Why do we sometimes feel sore straight after exercising and other times not until days later? This is the science behind feeling sore after exercise. 

We have all fought against burning thighs when trying to get off the sofa after an intense workout. Usually, the aches hit a day or two later, reminding us of the squats or spin session we did the day before.

But I’ve often found that a tough session in the morning can show up by the time I’m eating my dinner, like the other day when I did a pre-work leg routine, including front squats and split squats. It had been challenging enough that I knew I’d probably feel a little achy in the following days, but it wasn’t excessively heavy.

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So when the dull discomfort hit me 10ish hours later, I wondered if it was a sign of something bad, like an injury, or a good thing – a sign my body was adapting fast to my session. Is there any rhyme or reason to the speed at which we experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and if so, should we be concerned by aches that hit immediately or last for days?

What are DOMS?

“We don’t have scientific evidence for what causes DOMS, but the consensus is that it probably comes from microscopic tears, inflammation, and waste product accumulation in the skeletal muscle and connective tissue,” says Dr Brinda Christopher, specialist consultant in sports and exercise medicine for HCA UK.

There are certain things that increase the likelihood of DOMS, such as trying new activities and eccentric-heavy workouts. “That is when a muscle is loaded with weight during its lengthening phase,”Dr Christopher explains.

DOMS can occur between 12 and 48 hours after exercise

“If you’re doing an eccentric drop squat, for example, the downward motion of the squat is the eccentric phase for the hamstrings. You can work with different tempos of movement to manipulate how much eccentric and concentric exercise you undertake. It’s why you often hear trainers talking about ‘tempo’.”

Why do I get DOMS quickly?

Unfortunately, the timings of DOMS hasn’t been well studied. “DOMS is as it says in the name – it can come after a delayed period of time after exercise, say from anywhere between six hours and 72 hours,” says Dr Christopher. “I don’t think immediate or fast DOMS are any concern, and often are a sign of muscle fatigue rather.”

But that’s not to say it’s necessarily a good sign either. “The DOMS we get can be personal and depend on experience,” she explains. 

If you’re feeling really sore, you might want to check that you haven’t picked up an injury (although pain is different to soreness, so you’ll most likely know). Dr Christophernotes that general guidelines for timing are based on studies that report on a “homogenous group of people, but our own personal response to exercise is still meaningful”. Just because the studies say it takes 12 hours doesn’t mean you won’t get DOMS in 11, especially after new or strenuous activity.

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How long should DOMS last?

Really, the problem isn’t how soon your muscles ache after exercise, but how long the soreness lasts. “From a medical perspective, if you have DOMS that lasts over a week, it could be a sign that you’ve broken down a lot of muscle tissue on a microscopic level.Tissue breakdown markers can be measured in the blood as creatine kinase, which is filtered out of the body via the kidneys,” Dr Christopher says. 

Don’t panic – we all have times when we have overdone it a bit in the gym and struggle with soreness for a little longer than we’d like. The key is keeping hydrated and fuelled to support your body (and particularly the kidneys) through the healing process, as well as ensuring your workout routine isn’t overly challenging.

“It’s about finding your zone – being challenged is good but your wellbeing and enjoyment are part of your workouts. If you’re suffering from crippling results that don’t allow you to go to work and be comfortable, it’s an indicator that you should think about toning it down. It’s about being pragmatic and valuing your body with its unique adaptation responses,” Dr Christopher says. 

Images: Getty

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