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Bodybuilders have a love-hate relationship with pain. We love it because we see it as a sign we did something right that last time we trained, but we also hate it so much that it can prevent us from training as frequently as we might want to. Of course, I’m not talking about the pain of an injury, I’m talking about delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
The pain and stiffness you feel following an unaccustomed workout usually increases during the hours afterward and then peaks around 24–48 hours later. In most cases DOMS subsides and is gone within six to seven days. There are many strategies to speed the recovery from DOMS, including massage, heat or cold applications, and of course NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.). But very few studies have examined the effects of cardiovascular activity, so a group from California State University compared the effects of aerobic exercise of different intensities on DOMS and strength recovery following an unaccustomed workout. Twenty-six subjects were split into three different groups and performed a DOMS-inducing workout of 60 eccentric reps of leg extensions followed by one of three 20-minute recovery interventions: moderate-intensity cycling, low-intensity cycling, or seated rest after the workout.
Over the course of 96 hours following the eccentric workout, neither moderate-intensity cardio nor low-intensity cardio had any effect on muscle soreness. Strength recovery was a different story. Moderate-intensity cycling led to a significant increase in isometric torque by 72 hours post-workout compared with the low-intensity group and the rest-only group. The authors of the study speculate that the increased blood flow created by the moderate-intensity cycling may have led to an accelerated removal of metabolic waste products and enhanced delivery of nutrients during the recovery period. Further research will have to be done to know if in fact this is the case.
Although DOMS is uncomfortable, it isn’t an obstacle to training. Any attempt to reduce DOMS should be done with the realization that it won’t necessarily lead to faster growth, nor will training while sore hamper your progress. The results of this study might best be applied in a trainer-client (or athlete) situation where muscle performance may be important.