Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is not lactic acid build-up. The volume of lactic acid within a muscle does increase with exercise and continues building after exercise, but volume peaks 1-2 hours after exercise and reaches normal levels within 24 hours. DOMS, on the other hand, peaks 24-48 hours after exercise and diminishes after 2-4 days.
DOMS is not lactic acid, but no one is 100% sure what it is. The current best theory, although there's only a small amount of evidence to support this, is that DOMS is caused by micro-tears within muscles.
We might not be sure what DOMS is, but we do know how to deal with it effectively. Treatment of DOMS is two-fold: diet and exercise.
Muscles are predominantly made of protein, so you need plenty of available protein to repair damaged muscle tissue. You also need energy - chemical energy in the form of calories that will fuel the biochemical reactions needed to build muscle tissue out of dietary proteins. The most efficient foods, in terms of a speedy delivery of calories, are simple carbohydrates (a.k.a. sugars).
These proteins and calories need to be delivered to the muscle ASAP to prevent DOMS, so eat a high-protein, and high-sugar snack within 30min of exercise to prevent DOMS.
Sports Medicine Australia recommends snacks like a chicken sandwich, or yoghurt and a banana. Personally, I don't like eating solid foods after exercise, so I use a cheap, high-sugar protein shake (the "higher-quality" protein shakes don't have sugar).
Even if you have the perfect DOMS-reducing diet, if you just sit on the couch after training, you will still get terrible DOMS. Having all the chemical componants of muscle healing in your body is the first step, circulating those components to the muscles that need them is the next step.
Blood circulation is not fixed - it changes as our behaviour changes, and muscles which we're resting have a lower blood supply than muscles which we're contracting. An active recovery is essential to minimising DOMS.
Active recovery works like this - after any strenuous exercise, engage in a physically simmilar, but less intense exercise. If you ran or cycled, recover with a walk; if you did 100 push-ups, recover with some weightless bench-presses, if you swam, recover by treading water.
Repeat your active recovery as often as you can during the first 48 hours after the initial exercise, and never sit still for more than an hour.
DOMS isn't an injury, but it does hurt, and it can stop you from doing things. It's easy enough to avoid, so avoid it.
For more information on DOMS, email me directly via the contact page. For specific information on an injury you have, or for treatment, contact one of my clinics directly. You can find that information here.
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Dr Mitch Clark