Does Pain = Gain? An insight into Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
by Gavin Heselton
My phone buzzed discretely in the half light of the dawn, assuring me that I hadn’t imagined the alarm I had recently silenced and that it was in fact 5am. I had a message from Coach B: the only being I know that delights in early-morning communication. I grabbed my phone and clicked on the text icon to see what witticisms he had to offer at this ungodly hour:
“If DOMS are bombs then my back is Iraq and my hams are (Viet) ‘Nam”.
I chuckled, prompting an elbow in the ribs from my other half and a strange tightness in my abdominal muscles as I attempted to sit up in the bed… I don’t know what’s happened: I’ve managed to raise my torso, but it’s excruciating. I feel like someone has sneaked in during the night and replaced my back with hot steel, the supporting muscles creak and groan around my ribs and as I roll from the bed and start to walk across the room like an infant tyrannosaur making its first tentative steps into the primordial gloom I conclude that I too have DOMS like bombs.
I am no stranger to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, more frequently known simply as DOMS or ‘The’ DOMS, and in many ways have come to view them as a positive entity – a reminder that I’ve worked to an appropriate intensity and have exposed some of my weaknesses to the cold hard light of day. Yet it never ceases to amaze me just how debilitating the DOMS can be, how they always hurt more on the second day and how they disappear as suddenly as they come on.
The first reported reference to DOMS was by Theodore Hough in 1902 (Close et al, 2005) where he concluded that untrained muscles exposed to exercise may be subject to a discomfort, manifesting several hours after the exposure, that could not be entirely attributed to fatigue. The discomfort to which he referred is now considered to be a grade 1 muscle strain injury where such injuries are ranked in order of ascending severity from 1-3 (Cheung et al, 2003).
DOMS is particularly associated with eccentric movements (though there is some controversy over the use of this term: See Faulkner et al, 2003) – movements in which the muscle is lengthening as it contracts, as in the quadriceps when running downhill or the latissimus dorsi and triceps brachialis during negative pull ups. In addition, the severity of DOMS is linked to the intensity of exercise.
The severity of DOMS diminishes as the muscle group is exposed to similar exercise in a phenomenon known as the “repeated bout effect” (McHugh, 2003) and is widely considered to be a protective adaptation to limit damage during future occurrences. In strength training this may represent a change in the diameter of fast glycolytic (related to strength and speed) myofibrils (muscle fibres) and as such may be an indicator of muscular development manifested as growth. In a nutshell, there is some evidence to support DOMS causing the body to build muscle so that it can better deal with stress of exercise in future.
For those of you who have read the definition of CrossFit as offered by Coach Glassman you will recognise that CrossFit is “Constantly varied functional movement executed at high intensity” – intensity is therefore key to what we do as CrossFitters. Intensity maximises the neuroendocrine response by our bodies to the stimulus of exercise (Tabata, 1995) and consequently maximises our chances of getting DOMS.
You only have to scan through the pages of our own site to see just how frequently the DOMS are encountered and it is my contention that if you have not yet experienced them, you have not yet exercised.
(This is a brief summary of a large area of study and a more complete investigation will be published under articles in due course)
Cheung, K., Hume, P., Maxwell, L., (2003). Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Medicine, 33, 145– 164
Close, G.L., Ashton, T., McArdle, A., MacLaren, D.P.M. (2005) The emerging role of free radicals in delayed onset muscle soreness and contraction-induced muscle injury Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part A, 142, 257– 266
Faulkner, J.A., (2003). Terminology for contractions of muscles during shortening, while isometric, and during lengthening. Journal of Applied Physiology, 95, 455–459.
Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28(10), 1327-1330