The first thing to know about muscle pain from exercise is that it’s not all the same. Acute muscle soreness, for example, is an immediate pain which is felt during or straight after exercise. It’s what is occasionally referred to in 1980s aerobics videos as ‘The Burn’, and is the result of the buildup of various chemicals in muscle tissue during exercise or as the result of exercise fatigue. It usually resolves itself fairly quickly once the exercise is over.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) on the other hand can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours after exercise to present itself and can last for up to 72 hours. We’ll look at what causes DOMS in this article, so for now let’s say that if you’re working out at a really high intensity, trying a new form of exercise or moving your muscles in a manner to which they are not accustomed, you are quite likely to experience DOMS.
Where acute muscle soreness has been likened to a burning sensation which dissipates after exercise (although sometimes the effect does linger, trust me), DOMS has been described as more of a throbbing, aching pain. You may experience a lot of muscle tightness, which makes everyday tasks like standing up and walking difficult, and the muscle itself might become tender to the touch. We’re talking the whole muscle here - any sharp shooting pains, and any pains which don’t subside might be the cause of an injury.
So, what can we do to help reduce DOMS? This article looks at what causes DOMS and if protein powder may be able to help.
What causes DOMS?
There are a lot of different theories as to the true cause of delayed onset muscle soreness, including combinations of inflammation, muscle damage and connective tissue damage. All of these theories lead back to the fact that exercise, especially at unexpectedly high intensity, causes trauma to muscle tissue in the form of microscopic tears. It is these tears and the associated inflammation which can cause the pain associated with DOMS.
The theory that lactic acid, a waste product of turning carbohydrate into energy during exercise, is the cause of DOMS has been found to be untrue. Lactic acid is excreted via sweat in the hours following exercise and does not remain in the body for a long enough period to cause DOMS (Schwane et al., 1983).
Someone who has taken a break from high intensity exercise, and then returns to it at the same level they were at before the break is likely to experience levels of muscle trauma high enough to cause DOMS.
Even if you’re at the peak of your fitness, a sharp increase in the duration, intensity or load of your workout can cause DOMS, as it will also create those tears in your muscle tissue. As much as we want to feel like a superhero in the gym, a steady increase in the intensity of workouts is more beneficial in the long run than going all out - you know you’re making progress when the workout that affected your muscles at the beginning is no longer causing muscle strain and pain.
Isn’t DOMS just my body telling me I had a good workout?
Not really. You see, a good workout at a suitable level for your fitness and physique can be achieved without the crippling pain of DOMS. Acute muscle soreness may be present during a hard workout, but DOMS is your body’s way of telling you that it may have been a little too much - a sign to take a step back and reconsider that extra 20 minutes next time, so to speak.
What the soreness also tells you is that the body is busy performing a complex web of activities to heal the damaged tissue, grow new muscle tissue, and strengthen the existing tissue to limit any future damage.
And that’s where protein can come in really handy…
Can protein help with DOMS?
DOMS is a signal that your muscles have received a pounding and are in the process of healing and growing. We know that one of the main functions of using protein powders and shakes is to enhance muscle recovery after exercise by providing us with BCAAs (or branched-chain amino acids).
BCAAs help to promote muscle recovery and build new muscle tissue. Studies have shown that supplementing with protein powders containing BCAAs can help to reduce DOMS and also reduce the damage to the muscle tissue which can cause it. This is because BCAAs can activate a signalling pathway in the body called mTOR, the main way muscles build new muscle proteins (Yoon, 2017).
A review of several studies has also shown the effects of protein powder supplements on reducing the likelihood of developing DOMS after exercise. All of the 27 studies which were reviewed indicated that protein supplements (of all types) decreased DOMS. What was also shown was a lack of any link between reducing DOMS and when that supplement was consumed in relation to exercise. Essentially, protein supplements can help to reduce DOMS, and it doesn’t appear that timing has any impact on this. (Pasiakos, Lieberman and McLellan, 2014)
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can drink a protein shake and expect DOMS to magically disappear from your life. Whilst protein powders, especially those containing extra BCAAs, can have an impact on muscle tissue recovery and growth, consistently pushing yourself far beyond your current limits will have an effect on your muscle tissue.
A consistent protein supplement alongside a consistent gradual increase in weight, load, duration or intensity of exercise will be more beneficial for your muscles in the long run. And rather than relying solely on supplements to help, there are other ways of managing and relieving the pain and soreness that comes along with DOMS. Again, consistency is key, but making sure you stretch every day (even if it hurts!), heating the muscle, very gentle exercise such as walking and swimming, and making sure that you always have a cool down session after a workout will also help (Cheung, Hume and Maxwell, 2003).
Using a high-quality plant-based protein powder with added BCAAs is a good way to increase your body’s ability to recover quickly and effectively after exercise. Vivo Life’s PERFORM not only contains 25g of protein per serving, it was designed with recovery in mind. It has 6g of added BCAAs to help you recover faster and rebuild damaged tissue, and it also contains turmeric extract which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Using PERFORM as your protein supplement of choice will not only help you build muscle, it will help you to protect it, too.
Schwane, J.A., Watrous, B.G., Johnson, S.R. and Armstrong, R.B. (1983). Is Lactic Acid Related to Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness? The Physician and Sportsmedicine, [online] 11(3), pp.124–131. doi:10.1080/00913847.1983.11708485.
Pasiakos, S.M., Lieberman, H.R. and McLellan, T.M. (2014). Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Damage, Soreness and Recovery of Muscle Function and Physical Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 44(5), pp.655–670. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0137-7.