a group of people jogging

With exercise recovery, less is not more

With exercise recovery, less is not more

Author: Jonine Moller

Sore muscles caused by physical exercise are something we may not all be used to but have felt before. Athletes know the term and pain all too well. Couch potatoes may be less familiar but have also most probably had the experience at least once before.

Although “soreness” obviously refers to hurting, some people may even enjoy this type of pain. Many find it satisfying. However, too much of it at once is neither good nor enjoyable.

DOMS stands for delayed onset of muscle soreness. That sore, stiff feeling in muscles that worked hard a day or two ago. It will most likely occur when you start any new exercise program or with any first-time activities. Ramping up your exercise program should also do the job.

Eccentric muscle contractions specifically are what lead to DOMS. In fact, concentric muscle contractions don’t cause muscle soreness.

However, isometric contractions may also contribute, especially when a lot of force is applied in a muscle’s lengthened position [1].

What are these different muscle contractions? When the force generated by a muscle causes it to shorten, it is a concentric contraction. An eccentric contraction occurs when a muscle lengthens under tension. Isometric contractions don’t involve any movement.

For example, your quad/thigh muscles eccentrically contract when you walk downhill. Usually, when you pick up a weight, your muscles contract concentrically. A plank is a good example of when your muscles contract isometrically.

An increase in intensity or volume of resistance automatically adds to the eccentric load on the muscles. This is because almost any resistance exercise involves an eccentric contraction.

Full speed sprinting and any activity that includes forceful movements or jumping also involve many eccentric muscle contractions. These are the activities with the highest risk for non-contact muscle tears. Eccentric muscle strengthening is thus an essential aspect of training to aid in preventing muscle strains.

Due to DOMS occurring most frequently after resistance or strength training, many people associate the pain with building muscle. Many people view DOMS as proof that their exercise session was adequate. Did your session even mean anything if it didn’t cause DOMS?

It is true that the recovery processes involved during DOMS ultimately lead to the strengthening of your muscles. However, muscle strengthening does not require DOMS. Too much could actually impair your muscles’ adaptations to training.

The pain experienced with DOMS is not necessarily caused by muscle damage [1]. Nevertheless, muscle damage is present and is accompanied by inflammation, free radicals, and leakage of proteins into the bloodstream [2]. DOMS is not due to lactic acid as it is commonly misperceived.

Higher intensity eccentric exercise causes more severe DOMS. Exercise intensity and DOMS severity also go along with how soon the onset of DOMS is and its duration [3]. Otherwise stated, higher intensity training causes more severe DOMS, which comes sooner and lasts longer.

Typically symptoms may start hours or one day after exercise and peak 48 to 72 hours after exercise [2, 3]. Research has shown that muscle pain is closely associated with levels of muscle protein in the blood.

The interplay of all the cellular factors in the muscles involved during DOMS influences recovery [1]. Depending on the severity of DOMS, full recovery thereof may need 72 hours to seven days. The completeness of recovery is best determined by the return of the muscle’s strength and performance [1, 3].

Considering the damage to muscle fibers, it should be logical that rest days are required between tough exercise sessions. Time is needed for the muscles’ repair. Exercise acts as the stimulus/signal that adaptations are needed. However, the actual adaptations occur during post-exercise recovery [4].

A successful exercise routine consists of a well-balanced plan of fatiguing exercise between rest periods for muscle recovery. An imbalance in either direction will impede performance gains. This is the basic principle around which the supercompensation theory is built [4]. Too severe DOMS will lengthen the needed recovery period. As a result, less exercise can be performed to stimulate adaptation. Thus, excessive muscle soreness will extend the time needed for the improvement of muscle performance [4].

For ideal gains in performance, sufficient exercise intensity is needed. This intensity must, however, be low enough to prevent excessive DOMS [4]. Finding optimal training intensities and recovery periods is probably the essence of an exercise program [5].

Determining optimal training intensities and recovery periods is, however, not simple. Individual differences significantly affect these factors. It has been found that the build-up of fatigue depends on a person’s predominant muscle fiber type. Our muscle fiber type ratios are genetically determined [6].

A person’s genes also influence their likelihood of developing DOMS and post-exercise inflammation. This then directly affects how much time they need to recover [7]. Too little recovery over time leads to declines in muscle performance and increases the risk for overuse injuries [4].

Thus, it is not only your fitness level that influences how much time you need to recover between exercise sessions. Our genes also participate in determining our need for a certain amount of recovery from exercise.

Luckily, we can employ numerous strategies to reduce muscle soreness after intense exercise. A meta-analysis was done on many studies investigating different recovery modalities on markers of DOMS and perceived fatigue. Post-exercise massage seems to be the most effective at aiding recovery [5].

Coldwater immersion (11-15⁰C for 11-15 minutes) and the wear of compression garments are also (but less) effective. Active recovery (low-intensity aerobic exercise like a leisurely bike ride), contrast water therapy, and ice therapy only decreased the perception of muscle soreness [5].

Stretching does nothing to prevent muscle soreness. Stretching may, in actual fact, contribute to worsening it [5].

Massage aids in recovery by enhancing blood flow and reducing fluid build-up [5]. In the process, circulating markers of muscle damage and inflammation are reduced. Evidence shows that self-massage with a foam roller may have similar benefits if getting a massage isn’t viable [8].

Wearing compression garments aids recovery by limiting the build-up of fluids in the muscles. The theory behind cold water immersion is that it reduces inflammation and muscle damage. This is most likely through the effects of the cold and hydrostatic pressure [5].

You can partly prevent DOMS by stepping up your training step by step and by making use of the recovery methods mentioned above. By doing this you can minimize the time that you need to rest between hard sessions.

Being aware of your genetic make-up regarding your inherent need for recovery takes some of the guesswork out of program planning. There is power in knowing your genetic predisposition to develop more inflammation after exercise. This knowledge may make it easier to listen to your body and rest adequately.

As a part of the fitness toolkit, Biocertica tests your inclination towards needing less or more recovery after an intense workout. By optimizing the recovery time between exercise sessions, you can get closer to effectively working towards achieving your full potential.


[1] Peake, J. M., Neubauer, O., Gatta, P. A. D., & Nosaka, K. (2017). Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 122(3), 559–570. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00971.2016

[2] Kanda, K., Sugama, K., Hayashida, H., Sakuma, J., Kawakami, Y., Miura, S., Yoshioka, H., Mori, Y., & Suzuki, K. (2013). Eccentric exercise-induced delayed-onset muscle soreness and changes in markers of muscle damage and inflammation. Exercise Immunology Review, 19, 72–85.

[3] Kachanathu, S. J., Sivaram, C., Naqvi, W., & Natho, M. (2015). The Relationship Between Time of Onset and Duration of Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness with the Intensity of Exercises Performed. Journal of Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation, 1(2), 2–5.

[4] Wada, N., Ito, K., & Nakagawa, T. (2020). Optimal training plans on physical performance considering supercompensation. Communications in Statistics - Theory and Methods, 49(15), 3761–3771. https://doi.org/10.1080/03610926.2020.1722845

[5] Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An evidence-based approach for choosing post-exercise recovery techniques to reduce markers of muscle damage, Soreness, fatigue, and inflammation: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(APR), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403

[6] Lievens, E., Klass, M., Bex, T., & Derave, W. (2020). Muscle fiber typology substantially influences time to recover from high intensity exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 128(3), 648–659. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00636.2019

[7] Baumert, P., Lake, M. J., Stewart, C. E., Drust, B., & Erskine, R. M. (2016). Genetic variation and exercise-induced muscle damage: implications for athletic performance, injury and ageing. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(9), 1595–1625. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-016-3411-1

[8] Pearcey, G. E. P., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J. E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01