Image: Parks and Rec.
Last year, I tried my first reformer pilates class. I had a flight to South Africa booked in two days later but figured the bulk of my post-pilates ache would be over by the time I reached the airport, so I wasn’t too concerned.
Alas, I was very, very wrong. When the session wrapped up, our instructor proffered a dire warning: “You probably won’t feel it tomorrow, but the day after, you definitely will.” Unfortunately for me, he was absolutely spot on, and I endured an extremely achey 14 hours in the air.
A bit of soreness (or “the burrrrrn“, as fit people love to call it) after exercising is to be expected, but I’m consistently surprised by how the full force of my workout tends to hit a full two days after the fact. Day one is bad enough, but then boom — I find myself walking like… well, someone much older than my 26 years.
This phenomenon has a name: delayed onset of muscle soreness, or DOMS. It’s characterised by tenderness and soreness in your muscles, which peaks 48-72 hours after your workout is done. (Post continues after gallery.)
“DOMS frequently occurs following unaccustomed or strenuous exercise, and in particular, with strength training … [it] is largely caused by exercise-induced micro trauma to your muscle fibres,” explains Katie Lyndon, Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Exercise & Sports Science Australia.
If you’re anything like me, you probably just saw the word “trauma” and felt immediately guilty for what you’ve been inflicting on your muscles. (Sorry, guys — promise I didn’t mean to cause you harm!)
However, this isn’t something you should be too concerned about; Lyndon says a mild degree of micro-trauma is actually beneficial. “It facilitates improvements in muscle strength and hypertrophy, or toning, as these muscle fibres repair and rebuild,” she explains.
As for why the pain is so much more concentrated on day 2 or 3, personal trainer and Pick It Up! Fitness founder Michael Genitsaris says this comes down to the adaptation process. ”
After a strenuous workout, your body realises that it needs to start getting stronger so that next time you undergo that workout it will be easier and more efficient. However this process doesn’t happen immediately,” he explains.
"Between completion of your workout and the final stage of muscle adaptation, a whole bunch of science stuff happens to help repair and strengthen those micro tears in your muscles. This process can take up to a few days depending on the severity of the micro tears, which is why sometimes muscles soreness can be at its worst 24-48 hours post-workout."
That doesn't mean you won't also feel the burn in the immediate aftermath — Genitsaris says mild pain at this stage is very common and isn't anything to worry about, as long as it's centralised to your muscles. So don't panic if you experience a reduced range of motion, or muscle swelling or stiffness in the days after your workout.
"However if there is any sharp pain in your joints, or shooting pain like an electric shock during or after a workout, debilitating pain or sever decrease in limb functionality, it would be the correct time to stop and seek some advice or help from a professional," Genitsaris adds.