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Why does muscle soreness peak days after exercise?

We've all experienced it—the intense muscle soreness that sets in a day or two after an intense workout. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common phenomenon that can leave even the most seasoned athletes feeling the effects of their exertion. Surprisingly, it is often on the second day after exercise that the pain reaches its peak, causing discomfort and limiting our mobility.

Delayed onset muscle soreness refers to the muscular discomfort and pain experienced after engaging in strenuous physical activity or exercise that the body is not accustomed to. It typically occurs when the muscles are subjected to eccentric contractions, which involve lengthening of the muscle fibres under load. This type of muscle contraction is common in activities such as downhill running, plyometric exercises, and strength training exercises that emphasise the eccentric phase.

The Two-Day Peak Phenomenon:

While DOMS can manifest as early as 24 hours after exercise, it often peaks around 48 hours after the workout. Several factors contribute to this delayed onset and the subsequent heightened soreness:

  1. Inflammatory Response: When muscles undergo eccentric contractions, micro-damage occurs within the muscle fibres. This triggers an inflammatory response, where the body releases various immune cells and signalling molecules to initiate the healing process. The peak of this inflammation generally occurs around 48 hours post-exercise, coinciding with the heightened sensation of muscle soreness.

  2. Chemical Mediators: Inflammatory markers, such as prostaglandins and cytokines, play a significant role in the development of DOMS. These chemical mediators contribute to the sensitivity of pain receptors and amplify the pain signals transmitted to the brain. The concentration of these markers gradually increases over time, leading to the peak soreness experienced around the two-day mark.

  3. Muscle Fibre Swelling: Another contributing factor to the delayed onset of DOMS is the swelling of muscle fibres. During the inflammatory response, fluid accumulates in the damaged muscles, leading to oedema or swelling. This swelling can exert pressure on nerve endings, intensifying the pain perception. As the inflammation peaks around the second day, the swelling also reaches its maximum, contributing to the heightened discomfort experienced.

  4. Neural Adaptations: The nervous system plays a vital role in the perception of pain. After exercise, the body undergoes neural adaptations that result in increased pain sensitivity. The heightened sensitivity occurs due to changes in pain thresholds and the central nervous system's response to pain signals. These neural adaptations continue to progress after exercise, explaining why the soreness can worsen over the 48-hour period.

Managing and Alleviating DOMS:

While DOMS may be an unavoidable consequence of intense exercise, there are strategies to help manage and alleviate the discomfort:

  1. Gradual Progression: Gradually increasing exercise intensity and volume can help minimise the severity of DOMS. By allowing the body time to adapt to new activities, the risk of excessive muscle damage and subsequent soreness can be reduced.

  2. Proper Warm-up and Stretching: Prior to exercise, a thorough warm-up and dynamic stretching routine can prepare the muscles for the upcoming activity, potentially reducing the likelihood and severity of DOMS.

  3. Recovery Strategies: Utilising recovery strategies such as foam rolling, massage, ice baths, and gentle stretching post-workout can help alleviate DOMS. These techniques promote blood flow, reduce inflammation, and provide relief to sore muscles.

  4. Pain Relief: Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may offer temporary relief from the pain associated with DOMS. However, it's important to use them sparingly and as directed by a healthcare professional.

Delayed onset muscle soreness, although uncomfortable, is a natural response to intense physical activity. The two-day peak of DOMS can be attributed to the body's inflammatory response, chemical mediators, muscle fibre swelling, and neural adaptations. By understanding the underlying mechanisms, we can implement strategies to manage and alleviate the discomfort associated with DOMS. Remember to listen to your body, gradually progress in your workouts, and prioritise proper recovery to minimize the impact of DOMS on your exercise routine.


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