Many athletes and those who are engaging in strenuous exercise often experience what is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The soreness usually comes on between 24 to 72 hours after exercise and is the result of microscopic damage to the muscle fibers and surrounding connective tissues. There are a number of things that are involved in muscle soreness. Understanding them can help you decrease the onset and also optimize athletic performance. Let’s take a look at some of the mechanisms involved in the physiological effects that cause muscle soreness.
When you engage in strenuous exercise or exercise that is new to you it can lead to microscopic damage to muscle fibers. This is especially true of any exercise that involves lengthening (eccentric) contractions. This damage triggers an inflammatory response in the body that leads to soreness. Inflammation causes cell messengers, called cytokines, and white blood cells to the area of the damaged muscle tissue. The ultimate reason why these cells and messengers are coming is to repair the muscle tissue, but their presence also contributes to the sensation of soreness and discomfort. The cytokines (cell messengers) continue to signal immune cells and blood flow to the damaged area which causes swelling and increased pressure within the muscle.
During intense exercise, the muscle undergoes changes in pH levels, accumulation of lactic acid (a metabolic waste product), and disruptions in calcium ion homeostasis. These can also contribute to the perception of pain and discomfort. Finally, the damaged muscle tissue and inflammation can also sensitize nerve endings in the area, leading to a heightened sense of pain.
DOMS can have various effects on athletic performance. The pain and stiffness associated with DOMS can limit a person’s ability to perform at their optimal level by decreasing muscle strength, power, and endurance. To compensate for the soreness or pain, an individual might alter their movement patterns during exercise, potentially leading to poor biomechanics and potentially increasing the risk of injury.
DOMS can also result in a limited range of motion and joint flexibility. This can impair an athlete’s ability to execute movements with the full range of motion required for their sport. This would affect their overall performance.
DOMS can disrupt the communication between the nervous system and muscles, which affect neuromuscular control. This would mostly affect precision movements.
Psychologically the discomfort and pain associated with DOMS may impact the athlete’s mindset, leading to decreased motivation and increased perception of effort during subsequent training sessions.
Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cells because they produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that provides energy for cellular processes including muscle contractions during exercise. Mitochondria are also involved in other important cellular functions, including calcium regulation, reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, and apoptosis (programmed cell death). The mitochondria also play a role in the adaptive response of muscles to exercise-induced damage. They are involved in the repair and regeneration processes that occur after muscle micro-trauma.
Mitochondria are thought to play a role in DOMS through several mechanisms. Intense exercise can lead to increased energy demands in muscles. This may result in mitochondrial stress and increased production of ROS, which can contribute to muscle damage and inflammation. This oxidative stress becomes a real problem when there’s an imbalance between ROS production and the body’s ability to detoxify them. Mitochondria are a primary source of ROS production in cells, and excessive ROS can contribute to muscle damage and inflammation.
Calcium ions play an important role in muscle contractions. Disruptions in calcium homeostasis with the muscle cells (which can be influenced by mitochondrial function), can contribute to muscle fiber damage and soreness.
Mitochondria are not directly involved in lactic acid formation, but their inability to keep up with energy demands during intense exercise leads to an increased reliance on anaerobic glycolysis which results in the production of lactic acid. Anaerobic glycolysis is a metabolic pathway that occurs when there is not enough oxygen available to meet the energy demands of the cell such as during intense exercise.
While mitochondria are the primary organelle responsible for aerobic respiration, during intense exercise oxygen demand exceeds the supply of ATP the mitochondria can generate. When the demand for ATP is high and oxygen availability is limited, the body relies on a less efficient but faster method of ATP production, anaerobic glycolysis. In this process, glucose is broken down into pyruvate through a series of reactions in the cytoplasm, outside the mitochondria. Under normal conditions, pyruvate is transported into the mitochondria and enters into the Krebs cycle to further generate ATP aerobically. However, in the absence of sufficient oxygen during intense exercise, pyruvate is converted into lactic acid (also known as lactate) in the cytoplasm. Anaerobic glycolysis allows for a rapid but temporary generation of ATP, which can help sustain high-intensity efforts for a short duration when the demand for energy is urgent. As a byproduct of anaerobic glycolysis, lactic acid can accumulate in muscles and the bloodstream. This build-up can contribute to the sensation of muscle fatigue and burning sensation experienced during intense exercise.
Certain dietary choices and nutrients can potentially support and enhance mitochondrial function. Dietary strategies that help to promote healthy mitochondrial function include:
- Antioxidants: fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants can help protect mitochondria from oxidative stress and therefore help them to function better. Oxidative stress can damage mitochondrial DNA and proteins, leading to impaired function.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: these fats are thought to help support mitochondrial function and reduce inflammation
- Coenzyme Q10: This compound is involved in the electron transport chain of mitochondrial respiration. Some studies show that CoQ10 supplementation may help to improve mitochondrial function, especially in cases of deficiency.
- B Vitamins: These vitamins play a crucial role in energy metabolism and mitochondrial function.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is essential for many cellular processes including mitochondrial ATP production.
- Calcium: Calcium plays several crucial roles in mitochondrial health and function including regulation of metabolism, cellular signaling, calcium transport
- Potassium: This essential mineral plays a role in mitochondrial health and function via its role in maintaining the mitochondrial electrochemical gradient across the inner mitochondrial membrane. It also plays a role in ion transport, osmotic balance, ATP production, and antioxidant defense.
- Intermittent Fasting: Mitochondrial function and autophagy (cellular cleanup) are enhanced during intermittent fasting. This contributes to the overall mitochondrial cellular health.
NION Health is intelligently formulated to improve mitochondrial function, rebalance and replenish cells, amplify hydration, increase stamina, and improve mood. It is the missing electrolyte for endurance athletes, active lifestyles, intermittent fasters, and overall wellness and longevity. It is the only electrolyte product on the market containing negative ions safe enough for daily consumption.
Two clinical trials were conducted at the Montana State Exercise Laboratory with athletes. Those studies resulted in the following pertinent data:
- The product may induce mitochondrial biogenesis (mitochondrial function)
- The product may have some effect on increasing electron chain efficiency
- The product may reduce oxidative stress
- Increased mitochondrial function including increased lactate clearance
- The product may increase lactate buffering and clearance
- The product helps to decrease muscle fatigue during exercise
- VO2 max increased
So what does this set of data mean to athletes and others engaging in physical activity? It means that the nutrients found in NION and its special formulation, based on two clinical trials, support mitochondrial function so that the body is able to sustain aerobic function. Given the data from the Heil studies, it is reasonable to assume NION restores the body to a normal inflammatory response fast after DOMS.
Hotfiel, T e al Advances in Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): Part I: Pathogenesis and Diagnostics. Sportverlet Sportschaden 2018 Dec; 32(4)
Heiss, R et al Advances in Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): Part II Sportverlet Sportschaden 2019 Mar 33(1): 21-29
Li, Z et al A link between mitochondrial damage and the immune microenvironment of delayed onset muscle soreness. BMC Med Genomics 2023; 16:196
Tanabe, Y et al. Muscle Soreness in Humans. Nutrients 2022, 14(1)
Dr. Lisa Price is a licensed Naturopathic Physician with expertise in complementary cancer care, and culinary nutrition during cancer treatment through survivorship.
A National Institute of Health (NIH), National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research Fellow (2005-2010), she is also an author, radio host, lecturer, and adjunct faculty member at Bastyr University. She studied microbial biochemistry as an undergraduate and as a Master of Science student in New York, and graduated from the prestigious Bastyr University in 1998, with honors in counseling.
With an NIH research fellow in immunology and oncology, Dr. Price has published peer-reviewed scientific papers and abstracts, written many articles on health and nutrition, and presented her findings at scientific conferences.