The term D.O.M.S. is used frequently within the world of endurance, it represents the ‘Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness’. The name refers to the fact that sometimes you don’t actually feel the effects of a training session or race until the following day when you step out of bed. Those who have ran a marathon will understand the sensation. You cross the line and undoubtedly you’re tired but there isn’t a great deal of physical pain. However, the next morning, or even worse, the morning after that, your attempts to walk downstairs backwards provide the family with the highest level of entertainment they have ever experienced.
So what’s happened? Has someone been repeatedly battering your tired legs throughout the night whilst you failed to wake from your exercise induced, coma like sleep? The answer lies with D.O.M.S. and the inflammation process.
The inflammation process
During a marathon running event the muscle tissue is damaged due to repeated stress and this triggers the inflammation process. The damage occurs DURING the marathon but the inflammation process takes 24-48 hours to reach its peak, so the pain you feel the following morning was actually happening DURING the second half of the race.
At this point you may be wondering why I keep typing the word 'DURING' in capital letters. This bit is really important, when people slow down in the final 6 miles of the marathon, we generally blame low carbohydrate stores, often termed ‘hitting the wall’. However, there is likely to be a huge amount of muscle tissue damage and internal tissue bleeding. This is one of the reasons why we slow down, it doesn't matter how many gels you take if your legs are falling apart.
D.O.M.S. occurs 24-48 hours after the event but it’s CRITICAL to recognise that the pain you experience 24-48 hours after the race is caused by damage which happened DURING the marathon. That's why you were getting slower!! If you could feel the damage occurring from mile 13 onwards, you might not blame a lack of gels. Unfortunately it's masked by pain killing hormones and doesn't really kick in until you've stopped and slept for 24 hours. REMEMBER, It's happening real time as you run.
How do I know if I’ve got tissue damage as opposed to simply having tight muscles?
- It’ll be very ‘tender, warm and swollen’ and if someone squeezes your leg you’ll instinctively want to punch them (NB: they never see the funny side of your response).
- When you stretch, it makes no difference to the tenderness, the pain still exists (it’s not tight, its damaged) and its probably better if you actually don’t stretch!
*Myth explosion – the pain and tenderness the day after the event has absolutely nothing to do with lactic acid in the muscles. It's an old wife's tail and I'm not even open to discussion on the matter.
How does damage affect performance?
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that a damaged muscle will not work as effectively as a healthy muscle. However, aside from the actual physical damage directly affecting performance, it’s possible that the inflammation process is acting directly on the brain. Research has shown that the chemical released into the blood stream due to tissue damage may send a signal to your brain, which stops the muscles working.
How does energy and nutrition relate to tissue damage?
People talk a great deal about carbohydrate and fat use during exercise and how to refuel. There is a presumption that if you refuel correctly and use fat as a fuel source, you will be successful in endurance events. As a consequence, when people fail to hit their target times, the first thing they turn to as an excuse is 'failing to get the nutrition correct'. We treat nutrition as some kind of magic wand and if it's done correctly, you can cycle and run forever, but the reality is very different.
Here's the thing. It doesn't matter how much fuel you pour into a broken car, it isn't going to drive anywhere fast. You can burn lots of fat and be very economical in terms of energy, but if your legs are simply broken, you're going nowhere.
Can you tell me how to stop my legs breaking?
For a start, you need to understand the main cause, which is 'weight bearing / impact'. Consider this, the energy used when cycling and running at a steady pace are not that different (slightly higher for running). However, many people can cycle for 6 hours with little issue, but find themselves in pretty bad shape after as little as 2 hours of running. Why can we cycle for so much longer than running? Do we use less energy cycling or is running a lot more damaging? The answer is the latter.
What causes the damage?
- Damage is caused by repetitive impact with the ground. It will be far greater if you’re not conditioned to the distance and terrain. In simple terms you need to spend time on your feet and do the longer sessions to 'toughen up' your legs.
- Harder surfaces are more likely to cause damage, although this isn’t always strictly true as runners do become accustomed to the surface they train on.
- Running uphill has low impact, running on the flat has significant impact and running downhill is the real killer! When running downhill, muscles contract eccentrically, braking your speed/fall, thereby causing much greater damage.
- There's no getting round the fact that the only way to condition your legs is doing the mileage. Time on your feet is critical to harden your legs. High intensity intervals will make you quick, but they won't stop you falling apart after 3-4 hours of running.
- If you're doing races on hilly or mountain terrain, then you need to take that into account. In particular, you need to harden your legs to the descending. Climbing hills will stress your heart, but going down will destroy your legs.
- Your weight will have an impact upon damage, if you have a few KGs to lose, you should do that before the event. If you're carrying a pack, then make sure you pass the kit list, always be safe, but don't ignore the overall weight.
- If you're racing on hard surfaces such as road, then training on soft / off road surfaces all the time will not adequately prepare your legs. You need to do longer runs on the surface you intend to race on, at the pace you intend to run.
- Footwear can play a part. It's no surprise that HOKA shoes have become so popular in recent years. If used correctly, by the right runners, excessive cushioning can help to reduce both damage and D.O.M.S.
I don't do garbage yardage!!
The term 'garbage yardage' refers to unstructured training with no clear outcome. What's the point in running pointless steady miles, when you can do higher quality work? That's all fine... but don't label running slow for a long period of time to toughen your legs as 'garbage yardage'. Steady mileage on road or 'time on your feet' is very valuable as it toughens the legs, reduces damage and thereby improves performance. It's only 'garbage yardage' when you don't know why you're doing it...
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