Yesterday’s workout was truly epic. You pushed yourself to your absolute limit, and what’s your reward? This morning you can hardly get out of bed. Your legs feel like jelly, and it hurts to even lift a coffee mug. You don’t want to think about climbing a set of stairs. Unfortunately, muscle soreness is often the price exercisers pay for putting in a hard day’s work at the gym. What causes these achy muscles, and – more to the point – how do you get rid of muscle soreness?
What Is Muscle Soreness?
Muscle soreness certainly isn’t a pleasant feeling, but it is entirely normal. In fact, if you look at it a certain way, muscle soreness can be a good thing. When you feel that ache a day or two after exercising, it means you worked out hard enough to cause your muscles to change. In other words, muscle soreness is a sign of improving fitness. Good job!
The American College of Sports Medicine refers to muscle soreness as delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. DOMS usually occurs a day or two after exercising and will typically last between three and five days. While DOMS is more common among new exercisers, it can affect any level of exerciser. DOMS usually rears its achy head when you:
- Start a new fitness routine
- Change your existing routine
- Increase the intensity or duration of your fitness routine
If it makes you feel any better, even professional athletes, or that super fit guy at the office, also deals with DOMS. What actually causes your muscles to weep in self-pity after an extra intense workout?
The Causes of Muscle Soreness
Your body is an incredible machine that responds and adapts to the stress you put it through. If you start a running program, you’ll find that, over time, it becomes easier to run longer and faster. Likewise, if you start lifting weights, you’ll get stronger.
How does this happen? When you add new levels of stress to your body, you create microtears in your muscles and connective tissues. This sounds bad, but it isn’t. While you sleep, your body repairs these microtears, building your muscles and tissues back better and stronger.
Researchers believe it’s this repair process, not the damage the exercise created, that causes muscle soreness. Even to this day, scientists aren’t sure exactly where the soreness comes from. Maybe it has to do with the inflammation related to the muscle repair or the contributions of the immune system to help heal your body. But, at the end of the day, getting stronger and more fit often requires that you pay the price of soreness.
With that said, you don’t have to suffer through soreness without any help. There are several things you can do to reduce muscle soreness or help it dissipate more quickly. Want to know how to relieve sore muscles? Here are seven useful things to try.
How to Help Sore Muscles
1.Start a New Exercise Program Slowly
Did your grandmother ever tell you that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of medicine?” Grandma was right. One of the best ways to bring on a world of muscle soreness is to jump into a seriously intense workout regimen with no preparation. That goes for couch potatoes and experienced exercisers alike.
Ramp up slowly. If you are new to exercising, start with gentle cardio work and low weight on your resistance training exercises. Take breaks when needed, and consider shorter overall workouts. You’ll still feel sore, but not as sore as you would if you tried to perform back squats at 300 pounds and run a sub-six-minute mile on your day at the gym. Starting slow will also help you stick with your new fitness routine.
2.Perform a Cooldown Routine After Your Workout
Just because you’ve completed your last rep or finished your intense cardio program, it doesn’t mean your workout is over. Now it’s time to help your body cool down gradually. One of the best ways to cool down after a workout is to perform five to 10 minutes of cardio at an easy pace. Consider walking around the track at the gym, jumping in the pool for a few laps (after a quick shower to rinse off your sweat), or some easy cycling.
A study of 26 women found that women who performed moderate-intensity cycling after a challenging resistance exercise session reported less delayed-onset muscle soreness.
3.Roll Out with a Foam Roller
Have you noticed a stack of foam rollers at your gym? It’s time to grab one and start rolling out after each workout. Foam rollers allow you to perform self-myofascial release. This is a fancy way of saying that it helps relieve tension in your muscles and your connective tissue. By increasing circulation, foam rolling helps your body more efficiently deliver nutrients and oxygen to your hungry muscles, which can ease muscle soreness.
A small study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that foam rolling “substantially improved” muscle tenderness in the quads of eight participants after working out. Another study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling can also increase short-term range of motion. Bonus!
Hydration is often the unsung hero of fitness. Good hydration will help you go farther and for longer. It’s also a key component of your recovery. After sweating it out for a good long workout, you’ll need to rehydrate and replenish your electrolytes as well. Water can help flush toxins out of your system, move nutrients to your muscles, and ease inflammation. Always bring a water bottle with you for any workout, even if it’s indoors, and make a habit of drinking plenty of water after your workout. If your urine is a deep yellow or dark brown (unless related to medication or certain vitamins), you need to drink more water.
Your body needs energy and lots of nutrients to rebuild your muscles and connective tissue after a challenging workout. Even if you are trying to lose weight, don’t skimp on healthy, nutrient-dense meals. In fact, it’s a good idea to eat a high-protein meal within an hour of exercising to replenish your body. Protein is key here since the amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle and tissue. Lean meats are a great way to add protein to your post-workout diet. If you are trying to cut down your meat consumption, gobble up some beans and leafy green vegetables instead. Morning exercisers can dive into a plate of eggs, while afternoon exercisers may want to whip together a protein smoothie with a handful of nuts on the side.
Sleep is crucial to your body’s recovery and can help limit the amount of soreness you feel. When you fall asleep, your body gets to work, revving up your immune system, increasing certain hormones, and getting to the task of refurbishing your body after your workout. In fact, you don’t get stronger at the gym. All your fitness improvement happens while you sleep, so make a point to get seven to nine hours as recommended by the Sleep Foundation.
7.Get a Massage
If you need an excuse to treat yourself to a massage, now you’ve got it. If your muscle soreness is intense, consider booking an appointment with your favorite massage therapist for a sports massage or trigger point massage. Just get ready. A sports massage is far different than the gentle and pleasant Swedish massage. Just like with foam rolling, a sports massage focuses on myofascial release and will also increase circulation to help flush your system. A massage might not be the answer after every workout (unless you’re a professional athlete), but it can be a great reward after the 10k you’ve been training for or that athletic competition you just completed.
What About Other Ways to Reduce Muscle Soreness?
You may be surprised by a couple of things that aren’t on our list of how to get rid of muscle soreness. Where’s the dynamic stretching? The ice baths? The hot pads? While all of these methods have plenty of anecdotal evidence, the science doesn’t follow. Of course, if you love slipping into a warm bath filled with Epsom salts after a great gym workout, then go right ahead. Just because science hasn’t proven these methods yet, doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy them.
Embrace the Muscle Soreness
Muscle soreness isn’t fun, but the good news is that it typically decreases as your body gets used to your new workout routine. Of course, you shouldn’t be too happy to see muscle soreness go. If you have been working out for months with nary a sore muscle, that probably means you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. If you want to see continued improvement, then at least some muscle soreness is a good thing.
Just make sure you understand the difference between normal muscle soreness and injury. If your muscles hurt so much that you can barely move, or if you notice very dark urine, contact your doctor. Otherwise, consider your muscle soreness after a difficult workout well-earned. Now that you know how to reduce muscle soreness, you can rest up and then hit the gym and do it all over again!