Muscle soreness is an issue of both reverence and avoidance in rowers. Pain-chasing rowers love muscle soreness and don’t feel like they got a good workout without it. Others hate it and do everything they can to avoid it out of a desire to maximize immediate performance or not make rowing any harder or more painful than it already is. Rowing coaches often both want strength coaches to “test” rowers and “train their grit” with challenging and painful workouts, but can also get mad when athletes are sore for rowing or don’t perform well immediately after intense strength training. Whether you love it or hate it, this article is about muscle soreness and rowing: what it means, what it is NOT, how it affects rowers, and how we can reduce and avoid it.
Key Points: Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the kind of low-grade muscular stiffness or tightness that people feel in the 24-72 hours following exercise. DOMS tends to happen more with strength training than with rowing, due to the greater movement diversity of strength training, higher force muscular work in strength training, and eccentric muscle actions. DOMS doesn’t mean much beyond your muscles saying, “Hi, that was new.” Whether you are sore or not sore is no real indication as to whether your training is working or not working. Rowing research indicates that muscle soreness itself has little negative effect on rowing performance at or slower than 2km pace. The best way to reduce DOMS is to avoid getting so much DOMS in the first place by gradually introducing yourself or athletes to new, unfamiliar training stimuli.
Table of Contents:
- What Is Muscle Soreness?
- What Muscle Soreness Is NOT
- Muscle Soreness and Rowing Performance
- Reducing and Avoiding Muscle Soreness
What Is Muscle Soreness?
Muscle soreness in the 24-72 hours following exercise is known as “delayed onset muscle soreness,” or DOMS for short. In a 2003 review of 150 DOMS-related research articles, the authors define DOMS as a “type-1 muscle strain injury that presents with tenderness or stiffness to palpation [touch] and/or movement.” DOMS can last for up to 5-7 days, but usually subsides after 2-4 days following “unfamiliar, high-force muscular work [with] eccentric actions.” Let’s break that phrase down and examine the training implications.
This means new exercises, new movements, or new loading schemes. In strength training, using a new exercise or switching from one type of squat to another results in an unfamiliar movement and greater DOMS. Changing from sets of 5 reps to sets of 15 reps, even on the same exercise, also tends to increase DOMS. Rowing movements are more similar, but “unfamiliar” can still mean the first few sessions or weeks of a new season or a major change in equipment (eg. erg-to-row or scull-to-sweep) or technique.
#2: High-force muscular work
Light exercise usually doesn’t result in DOMS, unless it’s performed for suddenly high training volume. If you did a thousand biceps curls with 5lb weights, you’d likely experience high DOMS in the following days due to the unfamiliarity of this workload, even though the muscular force is low. When the exercises and training volumes are kept consistent, we typically see greater DOMS from higher load training above 60%1RM than with lighter loads.
#3: [With] eccentric actions
Muscles have three main ways of acting. See graphic at right.
Concentric actions are when the muscle fibers shorten under contraction. This is commonly referred to as the “lifting phase.” In a biceps curl, it’s when your hand is moving towards your face.
Eccentric actions are when the muscle fibers lengthen under load. The muscle fibers are still acting to produce force, but the resistive force is greater than the contractile force. This is commonly referred to as the “lowering phase,” when muscles are contracting to resist force but are still lengthening. In a biceps curl, this is when you lower the weight under control from your face to your waist. If you just let the weight fall from the top of the curl straight to the ground or to your waist, there is very little eccentric action. If you prolong the eccentric phase by lowering for 2-3 seconds, there is higher eccentric muscle tension. In most movements, eccentric actions are how muscles resist the force of gravity or load.
Isometric actions are when the muscle exerts force without changing length. Pause your biceps curl at some point during the movement and you are doing an isometric muscle action. The biceps are still contracting to generate force, otherwise the object would simply fall out of your hands, but the muscle isn’t shortening or lengthening so it can’t be called concentric or eccentric. The resistive and contractile forces are equal in an isometric exercise.
What causes muscle soreness?
All muscle actions can cause DOMS, but eccentric actions tend to cause the most DOMS due to the greater mechanical stress. The muscles are contracting during the lowering phase to resist the load or force of gravity, but the resistive force is greater than the contractile force, so the muscles are exposed to high mechanical load and experience greater damage. The greater force developed from eccentric action results in greater muscle damage, greater inflammation and sensitivity to pain, and greater DOMS. We do not know the exact physiological mechanisms behind DOMS. Sports science researchers have proposed multiple theories, and it’s most likely that a combination of mechanisms produces the familiar feelings and effects of muscle soreness.
What we do know about DOMS all points to strength training causing greater DOMS than rowing or other forms of aerobic training. For one, rowing is a very familiar movement for rowers. You do the same stroke movement in generally the same performance parameters at a daily or near-daily level during rowing seasons. The movement itself changes little, although we can change the intensity (pressure) and the volume (duration) from one session to another. For another, rowing is lower load than strength training. Finally, rowing has lots of concentric and isometric action during the stroke movement, but there is no significant eccentric phase in the stroke where muscles are lengthening under load. By contrast, strength training typically uses different movements for different loading, sets, and reps (unfamiliarity); higher loads (high-force muscular work); and lots of eccentric muscle actions. Any time we make a significant change in weight, sets and reps, tempo, or exercise selection, we’re likely to see higher DOMS.
You can definitely still get DOMS from rowing, just probably not as much as you get from strength training with its more diverse movements and emphasis on eccentric muscle actions. You can get more DOMS from rowing when you begin rowing again after a couple weeks away from rowing, or when beginning rowing again following an off-season, because the movement has lost familiarity. Changing movements within rowing quickly, such as major changes in stroke technique or switching between sculling and sweeping, can also result in DOMS. If you significantly increase per-stroke loading by using high damper settings while erging or added-load rowing training (eg. bungees, cans, weights, etc.) or make a big increase in meters or minutes without gradual preparation, we would also expect greater DOMS.
Read More: Want to read a lot more about the general science of muscle soreness? Head on over to PainScience.com for an even deeper dive. From here on out, we’re staying pretty rowing/training-specific.
Are there differences in muscle soreness for males and females?
Current sports science researchers have not identified major differences in DOMS response between males and females. Most sports science research is conducted on male athletes, so we need more research on females of different ages and sport populations using different study methods to draw better conclusions. At this time, differences seem to be more individual than gender-driven. That said, a large-sample study in 2000 on 83 females and 82 males with an average age of 25 found that the females experienced reduced range-of-motion (ROM) for longer than males following intense eccentric exercise. Both males and females were similarly sore and experienced reduced ROM at 24 and 48 hours following 70 maximal eccentric biceps curls, but the females experienced greater DOMS and reduced ROM until 168 hours (7 days) following exercise. A 2005 study on 95 university students, 47 females and 48 males, found no significant differences in subjective ratings of pain following 30 eccentric-focused biceps curls.
The 2000 study did not consider menstrual cycle, but the 2005 study did. The researchers conducted an additional analysis that did not find significant differences between DOMS and participants in different phases of the menstrual cycle, nor for contraceptive use. The researchers note that they only had 44 participants divided among the four menstrual phases, and future studies with greater subject populations may confirm their trend that participants in the follicular phase had the lowest muscle pain intensity and participants in the luteal phase had the lowest standardized pain.
A 2021 study found that postmenopausal and premenopausal women experienced similar amounts of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) from an eccentric squat protocol. The researchers studied 13 postmenopausal participants with an average age of 52 and 19 premenopausal participants with an average age of 29, all of whom regularly did strength training. The researchers hypothesized that the premenopausal women would experience higher EIMD, leading to greater adaptation from exercise. However, the lack of differences between premenopausal and postmenopausal women in EIMD suggests that muscular responses were similar. This suggests that estrogen may not play as great of a role in muscle damage following strength training as researchers have previously thought, and also that there are significant benefits to strength training for postmenopausal women.
Ultimately, we need more research on male-and-female differences, the effect of different menstrual phases on exercise and recovery, and menopause with athletic participants to craft better guidance for rowers and coaches.
What Muscle Soreness Is NOT
Does muscle soreness mean progress?
Muscle soreness is not an indicator of effectiveness or adaptation from training. It does not mean that your training was good, and it does not mean that your training was bad. People often think that being sore means they “did something,” and that DOMS is a requirement for or positive indicator of progress.
Researchers note that this is a tempting conclusion, but that it confuses three separate, only loosely related mechanisms: muscle hypertrophy, exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD), and DOMS. Muscle hypertrophy means gaining muscle fiber size. Disrupting and damaging muscle fibers with exercise results in a repair process that synthesizes water and protein to make bigger muscle fibers [NSCA Essentials]. The disruption results in EIMD, but it’s important to note that EIMD is not necessary for hypertrophy. There is a relationship, but it’s not an exclusive relationship, and too much EIMD can dampen force production too much, resulting in poorer hypertrophy and training outcomes. We need to achieve a sweet spot of EIMD to achieve the best muscular growth. DOMS is related to EIMD, but again, it’s not an exclusive relationship. DOMS occurs from EIMD, but healing from both EIMD and DOMS happens on a separate timeline from hypertrophic repairs that result in gaining muscle size.
Finally, the whole DOMS-EIMD-hypertrophy issue only relates to gaining muscle size. Gaining muscle size is only one way to get stronger, and getting bigger and stronger is only one part of the bigger picture of rowing performance. Rowers, especially masters rowers beyond hormone-driven hypertrophy adaptations, can gain strength through a variety of improvements outside of pure muscle size, such as improving neural coordination between central nervous system and muscular force production [NSCA Essentials]. This training might not make you feel DOMS, but it can absolutely still work to gain strength and improve sport performance.
Ultimately, progress is progress and soreness is soreness. If you’re making progress (whatever that means in your training), then it doesn’t matter if you’re getting sore or not getting sore because you’re making progress. Progress tells us that the training is working.
If you are not making progress, then even if you’re still getting sore or not getting sore, we should re-assess something in your training because you aren’t making progress. This suggests that something in the training is not working. Remember, DOMS just indicates exposure to “unfamiliar, high-force muscular work with eccentric actions.” DOMS by itself does not tell us if the training session was good, bad, effective, or ineffective.
Soreness can still leave clues when considered alongside progress and other performance parameters. If you aren’t making progress and you also aren’t feeling sore or fatigued from training, then that could be a sign to increase training load. Be careful to not make too great of an increase or change parameters too drastically, as simply changing the training session can result in greater soreness without any increase in effectiveness. If you aren’t making progress and you are feeling sore and fatigued, then that could be a sign to decrease training load or increase attention to recovery. Feelings of persistent fatigue and chronic muscle soreness can indicate high non-training stress or poor recovery due to lack of adequate sleep, lack of adequate calories, or poor nutrition (lack of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals). Again, we do not just go changing training to try to create muscle soreness. We look at progress as the priority outcome, and then consider DOMS as one of several downstream clues to performance.
Will muscle soreness become an injury?
Although DOMS is defined as a “type-1 muscle strain injury,” it’s a very mild form of injury by itself. DOMS tends to result in minor tenderness and stiffness around the affected muscular area. There are three types or grades of muscle strains. A type-2 strain results in more damage, but not a complete rupture of the muscle or tendon, and serious muscular pain and stiffness that may not resolve for months. A type-3 muscle strain is when the muscle itself or the tendon that attaches the muscle to the bone is torn, which results in severe pain or major swelling and bruising.
Exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER) is another form of extreme muscle soreness to watch out for. ER can occur following some amount of muscular trauma. It’s most common in athletes returning to training and doing too much training too quickly without adequate physical preparation. The body basically determines that the muscular area is toxic, and begins breaking down muscle tissue and excreting it. Very dark urine color accompanied by high muscle soreness is a warning sign of ER. This exposes the kidneys to high damage, risk of failure, and the athlete needs emergency medical attention.
Short of those more serious situations, short-term DOMS is not likely to cause real injury. The main way that DOMS becomes a more serious injury is by doing something else to make it worse. For example, DOMS can restrict range-of-motion due to muscle stiffness. Athletes who are very sore might consciously or subconsciously alter their movements to avoid aggravating the sore area or due to the restricted range-of-motion. Pushing sore athletes to do high-intensity exercise, such as plyometrics, intense rowing and erging, and strength training, risks causing further problems due to these changes in movement. We discuss rowing performance implications and potential training adjustments in the next section.
Muscle Soreness and Rowing Performance
As long as you can move through a full range of motion, DOMS should not significantly affect rowing and erging performance at the 2km duration and greater. Let’s go to some rowing research for more on this.
How does muscle soreness affect 2km performance?
In 2011, researchers Dr. Gee et al. studied the effect of a single single difficult strength training workout on 2km performance at 24 hours and 48 hours later. Eight highly trained male club rowers did a 2km erg test, 5-stroke power test, countermovement jump, and static squat jump. Approximately five days later, the participants completed a full-body, high-intensity strength training workout of Olympic snatch, Olympic clean, back squat, Romanian deadlift, bench press, bench pull, and weighted situps, for 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps per exercise at 75-85% of one-rep max.
The researchers tested performance metrics 24 hours later, then the participants rested for approximately five days, performed the same strength training workout, and then tested performance metrics again 48 hours later. The rowers performed only slightly worse in the 2km tests, with a 6:38.6 average baseline, 6:40.8 24 hours post-workout, and 6:40.0 48 hours post-workout. The rowers exhibited similar heart rate and blood lactate levels during and after the 2km tests. The participants had significant muscle soreness, and performance in squat jump, countermovement jump, and max stroke power all decreased 24 and 48 hours post-workout.
Dr. Gee et al. performed a similar study in 2016 with three strength training sessions spaced out over a week, to determine the effect of a typical week of training on 2km rowing performance. 28 male competitive rowers did a 2km erg test, five-stroke power test, countermovement jump, and static squat jump. All 28 rowers did the same erging and rowing over the week of study, but 14 of the rowers did three strength training sessions (same session design from the 2011 study) while the other 14 rowers were the control group that did no strength training.
Once again, they found significant difference in 2km performance from the baseline condition compared to 24 hours after completing the third of three strength training workouts. The strength training group achieved identical average 2km results of 6:46.3, while the control group made a small improvement from an average 2km time of 6:45.3 to 6:43.7 (-1.6s). The strength trained rowers experienced a significant increase in muscular soreness and a decrease in performance on the power-related tests.
Note: I reviewed this study in the September, 2021 issue of Science of Rowing.
These findings suggest that rowing at around the 2km pace and slower will not be significantly affected by prior strength training and muscular soreness, but rowing at faster paces than 2km speed probably will. The authors suggest scheduling endurance workouts in the 24 hours after strength training, rather than more power-focused rowing training including sprints, starts, or anaerobic intervals. This avoids the concurrent training interference effect of strength training and aerobic endurance training, and also will help athletes be more comfortable and successful when training through muscular soreness.
It’s important to note that these were competitive, highly trained, male athletes in their early 20s. We do not have similar research on junior rowers, female rowers, masters rowers, or adaptive rowers, and need more research before we can broadly generalize these conclusions. Also, even though the performance decrease from strength training was minimal, 1-2 seconds can make a big difference in a rowing race. Most rowers and coaches will not want to do strength training in the 48 hours before racing and do not want to feel sore on race day. The researchers propose that their findings, “could act as a template for tolerable strength training prescription amongst rowers.” In other words, rowers may do up to this amount of strength training without expecting significantly negative acute impact to 2km performance. In reality, taper strategies include rest before racing to help athletes feel fresh, rested, and ready to perform on race day.
How does muscle soreness affect routine rowing training?
In routine training, rowers who are very sore and experiencing muscle tenderness or stiffness from DOMS may alter their movements to avoid aggravating the sore area or due to the restricted range-of-motion. For example, after doing a workout with challenging squatting, rowers may be unable to get to full slide and might row shorter. Or, sore abdominal muscles following core training might cause slumping at the release due to an inability to maintain upright posture. If the rower has very sore arms and shoulders, they might be unable to transfer as much force between lower body and the handle. These technical changes can result in increased stress and strain on other skeletal or muscular structures. The rower rowing short on the slide due to sore legs is putting more pressure on the back, ribs, and shoulders to produce the same amount of force as they would with full slide. The rower with sore abs who is slumping at the release is putting more strain on the lumbar spine. The rower who can’t transfer as much force from the shoulders or arms might be overloading the rib cage or shooting the slide due to lack of connection. DOMS itself is not the problem, but the downstream effects of attempting to continue training as normal may cause further, greater injury.
Most rowers and coaches will be fine to simply schedule rest or lower intensity training in the 24 hours following strength training, when athletes are likely to be at their greatest levels of DOMS. Masters rowers and rowers beginning a new program of exercise may experience DOMS for longer than 24 hours. The first one or two weeks of beginning a new rowing program, and the first four to six weeks of strength training are generally the highest phases of DOMS. After a couple weeks of a gradual reintroduction to rowing, and a progressive period of gradual loading in strength training, athletes will be more familiar with those training stimuli and less likely to experience high DOMS. Any significant change, including stroke technique, equipment, strength training exercises, or major changes to set-and-rep structure can increase DOMS. Be prepared to adjust short-term training as necessary following one of these changes.
Reducing and Avoiding Muscle Soreness
Strategies to Reduce Muscle Soreness
Unfortunately, once you are experiencing DOMS, there is little that you can do to “cure it” except for wait it out. DOMS typically goes away on its own in the 2-4 days following exercise. It can take up to 5-7 days for people who experience slower recovery from training, or those who did a very novel training session with new or very different exercises, loading schemes (sets and reps), or very high volume or high intensity training.
Most attempts to alleviate DOMS come down to placebo effect or light, temporary relief from pain. If an athlete believes that something helps them feel better, and that thing does not lead to problematic consequences elsewhere, then I usually don’t try to convince them otherwise. The placebo effect is still an effect, after all.
However, many DOMS-reduction strategies can have problematic consequences elsewhere, so we should not take the “placebo effect is still an effect” rationale too far, and end up promoting pseudoscience or harmful practices. Many touted interventions are costly in money, time, or athlete attention, despite failing to produce results under rigorous examination. Taking unregulated supplements risks positive drug tests, health problems, or at least wasted money when the claims to reduce DOMS don’t actually work. Some athletes can develop superstitions around certain activities, and experience anxiety if they cannot do their usual practice. This can harm them psychologically and in sport performance.
The most effective strategy to reduce DOMS appears to be light exercise. Light exercise, or “active recovery,” in the days following exercise can release pain-alleviating endorphins and helps increase blood flow to sore areas, offering a temporary pain-reducing effect [Zondi et. al, 2015]. This can be light walking, cycling, and maybe very easy rowing or erging, as long as you aren’t trying to achieve any training effect (eg. splits, heart rate zones, meters, etc.) other than light movement. I typically do not recommend that rowers use rowing or erging for active recovery, because it tends to turn into training rather than recovery.
Other proposed treatment strategies for DOMS include cryotherapy, stretching, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), ultrasound, electrical current techniques, homeopathy or herbal supplementation, massage or self-massage, compression, and hyperbaric oxygen. All of these have some studies showing a small, practically insignificant effect and other studies showing no effect [Cheung, Hume, & Maxwell, 2003, and Connolly, Sayers, & McHugh, 2003]. Many studies don’t appear to adequately address the issue, due to poor exercise protocols in inducing DOMS, poor protocols in implementing the intervention, a lack of controls or rigorous analysis to conclusively point to a main effect, or obvious conflicts of interest like supplement companies sponsoring their own supplement research and publication. Some interventions have additional problematic consequences. For example, taking anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) decreases DOMS in some studies, but also may impair the adaptive response to training [Zondi et. al, 2015]. In other words, you can reduce DOMS, but you also may be reducing the effectiveness of your training session. If the soreness is quite severe, it appears to be fine to use NSAIDs occasionally without an effect on training. Rowers should avoid habitual reliance on NSAIDs [Zondi et. al, 2015].
What about a cool down?
In a 2018 review of nearly 150 cool-down-focused studies, the authors found that 5-15 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise immediately following training has no real effect on reducing muscle soreness, improving recovery from training, or reducing injuries. In some studies, adding a cool-down on a different mode of training (for example, going from rowing to jogging) actually increased DOMS due to the introduction of the different stimulus.
“The effectiveness of an active cool-down may differ depending on the individual preferences and beliefs; recovery interventions should therefore be individualized. Some athletes may benefit more from an active cool-down, whereas others may prefer to perform no cool-down at all.” Van Hooren & Peake (2018)
Strategies to Avoid Muscle Soreness
Although we cannot do much to eliminate DOMS once we are experiencing it, we can minimize the development of DOMS in the first place with a few training strategies. DOMS results from unfamiliar, high-force muscular work with eccentric muscle actions, so we should introduce any form of training that fits this description gradually.
#1: Start strength training in the pre-season, or even better, in the off-season.
Remember that strength training causes greater DOMS than rowing due to the greater array of movements, the higher force muscular work, and eccentric muscle actions. Rowers can get used to the new stimulus of rowing within a week or two, but we need a longer on-ramp for strength training acclimation. Starting strength training in the pre-season 6-8 weeks before racing season begins, or even earlier in the off-season, gives athletes more time to get used to the novel stimulus of strength training and not experience such high soreness when rowing and racing.
#2: When you begin strength training, plan for an acclimation phase before you really begin pushing the intensity of individual exercises or training sessions.
I advise new rowers who I coach that the first 2-3 weeks of strength training should feel pretty easy, with no real strain on the individual exercises. The goal of these first few weeks is developing technique, increasing familiarity with the new movements, and gradually building strength training capacity. We then increase intensity and training volume over the 4th, 5th, and 6th weeks of a new strength training program. At this point, we are out of the “high DOMS zone” until we make a significant change somewhere in the training.
#3: Be mindful of sensitive phases of athletic development and adjust training accordingly.
When athletes return to any form of training following more than a two-week break away from normal routines, this is the return-to-train phase. Most non-contact injuries occur during return-to-train phases. This includes starting a new season, a new coaching staff working with a new team, coming back from a vacation, returning to full training following time away due to injury, and training camps of increased training volume and frequency. These non-contact injuries can range from minor soft tissue injuries, to significant injuries requiring more time away from training, to severe and life-threatening injuries like heat stroke, sudden cardiac death, and exertional rhabdomyolysis. Rowers, rowing coaches, and strength coaches should plan ahead to reduce injury risk by gradually reintroducing training stimuli during return-to-train phases.
Read More: Rowing Return-to-Train Considerations
DOMS is little more than your muscles saying, “Hi, that was new.” DOMS by itself does not indicate whether your training is working or not working. Rowers and coaches can understand what causes DOMS and how soreness influences rowing training and performance. From this knowledge, we can put into practice a few strategies for reducing DOMS. This mostly comes down to avoiding training scenarios that result in such high DOMS in the first place, such as sudden changes in rowing or strength training. When changes in training must occur and athletes develop greater DOMS, adjust training so that rowers are not altering movement in damaging ways or risking greater injury by attempting to push through at normal workloads and power outputs.