Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs) is something that comes hand-in-hand with training hard. If you plan on training hard for an extended period, no matter how you go about it, you are going to experience DOMs at some stage.
There is variety in how it presents. For some people, the soreness might peak 24 hours after the session. For others, it might be 48 hours later.
Either way, most people would ideally like to reduce the impact of it. At minimum it is just burdensome and annoying, but beyond that it could also impact performance as well.
The first thing I want to acknowledge is that if you train a muscle group in a way it has not experienced for a long time, you are going to get sore no matter what.
DOMs are strongly linked with muscle damage as well.
Any significant increase in training volume for an area of the body is likely going to cause pretty harsh DOMs.
Nutrition can reduce the impact of this significantly. But I wanted to put this caveat out there first, because even with perfect nutrition for limiting DOMs, they will still occur.
The goal is not to prevent DOMs from ever occurring, it is more to manage them in a way that reduces their impact.
One of the things that I assumed coming into writing this article that I have never really fact checked because it seemed so obvious to me, is that consuming an optimised protein intake for muscle growth would likely reduce muscle soreness.
And everything I write, I also want to line up with what the research shows, if possible.
For example, I’ve long been aware of the literature indicating that consuming protein during endurance exercise appears to reduce markers of muscle damage and reported DOMs 12-24 hours post exercise. This is typically added in addition to carbohydrates that are already being utilised for performance benefits.
When it comes to the overall theme of protein reducing muscle soreness, the research is surprisingly less clear.
Under some circumstances, such as consuming the supplement post-workout while in a calorie deficit, there was a benefit in comparison to the control group. As an overall theme though, the results were not that clear cut.
Another study comparing 1.8g/kg/day of protein to 2.9g/kg/day of protein highlighted no differences in muscle soreness either.
That being said, muscle growth typically seems to be capped out at around the 1.6g/kg/day protein range for most resistance training individuals.
A typical range recommended for optimising hypertrophy is around 1.6-2.2g/kg/day, spread over 4-6 protein rich meals/snacks.
Therefore, if muscle growth is capped out at that range, comparing 1.8g/kg/day with 2.9g/kg/day might be an irrelevant comparison for what we are discussing here. Something that might show more of a difference could be something like 0.8g/kg/day compared to 1.6g/kg/day, as an example.
I might be missing something, but I have not yet found something that shows a comparison like that. The majority of people I see discussing this topic are pointing to the protein shakes study I referred to earlier, which in my opinion does not really settle the debate.
Based on theoretical reasoning, I would make the assumption that a sub-optimal protein intake likely increases muscle soreness 24-48 hours post-workout, in comparison to an optimised protein intake. Although I have not seen research on the topic, and I am happy to be wrong on this one, it seems like a pretty safe conclusion.
BCAAs and EAAs
Branched Cain Amino Acids (BCAAs) and Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) are consistently linked with reduced DOMs.
If consumed within/around a session, they appear to reduce the breakdown of muscle that occurs.
A systematic review on the topic involving studies utilising 2g+ per day for 10+ days highlighted significant reductions in muscle damage and soreness.
One caveat that I want to add is that almost all BCAA and EAA studies utilise sub-optimal total protein intakes.
Based on my theoretical reasoning above, this could partly explain why the addition of these amino acids is consistently helpful for this purpose.
I also hypothesise that if total protein intake each day were to be sufficient, it would likely account for the majority of the reductions in muscle soreness that occurs due to supplementing these amino acids.
For now, if you are about undertaking training that is going to cause severe DOMs and you want to do everything you can to limit them, it could be worth considering BCAAs and EAAs just in case.
Omega 3’s have been shown to consistently help reduce DOMs.
The main mechanism behind this appears to be due to how they impact the inflammatory response. Omega 3’s increase EPA and DHA levels in the blood, which results in decreased markers associated with an inflammatory response.
This reduction in inflammation results in a reduction in DOMs.
One study highlighted that 2.7g of omega-3 daily for 30 days resulted in a reduction in C-Reactive Protein (which is a marker of inflammation) in addition to reductions in self-reported muscle soreness.
At this stage, the evidence looks mostly positive. But the fact that some studies with null findings exist is a bit of a sign that it is not magical.
Normally when I talk about citrulline (or citrulline malate) I am referring to the performance enhancing effects.
Citrulline does have potential to reduce muscle soreness though.
The most common study referenced when people discuss this topic involves 500ml of watermelon juice (1.17g of l-citrulline) and enriched watermelon juice (4.83g of added l-citrulline in addition to 1.17g already in it).
Both options reduced muscle soreness 24 hours later, in comparison to watermelon juice that did not contain any citrulline.
6g of citrulline is more of a standard effective dose for performance than the 1.17g in the regular 500ml of watermelon juice. But the fact that they both reduced muscle soreness is interesting.
A systematic review on the topic featuring 13 articles also found significant reductions in muscle soreness.
There are two proposed mechanisms for this:
- Citrulline facilitates the clearance of ammonia. This results in a reduction of lactate accumulation in the blood. That being said, lactate does not seem to be a massive contributor to muscle soreness as a general rule.
- Citrulline increases nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is involved in muscle contractile function and repair. This could explain the reductions in muscle soreness.
A 2013 study demonstrated that caffeine has potential to reduce DOMs. 5mg/kg of caffeine was ingested 1hr before exercise, 24hrs after and then daily for an additional 3 days. DOMs were significantly reduced between 2 and 3 days after exercise, in comparison to the placebo group.
The proposed mechanism is related to adenosine receptor function. Caffeine acts as an adenosine agonist and blocks this effect.
Another study that also utilised 5mg/kg also showed similar outcomes.
Based on this research, 5mg/kg seems like the dosage to use. Food for thought though, that is a fair bit of caffeine.
In Australia, 500ml energy drinks typically have 160mg of caffeine. Which means for an 80kg athlete aiming for 400mg caffeine, this would be the equivalent of >1L of energy drinks.
I have used energy drinks as an example because caffeine content of coffee is so variable. A coffee can often be considered to be ~80mg of caffeine, but you will see a variety of numbers everywhere, since the content legitimately is so variable.
A final caveat is that although I have no seen specific research on sleep and DOMs, I think it is safe to assume that improved sleep will help reduce DOMs. At minimum, sleep deprivation seems to increase pain levels, as a general rule.
If caffeine impacts sleep, that would be less than ideal. Therefore, use common sense and avoid having high dosages of caffeine like this near the time you are planning on sleeping.
Vitamin D supplementation (or just getting more sun in general if necessary) is one of those things that is super beneficial for so many things if blood levels of vitamin D are sub-optimal.
This typically either means a clinical deficiency, or even just on the lower side of the healthy range.
If blood levels are on the high end of the healthy range, there is typically no additional benefit.
Vitamin D for delayed onset muscle soreness falls into this framework as well.
One reason it might be beneficial for reducing DOMs is due to helping reduce inflammation after exercise.
It also appears to literally be playing a role in muscular repair as well.
The results in terms of DOMs when studied appear to be mixed though.
As stated above though, the impact of vitamin D supplementation is typically most likely to beneficial for all relevant outcomes when an insufficiency of vitamin D in the blood is addressed.
A study that involved 4000IU of vitamin D per day for 6 weeks, for those with lower than desired levels of vitamin D, showed significant reductions in DOMs in comparison to placebo.
The simple advice, which I give for pretty much anybody looking to improve their health and performance, is to get a blood test to check your vitamin D levels.
If your levels are good, adding supplemental vitamin D probably will not do anything. But if your levels happened to be sub-optimal, it is likely the easiest win you will ever get.
Similarly to citrulline, I typically talk about the performance enhancing benefits of creatine. In addition to that though, creatine also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
A loading phase of creatine (20g per day for 5 days) has been demonstrated to reduce markers of inflammation following high level endurance activity. It also has been shown to reduce markers of muscle damage after similar style of activity.
A similar style study that was focused on DOMs post-resistance training identified that a loading phase of creatine reduced muscle soreness.
Like other areas of the research, the results are mixed and not all the research is overwhelmingly positive.
Creatine supplementation is beneficial for a lot of reasons though, and there are minimal downsides, so it is probably worth taking regardless. Any reduction in DOMs could just be considered a bonus.
Taurine is found inside muscle and has many functions such as membrane stabilization, antioxidant capacity, osmoregulation and calcium homeostasis regulation.
The exact mechanism behind how taurine really known. An explanation that lines up with the same reason why a lot of other nutritional interventions work for reducing DOMS is that taurine may can reduce oxidative stress.
In one study, 50 mg of taurine for 21 days (14 days before and 7 days after the training session) resulted in a significant reduction in DOMS and oxidative stress markers. There was no difference in inflammatory markers in this study.
Another study involving 2g of taurine and 3.2g of BCAAs 3x a day for 18 days also resulted in positive outcomes for these metrics as well.
The major functions of polyphenols are antioxidant capacity and anti-inflammation. Based on everything mentioned above, it makes sense that polyphenol rich foods can help to reduce DOMs.
Tart cherry juice is often cited as the best example of this. Tart cherry juice consumption, daily for one week, around the time of a marathon dramatically reduced muscle soreness, markers of muscle damage, inflammation and oxidative stress following the marathon.
Another study that involved 500 mL of ellagitannins extracted from pomegranate two times a day for 9 days showed significant reduction in DOMS compared to the placebo group 2 h after eccentric exercise. This study had mixed results though, since 24 to 96 hours later there was no difference between this and placebo.
Adding onto this, a study involving 250ml of pomegranate juice 2x a day for 15 days resulted in a reduction in DOMs following arm exercise, but not leg exercise.
A study involving blueberry consumption also did not show a reduction in DOMs.
My thoughts on the topic are that although the research is mixed, it makes sense to consume a polyphenol rich diet in general regardless.
Some examples of polyphenol rich foods include berries, pomegranates, cherries, dark chocolate, black and green tea and a variety of seasonings (e.g. cloves, oregano, rosemary, thyme).
For a specific recommendation though, tart cherry juice is probably the way to go. Either 500ml of tart cherry juice daily, or the equivalent amount of a concentrated version would be my recommendation.
Anti-Inflammatory Style Diet in General
Anti-inflammatory foods in general appear to help reduce muscle soreness.
Allicin in garlic is well known for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
One study involving 80mg of allicin in capsule form, daily for 2 weeks before and 2 days after exercise, resulted in reduced levels of muscle soreness and inflammation post-exercise.
Once again, this is not a super consistent outcome in the research, but it is still worth being aware of.
Similarly, curcumin (which is a component of turmeric) is known for anti-inflammatory properties as well.
2.5g twice daily curcumin supplementation has been found to reduce muscle damage and soreness as well.
From my perspective, I would not read this article and have the key takeaway be to take a tonne of supplements. I would instead encourage starting your focus on eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, since these things are also consistently linked with anti-inflammatory properties.
Thoughts on Antioxidant Supplementation
While there is a lot of talk about antioxidants being helpful, this message can be misinterpreted slightly.
While there has never been found to be any noticeable issues from consuming these compounds through food, sometimes heavy-handed supplementation could have downsides.
There have long been people supplementing high dosages of vitamin C and E for these purposes. And while the research on this has been mixed, it also poses an interesting question.
A review on this topic also indicated that while the research on food instead of supplements has been mixed, it also seems like food would be the favourable option.
The interesting question though, is what level of inflammation and oxidative stress do we want?
These processes appear to play a role in positive training adaptations as well, even if they increase muscle soreness. So maybe going super far out of your way to limit these processes could have a negative impact on outcomes.
When it comes to endurance outcomes, the majority of studies over the years have highlighted that antioxidant supplementation interferes with signalling pathways related to mitochondrial biogenesis. And this theoretically translates to poorer adaptations over time for endurance capacity.
This is super important to keep in mind if you are an endurance athlete.
Although it is not as scary as it sounds. The results in terms of aerobic capacity and performance over time are actually pretty inconsistent. While it theoretically matters, it also is not something that is having a dramatic impact on performance on a consistent basis.
A tonne of people in the evidence-based community also jumped on this train of thought and made the assumption that this same logic applies for resistance training outcomes such as hypertrophy and strength.
Once again, theoretically antioxidant supplementation could have a negative impact.
In one study, high dosages of vitamin C altered protein signalling. In that same study though, muscle growth was not impacted noticeably at all though.
This is a pretty deep rabbit hole. Eric Trexler from Stronger by Science has done a great article on this topic highlighting that:
- There are theoretical reasons why it could impact muscle growth.
- The studies that have been done so far really don’t demonstrate any noticeable blunting of hypertrophy or strength gains.
- There are actually not many studies on the topic so far.
- There also is likely not much benefit for people to be intentionally supplementing antioxidants around the time of training. Since no downside has been found from getting them through food, it makes sense to focus on food.
I personally would add that because there is also no noticeable downside, if you are supplementing something that has other benefits, in addition to having antioxidant properties, I would still have that supplement. I would not overthink this. I just wanted to include this discussion since it is an important factor to consider.
Overall, DOMs are likely to happen regardless. But there are quite a few nutritional strategies that can help.
If you are about to go through a phase where you are likely to experience an excessive amount of DOMs, it can make sense to implement some of these strategies to help manage this and reduce the discomfort.
Aidan is a Brisbane based dietitian who prides himself on staying up-to-date with evidence-based approaches to dietetic intervention. He has long been fascinated by all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base and experience in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the client’s desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans and guidance for clients that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life and performance. He offers services both in-person and online.