We’ve all been there. You think you’re fit and strong, that you can take any workload going, and then a maximal leg day knocks you sideways. Or hill sprints get too much, you go too many rounds on the bag, scrum a little too hard on the pitch… for whatever reason, you drive your muscles harder than they are used to and DOMS hits you like a ton of bricks. Walking up a flight of stairs feels impossible, let alone getting back into the gym for another round.
How do you overcome it? Whilst a little DOMS is almost unavoidable for most long-term athletes (and if you never get it then arguably you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough), there are certain ways to mitigate the pain and fatigue.
In this article, I’ll run through some of my top foods that will help to ease the trauma of DOMS and get you back on your feet in no time.
What is DOMS?
Before we know how we can overcome it, it helps to know what DOMS is. DOMS stands for Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness. Some people call it DOMF (Delayed Onset of Muscle Fatigue.) Essentially, it is the soreness and stiffness that you experience in your muscles between 24-72 hours after exercise.
Most newcomers to any sport will get DOMS, at least following their first few sessions. It’s normal and fine. As mentioned above, even seasoned veterans get it sometimes. Thought to be caused by eccentric exercises, most postulate that DOMS is due to microtraumas in the muscle tissue (though there is yet to be any definitive academic consensus on this.)
We tear our muscles when we train, hence the microtrauma, and this is a good thing: it’s part of what leads to athletic adaptation and hypertrophy (muscle gain.) However, it can be decidedly uncomfortable.
The soreness typically peaks in intensity between 24-72 hours, though there is some room for variation here. It’s not unheard of to experience DOMS from just a few hours after training (though a proper cool-down and stretch should help to prevent this.)
From here, the soreness subsides, and the stiffness lessens, so that within 7 days you should be pain free and able to move to a full range of motion once more. However, we can speed this process up easily enough, as I’ll demonstrate below.
Eating to mitigate DOMS
DOMS may never disappear, nor should it: it’s part and parcel of the process of hypertrophy. However, we can minimise the impact it has on you and the intensity of the discomfort by utilising the right foods. Diet is key to making gains, and this rule is exemplified in the recovery phase during which DOMS is at its worst.
The following eight ingredients are my favourites for easing the pain. Include them in your diet and fitness regime to maximise and speed recovery and to mitigate the soreness of DOMS.
Bananas aren’t quite a superfood, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re close. They are an easily digestible source of carbs and fibre. The sugars give you enough of an insulin pick-up to help drive protein into your muscle fibres. This will help your muscles as they recover and grow and will give you a bit of energy to overcome post-workout lethargy.
Bananas are also a fantastic source of potassium, which has been suggested to help reduce DOMS.
I like to eat bananas raw, diced up into high protein, Icelandic Skyr yoghurt. Alternatively, slice one onto toast with peanut butter, blend one into a shake or smoothie or cook one in with your morning porridge.
Tart cherry juice
Tart cherry juice has been shown to aid recovery, improving recovery time and diminishing muscular fatigue. It will help to reduce DOMS and heal your muscles’ microtears quickly, especially when combined with other products on this list.
Mix it into a yoghurt, blend it into your post-workout shake, or shoot a tumbler as a pre- or post-workout pick-me-up.
The third and final fruit on this list, watermelon is one of the favourite summer snacks for a fresh, cold shot of goodness. It helps to hydrate you post-workout and gives you a great feeling of refreshment when you’re hot and bothered.
There is more to watermelon than this, however. It contains l-citrulline, which has been shown to ease muscle soreness.
Watermelon juice (made including the rind, which contains the most l-citrulline) is therefore a great post-workout drink. Either drink it as it is, enjoying the pick-me-up from the sugar, or mix it in with your protein shake. Alternatively, keep a watermelon in the fridge and jump straight in when you fancy it!
Let’s get into the protein, now. Obviously, any and all protein will be good for you when you’re training. It will help your muscles to recover, and frequent DOMS is often a sign that you’re not getting enough. However, some sources are better than others at reducing muscle fatigue and soreness.
Cottage cheese is one of the best sources going of the amino acid casein. Eating it before bed can lead to increased muscle synthesis. Cottage cheese also contains a great deal of the branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine, which is known for its ability to accelerate healing and reduce muscle soreness.
What’s more, cottage cheese goes really well with watermelon and other fruits. Eat it with a sweet fruit like this so that the sugar drives that protein goodness to where it’s needed most.
My personal favourite protein source, eggs will help to reduce DOMS and fuel hypertrophy. Similar to cottage cheese, eggs contain plenty of leucine, which aids muscle recovery. The healthy fats it delivers will also contribute to joint health, keeping you mobile as you recover.
A medium egg gives you around 6-7 grams of protein at about 70 calories, with most of the remainder being comprised of fat. I suggest a 4-5 egg omelette the evening after a heavy workout as an easy, tasty way to buff up your protein intake for the day.
Rounding out the proteins now, let’s look at salmon, one of the best anti-inflammatory foods going. This is primarily due to the omega-3 fatty acids it gives you in abundance, alongside its antioxidant content. Added to the complete protein that salmon flesh delivers, this gives you plenty to help you recover from a heavy workout.
Smoked salmon and cream cheese is a classic combination. Alternatively, pan fry a couple of fillets or shred it into a salad.
Eating various spices can help you to get over DOMS faster. The antioxidants provided by chillies and peppers like paprika will help you to recover faster, as will baking spices like ginger and cinnamon.
Turmeric is one of my personal favourites in this regard. Not only does it give you a lovely, earthy taste that hits foody low-notes, but it has been proven to be one of the best anti-inflammatories around. It will greatly speed up muscle recovery and decrease soreness.
Whenever you’re looking to create a bit of flavour, therefore, reach for the spice rack and be liberal: your taste buds and your muscles will thank you.
I’m a coffee lover and its benefit to DOMS mitigation gives me the perfect excuse to indulge my habit. Caffeine is a known painkiller, and a couple of cups have been shown to reduce muscle soreness after heavy workouts by nearly half.
DOMS also often comes with a relatively intense feeling of lethargy. If you get into a post-workout funk, sore and unable to motivate yourself, try reaching for a cup of the good stuff- it will kill the pain and get you moving in no time.
So there we have it: my top foods for getting over DOMS. There are plenty of others that didn’t make my list, and as mentioned above, any and all proteins will be welcome after training. However, for me, these eight are great. You can incorporate them into a healthy, tasty diet with ease and little expense, and find your DOMS diminishing with every mouthful.