7th Dec 2021

For many, sore muscles the day or two after a particularly gruelling workout is a sign of an effective sweat session. But, have you ever wondered why you sometimes feel so stiff after exercise?

If you’ve ever left a workout feeling limber only to wake up the next morning with sore, stiff muscles, you may have experienced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS for short). 

Read on to discover the ins and outs of DOMS, its common symptoms, and how you can find some relief.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?

At its most basic, DOMS is thought to be a side effect of the repair process our muscles undergo after exercise (1)

When we exert our muscles, it’s believed to cause microscopic damage to the muscle fibres. This damage (and its subsequent repair) commonly leads to the soreness and stiffness associated with DOMS (1, 2)

The defining factor that sets DOMS apart from acute muscle pain (the “burn” you feel during the exercise itself) is the timeframe in which it develops (1)

As the same suggests, DOMS is a delayed response to unaccustomed muscle exertion and usually doesn’t occur until 12-24 hours after you’ve finished exercising. The good news is it’s short-lived, usually peaking within 24-72 hours and subsiding within the week (3).  

Unaccustomed muscle exertion is commonly experienced when the intensity or duration of exercise is increased suddenly. For this reason, DOMS is common at the beginning of a new sports season (4), after starting a new exercise program, and following a particularly lengthy session.

Another characteristic feature of DOMS is that there is no chronic pain, i.e. you only feel sore while using the muscle in question (5).

Symptoms of DOMS

When it comes to identifying DOMS, the main symptom to look out for is sore muscles that develop the day after a new or particularly difficult workout. 

Other tell-tale signs of DOMS include (1):

  • Swelling of the affected limb
  • Joint stiffness and reduced range of motion 
  • Muscle tenderness to the touch
  • Temporarily reduced strength

It’s important to note that DOMS is characterised as delayed pain (e.g. it doesn’t begin until roughly 12-24 hours post-exercise). If you develop pain during your workout that sticks around for an extended period of time, or you have concerns that you may be injured, talk to a suitably qualified health professional.

How to prevent DOMs

We know DOMS occurs after unfamiliar exercise (think suddenly increasing your weights, running downhill, or starting a new sport), so one of the best ways to prevent it is to start any new activity gently and gradually (1)

By giving your muscles time to adapt, you may minimise the likelihood of developing DOMS as well as help reduce the severity of symptoms.

A slow and steady approach to exercise includes (1, 6):

  • Warming up your muscles before each session
  • Stretching after warming up and after exercising
  • Undertaking small, frequent bursts of the new activity
  • Increasing the intensity or duration of your workout incrementally (think 10% each week)
  • Allowing your body to recover with adequate rest periods between sessions

How to relieve symptoms of DOMs

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that anything can be done to speed up recovery from DOMS.

The good news is, there are several methods that can be helpful for relieving the associated symptoms of stiffness, soreness and swelling. 

Relieve symptoms of DOMS with:

  • Active recovery: to keep your blood moving and reduce inflammation (top tip: try a gentle walk or a few slow laps in the pool) (6)
  • Ice: a trusty ice pack can help reduce inflammation of the affected area (1, 2, 6)
  • RICER: is a method commonly associated with acute injuries, but may also be helpful for relieving sore muscles (6). Learn more about RICER here
  • Massage: to relieve soreness and reduce swelling (top tip: using a foam roller has been shown to provide similar benefits to a massage) (1, 2, 3, 6, 7)

What’s Next?

If you found this information helpful, you may also enjoy:

Magnesium for Muscles: What You Need to Know to Support Your Workout


  1. Braun, W. and Sforzo, G., 2011. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). [ebook] American College of Sports Medicine, pp.1-2. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 December 2021].
  2. NHS UK. 2021. Why do I feel pain after exercise?. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  3. Pearcey, G., Bradbury-Squires, D., Kawamoto, J., Drinkwater, E., Behm, D. and Button, D., 2015. Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training, [online] 50(1), pp.5-13. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  4. Cheung, K., Hume, P. and Maxwell, L., 2003. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Treatment Strategies and Performance Factors. Sports Medicine, [online] 33(2), pp.145-164. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 December 2021]. 
  5. Proske, U., 2005. Muscle tenderness from exercise: mechanisms?. The Journal of Physiology, [online] 564(1), pp.1-1. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  6. Verywell Fit. 2021. Causes of Muscle Soreness Days After a Workout. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 December 2021]. 
  7. Zainuddin, Z., Newton, M., Sacco, P. and Nosaka, K., 2005. Effects of Massage on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, Swelling, and Recovery of Muscle Function. J Athl Train., [online] 40(3), pp.174-180. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 December 2021].