What Causes Muscle Soreness After a Workout, and What Can Be Done for Relief?
If you’re into fitness, you have no doubt experienced the dreaded muscle soreness in the day or so following a tough workout or trying a new style of exercise. You’re shuffling around stiffly and groaning every time you try to sit down on the couch the day after leg day. Or perhaps you overdid the biceps curls and your tender arms are stuck in T-Rex position for days.
This phenomenon has a name: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. DOMS is completely normal, and doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong in your workout. It occurs due to tiny tears in your muscle fibers caused by unaccustomed types of activity or new intensity. As your body repairs these microtears, your muscles rebuild to become bigger, stronger, and to have more endurance. We only make gains in fitness through stressing the body in new ways to bring about new adaptations to these stressors.
It’s important to note that if you have acute pain in one area either during or after exercise, this is not normal, and you might have actually injured yourself. Sprains and strains are completely different from DOMS and may require medical treatment. Stop exercising and see a doctor if you’re not sure.
There is often a feeling of satisfaction in being sore after a hard workout because you know you’re going to bounce back better than before, but admit it, if you could decrease muscle soreness with simple tips and tricks, wouldn’t you want to?
Try these 9 tips designed to decrease normal muscle soreness and prevent extreme soreness from happening at all:
Tip 1: Keep Moving
If you’re intensely sore, the last thing you want to do is more exercise. But sometimes that’s just what you need to get the blood flowing, easing stiffness and soreness and speeding up the repair process. Try going for a walk, jog, or bike ride.
If it’s been 48 hours since the workout that caused the soreness, it’s usually OK to tough it out for some more weight training. You’ll generally feel better as you get into the workout. However, if the soreness is extreme, your body is telling you that you need more recovery time. Choose walking and other mild forms of exercise and hold off on more weight training until the soreness is more manageable.
Tip 2: Stretch and Foam Roll
Stretching is your first defense against allowing extreme soreness to occur in the first place. You should be stretching before and after working out as part of your warm-up and cool-down process. Doing self-myofascial release (SMFR) with a foam roller just prior to any stretching is always a good idea. SMFR causes your muscles to release tension by sending a signal to the nervous system to relax the muscle being stimulated. When your muscles are more relaxed, you get more out of your stretches. It’s like giving yourself a deep tissue massage, and it’s a lot cheaper!
If you’re already sore, stretching and foam rolling can ease the symptoms significantly. Use foam rolling and stretching alongside walking and other mild forms of exercise to “keep moving” as suggested in the first tip.
Tip 3: Soak
Take a hot bath, or even better, relax in a hot tub or mineral bath if you have access to one. The heat helps your muscles to relax and release the excess tension that makes the soreness worse. Increased blood flow can help speed your body’s recovery time.
Tip 4: Ice & Heat
Similar to soaking, alternating between ice and heat helps relieve the sensation of soreness and may lessen recovery time. Ice for no more than 20 minutes. Use an ice block like you’d put in a lunch box, a bag of frozen peas, or whatever else you’ve got that’s icy cold.
Heat can be applied for slightly longer, but don’t overdo it. 30 minutes works well. Try a heating pad or hot water bottle.
Tip 5: Massage
A good massage from a strong massage therapist who’s not afraid to apply deep pressure feels amazing when you’re sore. Massage also speeds recovery time and can even help correct posture problems if you get massages regularly.
If you can find a therapist offering sports massage, even better, because they’re trained in techniques to help athletes’ muscle recovery. The same principles behind self-myofascial release with a foam roller are at work in massage.
Tip 6: Rest and Pace Yourself
Sometimes the best thing to do is take some well-earned recovery time. You should always rest muscle groups for 48 hours between training sessions, but an extended time-out may be called for in cases of extreme soreness. Being super-sore is your body’s way of telling you that you overdid it and that you need to take it easy for a while.
You may be remembering that tip #1 was to keep moving and wondering why I’m now telling you to rest. Decreasing DOMS isn’t an exact science and different approaches may work well for different people or for the same person on a different day. Play it by ear and experiment to find what will work best for you under the current circumstances.
And resting doesn’t necessarily mean laying around doing nothing: walking and stretching are excellent choices for rest days.
Tip 7: Nutrition & Supplementation
Eat a balanced diet including plenty of protein, enough carbs to maintain your energy levels, and enough good fats to help with recovery and cell repair. A balanced diet means different things to different people, but here are some basic practical guidelines: avoid processed foods and refined sugars, prepare most meals at home using whole food ingredients, and hit up a salad bar if you’re eating on the run. Most dietary recommendations follow the 60-20-20 rule: 60% of calories from carbs, 20% from protein, and 20% from fats.
Protein is vital to muscle recovery. If you don’t get enough protein in your diet, consider supplementing with whey protein isolate or other quick-absorbing high-quality protein supplements immediately following your workout.
L-Glutamine is a supplement you can take to support muscle development that may be helpful in preventing muscle soreness. Also, there is some good evidence that fish oil can help with muscle recovery. There are many great reasons to take fish oil, including enhanced joint health and mental function. I recommend that most everyone supplement with fish oil whether they’re concerned with muscle recovery or not.
Tip 8: Ibuprofen
Ibuprofen should not be your first choice, but if you’re struggling to get through the day due to extreme muscle soreness and tenderness, go ahead and take some. I’ll admit that ibuprofen has saved my butt a few times!
Never rely on ibuprofen, though, because excessive use can tear up your digestive system and damage your liver. Never take more than the recommended dosage.
Tip 9: Coffee (?)
I don’t think I need additional help justifying my caffeine habit, but I thought this was fascinating: a recent study from the University of Georgia showed that women who consumed the equivalent of about two cups of coffee decreased their DOMS. They’re not sure yet if the results translate to men or more habitual coffee drinkers, but it’s an interesting idea! Hopefully they find out that chocolate works too…
An Ounce of Prevention…
…is still worth a pound of cure. Prioritize a good warm-up and cool-down including self-myofascial release and stretching when you work out and you’ll prevent extreme soreness from happening in the first place. Remember that some soreness is normal and necessary when making fitness gains, but extreme soreness is neither normal nor necessary, especially because it will interfere with your workout intensity for the rest of the week.
Since keeping up your workout volume and intensity is essential to any fitness goal, you’ll want to make sure you keep yourself fully functional. Don’t let unnecessary muscle soreness stand in your way: experiment with the 9 tips to find out what works best for you.