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Post Exercise Muscle Soreness & Recovery Strategies

Posted 01 March 2012

In the first of a series of articles Karen Doyle, a Physical Therapist at Dublin’s Maple Clinic who is no stranger to working with international cyclists, identifies the causes and symptoms of delayed onset muscle sorness (DOMS) and how it can impact on your training and racing programme.

By Karen Doyle
Physical Therapist
Over the next few months I will present a series of articles for Irish Pro Cycling readers looking at strategies to assist recovery from muscles soreness, also known as delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS) post exercise. This is of interest in a clinical setting  as many people get injured from overtraining, or after going back to high intensity training a short time after a big race or event. 
It is of huge interest to sports people because they notice their performance is negatively affected, and the faster they can recover the faster they can get back to their usual performance. And it is a big industry with the sports companies and scientists pouring a lot of money and research into different methods to improve recovery rates such nutritional drinks and compression garments to things like cryochambers and hyperbaric oxygen chambers.
DOMS occurs after any activity done at a higher intensity than normal, such as a harder than normal training session, a tough race, a new sport or getting back to an old sport after being away from it for a while. 
It is experienced by novice and elite athletes and the symptoms can range from mild tenderness to severe pain, stiffness and loss of power. For cyclists it can be often noticed as the pain taking the stairs for a few days after a tough session or race, or the feeling of having a bad day in a multi stage race.
DOMS is classified as a type I muscle strain injury i.e. a mild strain. Tenderness is felt in the lower parts of the muscles where they meet their tendons and progressively gets worse over 24-48hours post exercise. This tenderness and stiffness can last anywhere from 4-8 days.
A range of strategies exist to speed up recovery from it such as cold water bath, compression tights and massage but because a full understanding of the exact mechanism of how it occurs is not known there no one magic treatment for it.
Lactic acid has been quoted by all for years as the cause of DOMS but while latic acid may contribute to the pain associated with fatigue towards the end of an exercise recent research has shown that lactic acid levels return to normal levels within an hour after exercise and have found not to be related to DOMS. 
It is thought that DOMS occurs due to a combination of different factors. Stress during the exercises disrupts the muscle fibres and also the connective tissues at the muscle tendon junctions. This leads to changes in a number of different substances in the area such as calcium levels, enzymes, the start of the inflammatory process and then finally swelling which all contribute to sensitize nerve endings in the area over the 24-48 hour period causing pain and stiffness.
DOMS has a number of significant impacts on athletic performance and can also lead to an increased risk of injury particularly when sufficient recovery time has not been taken. This is a particular risk for those focusing on following training plans and who are willing to ‘work through the pain’. 
Impacts include:-
  • A reduced ability to cushion a joint from shock which places joints and tissues under loads they are unaccustomed to in activities such as running or jumping. To compensate for this other joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons take on the additional shock bearing loads increasing the risk of injury in this areas.
  • Decreases in range of movement 
  • DOMS can affect the sequencing of how muscles contract which can lead to unaccustomed strain being placed on compensating  muscles, ligaments and tendons during training
  • Significant reductions in strength and power occur during DOMS and these are most pronounced 24-48 hours following the DOMS inducing exercise.  It has been found that it can take approximately 4 days for isometric strengthen to recover (walking upstairs, hamstring curls, leg press) but up to 8 days for eccentric strength to recover (walking downstairs, squatting down). In addition there is the risk that during strength training an individual working out at a pre-determined intensity level e.g. a percentage of one maximum repetition, may injure themselves as this level has been set for normal muscle, not someone affected by DOMS.
  • Finally it has been found that individuals are not always able to accurately rate their level impairment which can lead them to return to high intensity training before adequately recovered.
To avoid injury taking adequate rest from high intensity training (4-8 days) after a hard race or training session is essential. 
To try help reduce the downtime from training over this series I will take closer look at easily available recovery methods and look at the scientific proof behind them. Recovery methods covered will include active recovery, cold water immersion (ice baths), compression tights, and massage.
Karen Doyle
Physical Therapist
Karen Doyle is a Physical Therapist based in private practice in Booterstown Co Dublin. She works with various National Cycling Squads attending track and world road cup competitions.
 She can be contacted through

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