By: Shannon Landry, MSc., CSN
Spring is here. It’s getting warmer. The sun has finally started to come out to play. For a lot of us, this means a marked improvement in mood, motivation, and energy: a readiness to kick it up a notch in our workout routines. This is certainly the case for me. I originally started doing this research on muscle soreness for my own information rather than for the purposes of writing an article, after a few particularly grueling leg workouts left me waddling like a penguin and holding onto the stair railing for dear life when trying to ascend or descend a flight of stairs. If you’re just starting a new workout routine or, like me, have increased your intensity, and yesterday’s workout is making your muscles scream today, this article is for you. We'll talk about what muscle soreness is, what causes it, and how to keep it at bay.
You’ve all experienced that “omg, I can’t walk” feeling after an especially hard leg day, or going for a long run, or starting a new fitness routine, so I’m sure you can feel my pain. When this happens, you’re most likely experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it means you’ve worked hard enough to create tiny tears in your muscle fibers. When micro-tearing happens, your body initiates the repair process by triggering inflammation in the area. Fluid accumulates in the muscles, which puts extra pressure on the damaged areas, and this leads to that ever-familiar tightness and pain that begins to develop in the hours or a day or two after your workout. Ouch.
Tears? Inflammation? Wait. That sounds bad. Don’t panic though - while we know inflammation as a bad thing, some degree of it can be an important signal for muscle growth and repair. As your muscles recover from the damage (tears), they’ll likely grow back bigger and stronger, “so it’s not so much that we don’t want inflammation to occur, but we want to get it under control as soon as possible,” explains Shawn Arent, PhD, CSCS, a professor and the chair in the department of exercise science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Repeated again and again, this process of stress and recovery is what results in improved health and fitness.
(Keep in mind that you don’t have to be sore after a workout for it to be effective. Soreness means damage, and damage is okay in small doses, but you don’t have to create damage every time you work out. You can still get in a good workout without being sore).
DOMS usually kicks in about 12 to 24 hours after a tough workout and peaks between 24 to 72 hours. The soreness (and waddling) will go away in a few days. In the meantime, these tips may help prevent and ease the pain.
DURING AND AFTER YOUR WORKOUT:
It might sound obvious, but many people overlook this simple solution, and staying hydrated is an important aspect of muscle recovery. Water keeps the fluids moving through your system, which eases inflammation, flushes out waste products, and delivers nutrients to your muscles. So, drink up! It really does make a big difference!
Spending some time at the end of your workout cooling down has been shown to be an effective way to reduce muscle pain. In one 2012 study, women who performed a 20 minute low or moderate-intensity cycling session immediately after their DOMS-inducing strength workouts experienced a reduction in muscle pain along with a added boost in strength. “Light recovery workouts increase blood flow, which does a number of things to naturally nudge the inflammatory process along, such as lymphatic draining, moving immune cells, and clearing inflammatory mediators,” explains exercise physiologist Matt Unthank.
Another study from 2018 that focused on active recovery in runners found that runners who spent time at a 50% decrease in activity at the end of their workout (instead of resting completely) were able to go three times longer the second time they ran. So, next time do an intense workout, consider going for a short walk or completing an easy cycling session afterwards to help move recovery along.
AFTER YOUR WORKOUT:
Use a Foam Roller, Massage Gun, or Get a Massage
A review published in November 2015 in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling may help increase range of motion and reduce DOMS.
Foam rollers, lacrosse balls (for those hard-to-reach areas like glutes, lats, and IT bands), and massage guns are all ways to engage in self-myofascial release, which is a technique used to release tension in muscles and connective tissues. This helps to move the fluids that accumulate in the muscle after exercise. (Have you noticed a pattern yet? Fluids moving = recovery).
Likewise, massage guns work similarly to massage in general. The rapid vibrations produced by the machines, when placed on your muscles, can help promote blood flow to that area.
As with foam rolling and massage guns, getting a massage can relieve muscle tension, boost blood flow, and increase the range of motion in your joints.
Eat Within a Half Hour After an Intense Workout
Your muscles require nutrients to repair and grow back stronger, and by feeding them with the nutrients they need, you may decrease recovery time. You can kickstart your recovery by consuming 20 to 40 grams of protein and 20 to 40 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of an intense or long workout. For example, eating Greek yogurt with berries and a tsp of honey would be a great choice. Likewise, making a post-workout smoothie with protein powder, a banana, water and ice is a fast and delicious way to meet your body’s nutritional needs. Protein is important for the amino acids needed to rebuild your muscles, while carbohydrates help replenish the fuel stores your muscles used up during your workout. Eat to grow those muscles!
Another seemingly no brainer - yet getting a good night sleep is something many of us struggle with. Sleep is critical for so many reasons, but it’s also one of the most important factors for exercise recovery. What does sleep have to do with recovery from muscle soreness? Well, non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, for example, increases protein synthesis, which is needed to repair damaged muscles, according to a review in Sports Medicine.
THE DAY AFTER YOUR WORKOUT:
Sore muscles need to rest, but some movement is a good thing. Try to get some low intensity movement through activities like gentle yoga, an easy walk, swim, or cycle, or even light resistance training. The key is to avoid doing another intense workout using the same muscle groups on consecutive days, so though it may be tempting to do back-to-back booty workouts to grow your goods, you’ll want to give that muscle group a break before working it again. Instead, you could focus on an upper body workout the following day. The goal is to get some movement to help get your blood moving to the sore muscles to deliver oxygen and nutrients needed for repair without causing more damage to the muscle tissues.
ANECDOTAL AND OTHER METHODS:
There are many other methods that we’ve all heard about, and many people swear by, but that lack any scientific evidence of effectiveness. That said, while the methods I’m listing below are anecdotal and/or may lack scientific data to support their effectiveness, they are generally safe and easily accessible, so it doesn’t hurt to try.
There is little evidence that typical over-the-counter sports creams and oils have any pain-relieving effect beyond the massaging action involved in their application. However, by making the skin feel hot or cold, they may temporarily distract your mind from the soreness.
Heat or Ice
The debate between heat therapy and cold therapy is ongoing, but in general, it’s about what feels good to you. After all, when you’re really sore, any relief, however fleeting, is worth it (as long as it’s safe).
If it's an acute injury, or if there’s swelling of the muscle or joint area and it feels warm, wrap an ice pack in a thin towel and place it on the sore muscles for about 15 minutes. Ice can help reduce the swelling that sometimes comes along with extreme soreness, says exercise physiologist Joel Seedman, Ph.D. Bringing the swelling down can help reduce some pain-causing tension. Elevating your legs (if that’s where you’re sore) can also help with this.
On the other hand, heat can also minimize tension and pain signals, says Seedman. If there isn’t any swelling and the muscles are just sore from the exercise, applying a heat pack for 15 minutes or taking a warm bath, may boost blood circulation and help you to relax. And hey – who wouldn’t benefit from a little relaxation?
Speaking of warm baths, there is some research suggesting that heat applications, like a warm bath, following exercise can reduce muscle soreness. Though many online articles claim that Epsom salt (magnesium) penetrates the skin and leads to pain relieving effects, these claims are not backed by science. Like I said though, who doesn’t love the ideas of soaking quietly in a hot bath and the calming, stress-lowering benefits that come with it. If it works for you, go for it!
The evidence from randomized studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically significant reductions in DOMS in healthy adults. That said, stretching at the end of your workout can help increase your flexibility, decrease muscle tension, and reduce the risk of injury, so don’t skip this part! Besides, it’s a great opportunity to de-stress and clear your mind after a tough workout.
- Coach Shan