DOMS – help! My muscles are trying to kill me!

Have you ever started a new exercise regime full of enthusiasm, perhaps a running programme or a new dynamic yoga class, only to be floored in the days after by feeling crippled by muscles that you didn’t even know existed aching every time you breathe.

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Two days into my Model Method Online programme and my obliques are on fire, my triceps are feeling pleasingly tender and my bum is definitely aware of having done some work. It’s kind of like a light has been switched on in a house that has been in the dark for a bit as its owners were on holiday.

The muscle soreness and tightness you experience, the pain that makes you make weird noises with every minuscule movement, has a proper term: delayed onset muscle soreness, or ‘DOMS’. This aching body usually causes you to feel one of two ways:

You either feel virtuous and smug that you’ve clearly worked hard enough for your muscles to ache, and enjoy every wince you have to make when you twist, bend and move (and if you’re anything like me, use that as an excuse to have some ice cream – need to work on that…)… or you’re in so much pain that you slither painfully back to the sofa vowing never to do another star jump again.

It’s not necessarily just a conventional workout that will bring on DOMS – I remember a particularly brilliant wedding ceilidh party which involved dancing for about 4 hours straight, and I could barely walk for a week afterwards. Happy sore feet.

I’m not a physio, so my “science bit” isn’t going to be much cop: but essentially, when you work out to build muscle, you basically have to challenge your muscle to the point of fatigue until it tears, and in rebuilding itself it will gain strength. But the tearing of the muscle fibres is likely to be an element in the cause of DOMS, which is usually felt around 48 hours after the activity in question.

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If it’s really bad and you’re doubled up like an old lady, there are a number of things you can try to relieve the soreness temporarily, including a relaxing aromatherapy bath, stretching, massage, deep breathing….

The most effective thing in my experience though, is movement. Even if it makes you initially call out in pain, moving rather than succumbing to the very real temptation to take up residence on a sofa for the foreseeable will mean that you don’t stiffen up entirely, and the right type of movement will bring balance back into the body and make sure that the muscle pain isn’t causing you to compensate with other muscles in your daily movement, with the risk of causing yourself injury or other aches in the process.

Make the exercise light and gentle if need be, because your technique might be compromised by your pain: follow your gut and listen to your body. I’ve always found that wherever you’re aching, you can’t go wrong with a restorative session of Pilates: it’s the perfect balance of strength and flexibility, massaging your spine and encouraging circulation which will get you back on track in no time. Repeating the exact HIIT session that put you there in the first place might not be quite what the doctor ordered. Give your body a rest where it’s specifically aching, but make sure that it doesn’t seize up by keeping the machine oiled.

Don’t let DOMS put you off exercise. A friend of mine said her mum was told to take up gentle exercise by her doctor, and she was so horrified by being in post-exercise pain after a swimming aerobics session that she determined it must be dangerous, shunned the gym for good and went back to her sedentary habits – it simply didn’t occur to her that her body might just be waking up and rejigging its fibres for a new active existence ahead.

Manageable levels of DOMS is absolutely normal, and is felt by everyone, even elite athletes, when starting a new exercise or upping the challenge a notch. You should feel your muscles have worked after a 24-hour period, but not so much that you’re screaming in pain unable to lift your little finger.  It doesn’t last long: you should expect a dose of DOMS to be leaving you after 5 days or so. Then it’s back to your HIIT to do it all again!

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