that amount, there is probably no significant impact.
Ideally, you’ll want to have this in a meal with real food within 2 hours of your session, but if you can’t, try a protein bar as a snack. (ProBar, Quest as examples) but there are many on the market.
Protein and carbs together work synergistically, as both will increase insulin and promote cellular uptake of nutrients for repair. Instead of whey, you can use casein before bedtime as it will release more slowly overnight.
Antioxidants, of course! Vitamin C, E and NAC (N-acetyl-cysteine) are among the most popular anti-oxidants out there. They scavenge free radicals (ROS) and help you recover faster.
However, research is showing that free radicals are actually needed for signaling training adaptation. You could totally blunt that response by using too much of them and then you wouldn’t actually adapt.
Use if needed only when no training adaptation is required–perhaps during a taper, recovery or the week after a race.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are also very useful. Of course, there is the popular over the counter anti-inflammatory Ibuprofen, part of the NSAID (none-steroidal anti-inflammatory) category. If I can not sleep, I will go for it since sleep is one of the most proven ways to recover.
But, do not abuse them! NSAIDs have a negative effect on muscle growth and therefore could undermine all your efforts a little bit like too many anti-oxidants. Plus it can give you gastrointestinal issues and other nasty side effects.
A more natural compound would be curcumin or turmeric. It has a similar mechanism of action to NSAIDs but does not cause thinning of the stomach lining. A recent study has shown that ingesting 2.5g of curcumin twice a day a couple of days before and after the exercise bout could be beneficial. But could it impair training adaptation? I don’t think this has been studied yet but since it acts similarly as NSAID I would not be surprised if it did.
Finally, tart cherry juice has also been studied a lot and here is a good paper. Like many fruit and vegetables, tart cherries contain a lot of antioxidants and flavonoids which have anti-inflammatory properties. Using around a marathon would not be a bad idea but during training could potentially inhibit training adaptation.
We don’t know yet. Be careful with this one though. Tart cherry juice consumed in the quantities that are suggested contains a lot of xylitol, a sugar alcohol that can ferment and give you the runs so definitely test beforehand.
Have you heard of HMB? It is a derivative of leucine, one of the most potent amino acids in terms of muscle growth. It has been reported that HMB (Beta-Hydroxy-MethylButyrate free salt) can help alleviate symptoms of DOMS but results are still varied.
HMB is, however, safe and worth trying if you know that you will have multiple hard workouts during the week. It works at reducing protein degradation (i.e. muscle breakdown). A dose of 3 g before exercising would be recommended in that instance.
Then in the same line of thought, amino acids and BCAA, which stands for branched chained amino acid (leucine is one of them) have also shown to reduce DOMS in some instances. Doses vary from 5 to 12g, once or twice per day, 7-10 days before. But since most proteins (in particular whey and casein) contains those, you already have your bases covered.
And then you have Citrulline-malate which at 8g could alleviate DOMS and also L-carnitine, which has to be loaded with 3g/day for three weeks for an effect on reducing muscle pain and damage. The good thing about that one is that it also can increase fat metabolism and make you a better fat burner at the same time. Who does not like that?
Beware though, a lot of these studies use muscle damage as a marker which is most likely correlated with muscle soreness but not always and is individual. So see if it works for you.
Unfortunately, it might just be true–being a runner requires handling a little pain! So while we can and should find ways to mitigate DOMS, the goal is never to get rid of DOMS altogether.
My advice?. Build up slowly in your training, and show up every day, i.e. aim to be the most consistent runner on your block! Try some of the strategies listed here. Be aware that, like all experiments, some of them could (ahem) impair training adaptations, so time them carefully and not too close to any important races out there!
Looking for more in-depth posts on nutrition and quantified performance? Follow Isabelle Nadeau at Inprove.Me
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And if you’re ready to get rid of DOMS for good, then follow the nutrition, supplementation, and exercise advice above!