How To Treat Sore Muscles After a Tough Workout, According to Experts
Sport & Activity
Four health professionals offer remedies (and prevention tips) that can ease the ouch, all while speeding up your recovery.
Sore muscles are a key part of improving your physical fitness—but only up to a point. Aching muscles can not only sabotage your motivation for your next workout, but they may also temporarily inhibit your mobility and physical performance.
What you tend to feel about 24 to 72 hours after a workout is called delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. This can range from tenderness to more serious pain and research has suggested it happens more often when you're not used to an activity or haven't done it in a while. For example, athletes returning to training after time off tend to have more soreness than later in a season.
When it comes to identifying what helps sore muscles after working out, focusing on prevention is key—but if you skipped that step and are hobbling around your home, you can still find relief. Here's what the experts advise you do to aid muscle recovery. Though, if you're experiencing too much discomfort, and regularly, that could be a sign that something more serious, such as an injury, is going on. If pain persists, consider making an appointment with your doctor or other licenced medical professional.
What helps muscles recover faster?
If your workout was intense, it may be tempting to hit the showers and lay down immediately after, but resist the impulse, said Carol Mack, DPT, CSCS and a strength coach at CLE Sports PT & Performance.
"After a tough workout, gentle movement is the best method to mitigate soreness", she said, adding that activities such as a 20-minute slow walk, slow yoga flow, light jog or leisurely bike ride can work well. Just bear in mind that these should feel almost too easy—that's because you're not trying to kick up your performance, you're just helping your muscles slowly cool down.
For example, research in a 2003 issue of the journal Sports Medicine found that this type of exercise is the most effective means to alleviate pain during DOMS, but researchers noted that the effect is temporary. That means gentle movement is helpful in the short term, but incorporating other strategies may be even better.
2.Try a Pain-Relief Remedy
There's a breadth of gels and creams that promise to bring down inflammation and pain. And while not all of them live up to those claims, many can be helpful, said pharmacist Daniel Breisch, PharmD, of Mountain View Pharmacy in Utah.
"Topical pain-relief therapy is great, as it allows you to target the specific area where the soreness or aching is focused, so you minimise the systemic side effects that oral medications may cause", he said. "One negative is that typically you will need to apply the product two to four times daily, depending on the strength of the formula".
If you just have mild pain in one area, such as sore shoulders from overhead lifts or aching calves from a run, a topical remedy may take the edge off in a short amount of time.
3.Schedule a Sports Massage
If you know there's a tough workout ahead, it might be a genius plan to schedule a massage for afterwards. A 2017 research review in Frontiers in Physiology found that massage therapy after strenuous exercise can be effective for alleviating DOMS and improving muscle performance.
Researchers noted that relief might be associated with a number of factors, such as increased skin and muscle temperature and better blood and lymphatic flow. Massage also tends to increase parasympathetic activity, which means you become relaxed faster and that reduces muscle tension and stiffness—helping with muscle soreness overall.
Best of all, you don't need to pack in your workout and massage on the same day. The 2017 review noted that the highest efficacy for a massage was about 48 hours post-workout. But make sure you check with your doctor or other licenced health professional before getting a sports massage to ensure you're not at risk of injury.
4.Eat for Recovery
What you choose as a post-workout meal or snack can make just as much of a difference for reducing muscle soreness and fatigue as more direct strategies such as stretching and pain creams, said Stephanie Hnatiuk, RD, Winnipeg, Manitoba-based dietitian and sports nutrition specialist.
She also said she suggests eating within one hour of your workout and combining protein and carbohydrates—typically, that means 25 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbs. Examples would be one cup of Greek yoghurt and fruit, a high-protein smoothie or a tuna sandwich.
"The protein is going to help to repair and build damaged muscles, reduce muscle soreness and speed your recovery", she said. "The carbs are necessary for replenishing glycogen—the energy we store in our muscles—and that improves the quality of your next training session and helps you recover faster".
5.Use a Foam Roller Before the Workout
Though some folks may use a foam roller after a workout to reduce muscle soreness, the efficacy of the method isn't fully backed up by research, said Lynn Millar, PhD, PT and chair of the physiotherapy department at Winston-Salem University in North Carolina.
"The research simply doesn't support the idea that foam rolling after exercise alters the normal healing process that's part of muscle growth or that it can reduce soreness in a way that helps performance", she said.
But that doesn't mean foam rolling is all hype, either. Research in a 2021 issue of the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that rolling before a workout, along with dynamic stretching, can have a significant effect on recovery, especially on range of motion. That's because it facilitates myofascial release—which means the tough membranes wrapping around your muscles and joints can become more elastic, according to the Mayo Clinic. When that happens, there's less restriction in your movement.
If sore muscles have become common after your workouts—even the not-too-tough ones—you may be progressing your workouts too rapidly, Millar said. Modifying your training plan by emphasising recovery can help muscle recovery. Also, make sure you're adjusting the intensity of the workouts to match their intention. In other words, keep easy days easy and workouts difficult. The goal is to make sure you're not pushing hard on every workout, so your body has time to recover.
"The only strategy that's proven for reducing post-exercise muscle soreness and improving recovery is taking a progressive approach to exercise", Millar said.
How do you know if you're pushing too hard all the time? Mack said that in addition to soreness, you'll probably experience other signs of overtraining, such as fatigue (even when you're not working out), irritability, poor sleep, feeling tense or stressed and having decreased motivation. You may also start seeing reduced mobility as a result of soreness, like being less able to sit comfortably or having trouble reaching your arms over your head.
Some soreness is common and expected, especially after a tough workout. But Mack said that if it feels more like pain—especially the sharp, shooting kind—that could be a reason to get checked by a doctor since these are commonly found with stress fractures, sprains or other overuse injuries.
Words by Elizabeth Millard