Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ouch! Dealing with DOMS

I think I've mentioned before what a fan I am of being able to get in and out of chairs with relative ease. I mean, really, it's one of those things you take for granted, but when you can't... yikes. One of the main reasons I exercise is to avoid debilitating stiffness and pain, but I'll admit that sometimes, the workouts themselves make getting up and about more difficult.

In one sense, I kind of enjoy the slight muscle soreness I get from exercise. It almost seems to be the hallmark of a 'good' workout. You know you've worked it when you wake up with that nice spicy feeling. I find myself chasing the sensation, and I tend to live in an almost constant state of slight soreness here or there. I hardly even notice it anymore.

Back in May, however, I went a little overboard. My Darling Husband, who always knows a good thigh-quaking barre class is the way to my heart, gave me a most excellent Mother's Day present. He figured I was due for a good Mother's Day, since I had spend the previous two in area hospitals with our children. I had threatened to encase them in bubble wrap this year, so DH decided it was time to get me out of Dodge.

He packed me off to my happy place! That's right--a weekend in New York City to take classes at my beloved Physique 57. I'd been to P57 before, but a class with founder Tanya had still eluded me. With two whole days in the Big Apple, this was my chance.

Ok, I realize some of you might be saying, "No more Tanya! Oh that she had sprained her ankle in the first dance!" (Bonus points to the first person who can name that literary reference in the comments section. And please do it quickly, because I would hate for Tanya to think I wish her ill. So hurry! Fast! Go!) But really, this was a big thrill for me. I had come thisclose to a class with her over Christmas, but couldn't make it happen. This was going to be my Olympics.

The only class she was teaching that fit into my schedule was an intermediate level. I had a taken a mixed class four months prior and I did fine. I did all the advanced modifications and held my own, so I wasn't too scared of intermediate. I could handle it. Sure.

The only thing I didn't quite factor in was how relatively unfit I had become in those intervening months. We had taken two international trips--one to Taiwan with both the kids, from which we were all still recovering five weeks later. I had just gotten over a cold, but it would be fine. I was just so high on the thrill of actually getting to meet Tanya, a woman whose voice and image had filled my home nearly everyday for almost a year. I wasn't going to hold anything back. You vault on a broken ankle in the Olympics. (I wouldn't have really gone on a broken ankle, FYI. It's a metaphor... isn't it?)

Just so you know, I'm not someone who approaches famous people when I see them... and I've seen a lot of famous people. I'd tell you exactly who, but it would sound like pretentious name dropping, but let's just say, I've seen a lot.

Ok, I know you're dying to know, so I'll just tell you that very recently, I saw John Travolta at the Children's Museum. He looked like himself. Some of them don't... famous people, that is. Both Richard Gere and Arnold Schwarzenegger were shorter than I expected. But I never approach them or talk to them. Not even when I saw cute landscaper Chris from Ali's season of The Bachelorette at my local Starbucks. Anyway, listen to me, going on about famous people! The point is, no, I didn't talk to John Travolta. I just treasured it up in my heart and wrote about it on Facebook later.

Well, there was none of that restraint or demureness when I first saw Miss Tanya. She was coming out of her previous class and I just marched right up to her and gushed away about how much I loved her. I'm sure it was very embarrassing for her... maybe I should have been embarrassed, too? I don't even know, but I'll give props to Tanya, she was very gracious. This insane suburban housewife had been let loose on her. God bless her.

Then she beat me up... in a nice way. But I asked for it. Every advanced option she threw my way I had to try. I had made a pilgrimage! This was TANYA for heaven's sake! I couldn't just phone it in. I was going all out, leaving nothing on the table. We had a lovely chat after class during which she praised me as being 'so strong.' It must have been the adrenaline, but I'll take it. I like praise. Especially praise from Tanya.

So, yeah, I was on a little bit of a high from it all. We even took a picture!

I kind of wish we had taken it before class... I was a lot cuter and fluffier before my Olympic performance, but really, when I reflect on how I felt later, it's amazing to me that I was even upright at this point.

It took about 20 minutes for reality to set in. One of the really nice features of the 57th St. studio is that there aren't any stairs you need to negotiate to get in and out. It didn't really hit me how much trouble I was in until I attempted to descend the ridiculously long staircase into the underbelly of the New York subway. Oh Lord, have mercy. The jell-o legs hit me by the third step and I knew I was in for it.

The crazy thing is that I went BACK for MORE the following day. Well, of course I did! I can't be in New York for two full days and take only one class. Besides, I was all excited to take a class with my Darling Cousin, with whom I was staying. DC kept watching me hobble around her apartment and admitted she was 'a little scared' of what they were going to do to her. I hauled both of us out of bed the next morning and we headed off to the Spring Street studio. DC suggested taking the train, but I said, no, let's walk! So many steps we'll get on the Fitbit and I really need to warm up these thighs of mine. Not to mention taking the subway involves going down stairs.

Thankfully, we had only been able to get into a beginner class, but I was still in a world of hurt. Summer, the sweet (and excellent) instructor, came over to me during one of the thigh sequences to 'encourage' me. I gave her a pitiful, wincing look and found the strength to eek out, 'so sore!' She patted my sweaty shoulder and moved on.

So what causes soreness? It's important to know that soreness you experience during a workout is not the same thing that hits you later. The 'during' pain is the build up of lactic acid in your muscles. Lactic acid is produced during intense exercise when the oxygen demands of the muscle fibers increase beyond what the blood is able to deliver, and lactic acid is a byproduct of that process. It is what gives you the burning sensation in your muscles when you're pushing them hard to perform for you. The burn pain can be good--you're challenging yourself. Sharp pain is injury pain--if you feel any kind of sharp sensation, stop what you're doing immediately.
Lactic acid is completely flushed out of the muscles within 30 to 60 minutes after you finish exercising. Stretching can help this along, but since it's long gone by the time you experience the oh-my-I-can't-get-up-from-the-toilet feeling, it's clearly not the same thing. The latter is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and it usually creeps up on you 24-48 hours after an intense workout. I find it peaks the second day after exercise, then begins to subside.

Scientists aren't exactly sure why people experience DOMS or what they mean. In fact, researching it was wading through a morass of uncertainty. It was most unsatisfying. The theory is the pain comes from the microscopic tears in the muscle and surrounding connective tissue from challenging exercise. Pain and swelling is the muscles' response. The interesting thing is that DOMS can be a sign of having 'done something wrong,' like insufficiently warming up, but it isn't necessarily. People usually get DOMS when trying something new or push themselves beyond what they're used to even in a familiar activity. This is certainly consistent with my experience.

Usually people stop getting DOMS once their bodies become accustomed to a certain activity. One thing that was very clear from my research is that the absence of DOMS does not mean you didn't get a good workout. You can absolutely get some very useful exercise without wincing your way down the stairs the following day.

Serious DOMS, like what I experienced the WEEK after my session with Tanya (yes, it lasted a whole week), is a pretty good indicator that I did too much, but it's not the same as injury. We can talk about actual injury another time, but really, I don't get too bothered by extreme DOMS. Maybe I should, but I don't. Yes, it's unpleasant, but it goes away.

The question on most people's minds is what do you do about it? How can I avoid it or at least minimize it? Here are some tips from my years as a professional stay-at-home-mom with degrees in art history and theology. (Fries, anyone?):

1. Make sure you warm up sufficiently before starting to exercise. Insufficient warm up was definitely not the culprit for me in this case--not only had I warmed up in class, I had been walking around midtown Manhattan for about 45 minutes, plus stretching before class began. But working out on cold muscles is a very bad idea. It invites injury, so do be sure to warm up.

2. If you're just starting out exercising, or are beginning a new sport or activity, do about half as much as you think you can do the first time out. The first time I remember getting massive DOMS was when I started weight training at the age of 20. I decided I needed to 'push myself' on a set of lunges and used 7lb. dumbbells in each hand. I had to slide down the stairs on my bum for several days after. Really, body weight exercises like squats and lunges don't require additional weight when you're first starting out, and depending on the workout, I still don't weight load on a lot of them. Live and learn...

3. Try sipping on a baking soda cocktail about an hour before a tough or new workout (1-2 tablespoons of sodium bicarbonate mixed with water.) I've tried this after the soreness had already set in, but I just read that studies indicate drinking it beforehand can help minimize soreness. The taste is vile. Be forewarned.

4. Eat a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein as soon as you can after an intense strength workout. This is why a lot of weight training gurus recommend protein shakes. Protein in liquid form is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream and can help speed up the recovery process, hopefully relieving any DOMS you might experience.

Employing some or all of these techniques will likely prevent or lessen crippling DOMS, but what if you already have them?

1. KEEP MOVING. You knew I was going to say that. Really, sitting around because you are so sore is pretty much the worst thing you can do. I'm not saying don't have a rest, but you'll notice you're markedly stiffer and more sore after a long sit. The best thing you can do is keep moving around and stretching your muscles.

2. Have a massage. This helps and oh, it is so nice. DC and I went for a massage after the Olympics and wow, it was nice. I was still sore, but it was nice.

3. Try foam rolling. I'll write more on foam rolling when I get into workout recovery (that one's still in the hopper.) Foam rolling will hurt. But then, everything hurts you at this point, so you might as well do something productive.

4. Baths--ok, some people have suggested ice baths to me to reduce the muscular swelling. I know Olympic athletes have done this and I can relate to them now, but really... it sounds like hell on earth, so I've never tried it. I know I probably should, but oh... it sounds so unpleasant... Others have suggested warm Epsom salt baths. I've tried that. It's nice. I don't know if it really helped, but who doesn't like a warm bath? Apart from my five-year-old?

Other than that, it just takes all the things you'd expect--time, sleep, good food. You can also try ibuprofen to reduce the swelling. The pain will go away... eventually.

I suppose I can appreciate that delayed onset muscle soreness is not the guaranteed indicator of a good workout, but I can't quite wrap my mind around that idea that a nice, spicy feeling the day after doesn't mean something good. Surely it means I've challenged my muscles, and that's good, right? I guess it's just important not to assume your workout was useless without it.

Despite the soreness, I don't regret giving it my all at the Olympics, and when I go back, I'll do it again. You can bet I'll be trying another intermediate or even advanced class at Physique 57 in the future. Next time I'll just toss some Arm and Hammer in my water bottle before I do.


  1. Also, do a few sets of the exercise that killed you the day before. That helps me deal with DOMS. ;)

    BTW, just how short was Richard Gere? Like 5'5"?

  2. Karin, thank you. I was beginning to despair of my readership.

    Raina, I'm 5'7" and Richard was not as tall as I am... but it was a long time ago, and I was walking past at a good clip so as not to seem like a gawker.

  3. What's with Tanya's hair? I thought she's a brunette.

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