While delayed onset muscle soreness – commonly known as DOMS – is perhaps associated more with body building, weight lifting and fitness sports like Cross Fit, it can also be a significant issue for many endurance athletes, particularly at times when there may be little recovery time between training sessions or when either volume or intensity are significantly increased. Multi-day endurance events may also be adversely affected by DOMS.
Some soreness is to be expected after training; it’s a sign that your muscles are adapting to the stimulus of the session and a certain amount of inflammation is a normal part of the muscle adaptation process which, as part of a well thought out and progressive training plan, should result in better performance. DOMS is not the same as the muscle soreness experienced immediately after exercise, but rather kicks in 12-24 hours later, when you experience swelling, tenderness and reduced muscle strength. The DOMS symptoms are the result of this inflammatory response. The main cause is microscopic tears in the muscle fibres, which are a necessary part of the strengthening process. To get stronger, muscles need to be stressed until they start to break down. In response to the damage, they are repaired and built back up stronger than before. This is an important part of how we improve our fitness.
So, should you try to reduce DOMS, or accept it as part of the process which makes you a better performing athlete? I would argue that it depends on the time of your training year. In the base season, when you are most likely to be undertaking specific strength building sessions alongside your low intensity endurance training, it might be best to allow the full process of muscle adaptation to take place through the damage and repair cycle described above. This may mean experiencing DOMS to some extent. From a nutritional perspective during this time, ensure that your diet includes plenty of high quality protein to support the muscle adaptation process. Choose from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds. Aim for 1.2-1.4g of protein for each kg of your body weight each day. So that’s 90-105g for a 75kg endurance athlete. See this website for a list of the best protein sources and how much is in a serving: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=92
Once you move into the build phase of your training and particularly during the competitive season itself, you may find that following some strategies to reduce DOMS is worthwhile if it speeds up recovery time and enables you to perform better during subsequent training sessions. This would also apply to multi-day endurance events. Popular non-nutritional strategies, beyond the scope of this blog to discuss, include wearing compression clothing, taking ice baths, having a massage and undertaking active recovery such as a swim, easy bike or walk.
So what about nutrition? There have been a number of recent studies which have looked at the effect of certain nutrients on reducing muscle soreness. It appears that taking curcumin as a supplement may have some benefits. Curcumin is the active constituent of the spice turmeric and has been used a remedy in Indian and Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Curcumin is a potent anti-oxidant, which helps to protect DNA from oxidation damage. It also inhibits the activity of Nuclear Factor Kappa B which produces an anti-inflammatory effect. In a recently published study 1, subjects were instructed to do leg workouts with or without a curcumin-containing supplement. One leg was trained while taking 2.5g turmeric for 2.5 days before and after the exercise and the other leg was trained 14 days later while not taking turmeric, therefore acting as a control. Taking the turmeric was shown to decrease most measures of post-exercise pain in the subjects relative to the placebo, and there were also minor effects on biochemical markers of inflammation and muscle damage. This isn’t a study on endurance athletes, but its finding may still be relevant. The amount of curcumin required would mean taking a turmeric supplement but you could also add turmeric spice to foods regularly, eg in a curry.
Another nutritional strategy which is becoming popular among some endurance athletes is to take New Zealand blackcurrant extract, which is particularly high in a type of plant chemical called anthocyanins. These are also found in other berries. Anthocyanins are known to influence relaxation of the blood vessels and therefore blood flow. Recently published research using the New Zealand blackcurrant supplement CurraNZ (www.healthcurrancy.co.uk) has shown both benefits to performance in endurance athletes and increased lactate clearance after high intensity intermittent exercise, promoting quicker recovery 2 3. Anecdotally, athletes are reported reduced muscle soreness after exercise and less residual fatigue in the legs when taking CurraNZ, although clearly further research is required on this aspect.
A third nutrient which might be worth considering if DOMS is a significant issue for you is N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), which is a precursor to glutathione, your body’s main anti-oxidant system. Glutathione helps enzymes in muscle cells to carry out their protective functions. Some people have a genetic variation which means that they cannot naturally produce an optimal level of glutathione; these people might benefit from supplementing NAC or even liposomal glutathione. But since excess glutathione production inhibits the Nuclear Factor Kappa-B inflammatory response that is required for muscle adaptation to take place (as outlined earlier), taking NAC may actually inhibit that adaptation and reduce the benefits of training 4. NAC is a nutrient to experiment with, perhaps, to see if it helps to reduce DOMS but ideally you would be tested to see if you had the GST-M1 gene deletion before taking it long term. As with the other nutrients, NAC is perhaps for the competition season only and best not taken during periods of strength training or base building.
In summary, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is effectively part of the process of muscle adaptation that contributes to performance gains. For that reason, it may be best to not to try to reduce it during the earlier parts of your seasonal training programme. However, during the competitive season and particularly during multi-day endurance events, it may be worth experimenting with a number of nutritional supplement strategies which may be helpful in enabling you to continue to train and race by reducing DOMS: curcumin (found in the spice turmeric), blackcurrant extract and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC).
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk
1 Nicol et al. Curcumin supplementation likely attenuates delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Mar 21 [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25795285
2 Willems et al. Beneficial physiological effects with blackcurrant intake in endurance athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2015 Mar 26 [Epub ahead of print]
3 Perkins et al. New Zealand blackcurrant extract improves high intensity intermittent running. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2015 Mar 26 [Epub ahead of print]
4 Michailidis et al. Thiol-based anti-oxidant supplementation alters human skeletal muscle signalling and attenuates its inflammatory response and recovery after intense eccentric exercise. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013. 98 (1): 233-45