How can you reduce muscle soreness and help your body recover from a tough workout? Make sure you take an all-around approach to healing your body. Some site-specific methods that are commonly used to help muscle soreness include massage, foam rolling, hot/cold temperatures, stretching, and compression garments. You can also help your whole body heal through proper nutrition, copious amounts of water, adequate sleep, and light physical activity (actually a lot of these also apply to being sick or fighting a cold, too). Let’s discuss the effectiveness of each method.
Of course, a massage feels good on tight and sore muscles. It can definitely provide temporary relief from muscle soreness. I don’t need to tell you twice, go ahead and give it a try! But also, new research has found that massage may do more than just relax you after a tough workout. The study (read more about it here) found that a Swedish-style massage received within 10 minutes of a workout can reduce inflammation and aid in recovery. That’s more than can be said about hot or cold baths or anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce inflammation but at the cost of potentially blocking muscular repair and growth. Now, the jury is out on whether a massage administered longer than 10 minutes after working out shows the same benefits. Additionally, the study did not look at perception of pain or the long-lasting effects of massage on muscle recovery and growth.
My opinion? I haven’t studied massage therapy, but it makes sense that massage increases blood flow to a specific area which helps deliver necessary nutrients and flush toxins to aid in a faster recovery. As far as reducing inflammation and “activating genes that promote the creation of mitochondria…” it sounds like more research is in order. Massage has its benefits (prevent injury, restore mobility… read Sports Massage from PTontheNET), and I highly recommend massages to my clients to treat certain muscular imbalances. Massage coupled with a proper training regimen can go a long way to address imbalances in the body. So, go ahead, get a massage!
Massage can be expensive. How about some self-myofascial release (SMR) on the foam roller instead? I can’t say that the same benefits apply to SMR as a Swedish massage because it hasn’t been studied, but I still highly recommend foam rolling before and after a workout to help release and relax your body and increase range of motion.
Let me give you the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) definition of foam rolling aka SMR. SMR is a “stretching technique that focuses on the neural system and fascial system in the body (or, the fibrous tissue that surrounds and separates muscle tissue). By applying gentle force to an adhesion or “knot,” the elastic muscle fibers are altered from a bundled position (that causes the adhesion) into a straighter alignment with the direction of the muscle or fascia.”
You use your body weight to apply pressure on an area. Rolling over the fascia can help release muscle tension in the same way that a massage would (using autogenic inhibition by stimulating the Golgi tendon organ). Hence, the name self-myofascial release. To do this, find a tight or tender muscle and foam roll over that area. Pinpoint an especially sensitive or sore area, and maintain pressure on that spot for 20-30 seconds.
We have a ton of foam rollers at my gym, and I even bought one for myself to use at home. You can get your own at Perform Better. They sometimes have them on sale for $16. Best piece of equipment I’ve bought. If you don’t know how to foam roll, you can check out this (somewhat dry, but informative) video on some basic foam rolling exercises. Or, if you prefer a quick flip-book of exercises, check out this slideshow.
So ultimately, foam rolling may or may not reduce muscle soreness, but it’s certainly good to do before and after a workout, as well as the days following a workout. Like a massage, it can help release tension in muscles and increase blood flow to an area. It might be unpleasant, but the more you do it, the easier it gets (or at least, the more you get used to the odd, uncomfortable feeling of foam rolling).
You always hear about icing an injury, and if Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is essentially an injured muscle, then why not do it? Compared with passive rest, cold therapy may reduce muscle soreness after exercise (read Really? The Claim: An Ice Bath Can Sooth Sore Muscles). However, there has been little comparison with other active treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs, massage, or compression sleeves.
And the downside of ice baths? For one, it’s FREEZING! The cold water can cause shock and increased heart rate. Not to mention, the anti-inflammatory effect of the ice may also slow muscle repair and growth. (I read this briefly here, and upon doing more research, found a study referenced in this article Putting Ice on Injuries Could Slow Healing. However, the study does not seem to prove that reducing inflammation through icing or anti-inflammatory drugs is harmful or slows repair. Rather, the study simply shows that a lack of inflammatory response altogether is bad for repair.) Additionally, other studies say that icing slows down certain chemicals and enzymes that cause the feeling of pain and DOMS (read No Pain, No Gain? The Role of Ice Baths in Athletic Recovery on PTontheNET).
So, yeah, ice baths probably reduce pain… but at what cost? Remember my previous post? The pain is there for a reason. There’s also a reason for that inflammation: blood rushes to the area to deliver nutrients to heal the injury! The simplistic reasoning behind ice baths (and icing in general) that I’ve heard from many coaches and trainers is that icing an injury helps reduce inflammation and pain and flush out “old” blood and toxins so that new blood cells and nutrients can be redistributed. Well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t physical activity that causes your heart to pump faster also do the trick to get your circulation going, bring in new blood and flush out old blood and toxins? Yeah, probably. This ice issue is getting complicated.
In my view, ice baths probably don’t do much harm. And icing can do a whole lot for making you feel less pain, with the almost immediate numbing effect (and feeling the shock of the cold will certainly distract you from pain). Looking at the reviews of current research, ice baths seem to reduce the feeling of pain. However, ice baths don’t actually speed the recovery process at all. Personally, I could take it or leave it. So many athletes (marathon runners at my gym) swear by the cold plunge. I believe them when they say it makes them feel less pain. Just don’t be deceived into thinking that lack of pain means faster recovery. Keep your icing to 10 minutes at a time or less.
Now on to the subject of heat. Heat therapy certainly doesn’t reduce inflammation. It increases blood flow to an area and helps relax muscles, whereas cold does the opposite. So, if you’re feeling tense or stiff, applying heat to a muscle, or stepping in the steam room/sauna/jacuzzi/hot plunge could help you relax. But unfortunately, it probably won’t reduce your DOMS. Ultimately, if the steam room/sauna/jacuzzi is already a part of your workout ritual, feel free to keep it up. If you don’t already do it, no need to start. A stop by the gym could turn into a whole day event if you have to plan steam room and sauna into your workout! How about taking a nice hot shower (because you worked up a good sweat during your workout!) and going on with your day.
The prevailing research says that stretching does nothing to reduce muscle soreness (Stretching Won’t Prevent Sore Muscles). Yup, I can attest to that. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch after a workout, and it won’t do any harm, but there are better reasons to be stretching, namely increased flexibility and injury prevention. I am a proponent of remaining physically active as a strategy to reduce the feeling of muscle soreness and stiffness (see Physical Activity below). If stretching is a part of your planned activity for the day, then do it! Hey, it’s better than staying in the same position all day long! Remember to stretch more than just muscles that are sore (because it won’t do much good for your pain anyway). Warm up with a light jog or walk, then give yourself a full body stretch to get those limbs moving some more!
From what I’ve read about compression garments, (if you don’t know what those are, this guy looks pretty silly…) the research shows that wearing compression garments results in a decreased perception of soreness. They can increase skin temperature and increase blood circulation, thus contributing to a speedier recovery (read Compression garments: Do they influence athletic performance and recovery? and Does Compression Gear Improve Athletic Performance?). They can also reduce blood lactate concentration in the muscle. It seems they may be worth the money! If nothing else, they’ll make you feel like you’re doing something (and look cool doing it… maybe), and sometimes the placebo effect is better than nothing at all.
Since I haven’t talked about this yet… my approach to eating can be easily summed up by Michael Pollan’s famous words:
I’m also trying this really novel thing to me called EAT WHATEVER YOU WANT. Crazy, right? More about that later.
So, based on that approach to eating food, meaning unprocessed, whole food… I say eat what you want, moderately. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Learn what really is healthy, not a gimmick cooked up by the food industry, and incorporate those healthy foods into your diet. I like to think of a healthy diet as adding more nutritious foods into your meals rather than limiting and restricting the ‘bad.’ With time (emphasis on the **time**), those ‘unhealthy’ food cravings will slough off and fall away (McDonald’s? What’s that? Never would have crossed my crave-o-meter!)
But I know, I know, you want some specific advice on foods for recovery.
Current nutrition advice says eat a snack or meal with a carbohydrate to protein ratio of 2:1 after a strength workout or a carb to protein ratio of 4:1 following an endurance workout (read Recovery Foods that Ease Muscle Soreness). If you worked out hard for an hour or more, get some protein and carbs in your system. If it was less than an hour or your workout wasn’t very intense, you might not need to refuel right away.
Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the muscle. Post-workout, your muscles want to replenish their stores, so it’s good to refuel with carbs. Eating something with both carbs and protein increases the insulin response and results in increased stored muscle glycogen. But WTF does 4:1 and 2:1 mean? I hate advice like this. How is this real-world application? Am I going to weigh my carbs and proteins out? Does that mean eat two slices of bread and one egg? No, no. Let’s talk real foods.
Foods rich in antioxidants are great. Obviously, we’ve all heard that. Tart cherry juice has become a commonly talked about “after” (post-workout) drink, not only for its high antioxidant capacity but also the anthocyanins that might help reduce inflammation (Tart Cherry Juice: a lip-puckering pain remedy? and Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise). Add some protein powder to that drink and you’ve likely satisfied the carb to protein ratio recommendations. This is not rocket science, guys. You could read the label or Google the nutrition facts and figure out your grams of carbs to grams of protein. But again, it’s not chemistry, we’re not baking a cake (I’m imagining my bicep rising like a cake right now). Aim to get some carbs, aim to get some protein. I do not like to think about food only in terms of numbers (like amounts of calories, carbs, fat, vitamins, minerals). Food is much more than that.
I’ve seen a lot of magazine advertisements promoting “my AFTER: got chocolate milk?” Ugh. This is just a horrible repeat of those milk mustache ads. I have my own ideas about dairy, which I will write about in due time. (Well, my ideas are influenced by many people, including the likes of Marion Nestle. Read her post about chocolate milk and then watch this ridiculous video of people advocating for chocolate milk for their kids. Eek. With the rising epidemic of obesity, especially in school children, the last thing we need is people advocating to get chocolate milk back in schools, of all things. I digress…). So why is chocolate milk being promoted as an “after?” Does chocolate milk satisfy the 4:1 carb to protein ratio? Sure, just about. What about regular milk? It’s got about a 2:1 carb to protein ratio. Ok, great. Drink more milk (says the dairy industry)! Pshh. Please. Don’t believe the hype. Unless you are unconcerned about gaining weight through unnecessary liquid calories and don’t care about our screwed-up food system (dairy industry included)… then you can drink all the sugary, caloric goodness of chocolate milk you want. One more reason I don’t suggest chocolate milk? It’s likely sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and contains other crazy additives that your body most certainly doesn’t need for recovery.
Ok, enough with my rant. I don’t think drinking milk is necessary. That being said, milk does satisfy your carb/protein ratio recommendations, is a quick snack, and does have nutritional benefits (and it’s a whole food, better than some crazy, processed G series Gatorade Recover drink). Go ahead and drink milk (even chocolate flavored), if you so choose. I’ll just say that it’s not on my grocery list. I drink almond milk, instead.
I don’t have a favorite “after” food. I’ve been really into hummus and brown rice cakes lately. Vegetables such as red bell peppers, carrots, and broccoli with hummus will do just fine as well. Tabouli has also been one of my quick go-to foods recently. It’s got a 3:1 carb to protein ratio. Not bad! Cherries and/or cherry juice sound pretty delicious right now. Mmmm. Another good post-workout snack? Peanut/almond butter and banana! Two tablespoons of peanut butter and one banana will give you about a 4:1 carb to protein ratio. Sprinkle some flax seeds on top and you’ve got some additional Omega-3 fatty acids to balance out the high Omega-6 concentration in peanut butter.
Some additional nutrition recommendations for muscle recovery can be found in this great article by Men’s Fitness Magazine. If you are deficient in potassium, you may experience more muscle cramping and soreness. To prevent deficiency, eat foods high in potassium such as bananas, oranges, melons, raisins, and potatoes. Consuming fish oil may be beneficial as well. Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation.
I’m going to lump anti-inflammatory drugs into this “nutrition” category. And my advice for you and those pills: just say no. You don’t need a pain reliever to get over your muscle soreness! Like I said before, if it’s that painful, you definitely overdid it. Try not to kill yourself that hard next time. Or perhaps it’s not muscle soreness, it may be something more serious. In which case, you should get it checked out by a doctor. Bottom line, anti-inflammatory drugs will not speed up your recovery.
Drinking water helps flush out toxins from your body. Keeping hydrated also prevents dehydration, which could possibly contribute to your muscle soreness. But remember, toxin build-up does not cause muscle soreness. It is not the lactic acid in your muscles that contributes to DOMS. It’s that eccentric motion that comes with a tough workout. Nevertheless, replenish your fluids after a workout and continue to drink lots of water throughout the day and with meals. The Men’s Fitness article recommends aiming to drink 1/2 your body weight in fluid ounces daily. For me, that calculates to about 8 cups.
But of course, you need to drink more water on days that you workout. Be sure to hydrate before, during, and after your workout. Stay hydrated throughout the day before your workout, or if you’re a morning gym-goer, have a big glass of water in the morning when you wake up. During your workout, just take sips every so often as you feel the need. If you chug a bunch of water, you’ll slow down your workout with all that water sloshing around in your stomach! After working out, some people say to drink 16 ounces of water for every pound you’ve lost. Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t weigh myself before and after every workout. Don’t obsess over it, just weigh yourself before and after a couple workouts to see the extent of your water loss. If stepping on the scale freaks you out, aim to drink 2 cups after a workout and wait to see if you’re thirsty again.
Sleep is always a good remedy. Feel a cold coming on? Get as much sleep as possible. Completed a really hard workout today? Get a good night’s sleep to reduce the feeling of muscle soreness in the oncoming days. Alternatively, have you ever had a crappy night of sleep after a pretty typical workout and woke up feeling SO sore? Yeah, it’s that important. Sleep is essential to recovery.
Active recovery is a great way to increase blood circulation to the muscles and help speed up the recovery process and prevent or reduce muscle soreness. I can definitely attest to this. On a few occasions, I can remember doing a typical workout at the gym (going hard, having fun, like I usually do) and then taking my scheduled rest day the following day. But I could feel myself getting sore and stiff during and after that day of rest! I should have taken an active rest day instead. Active rest includes light jogging, swimming, biking, walking (increase that heart rate by bumping up the incline), dancing, etc. Move your body!
Well, that was long. Longer than I had planned. In the end, probably the best thing you can do for your muscle recovery is get adequate sleep. Want to feel like you’re doing a bit more to aid that recovery process? Get a massage or at least foam roll your muscles. Eat whole, unprocessed foods and keep your body moving in the days following a workout (as you should be doing anyway). Compression garments could be a solution, but they can be expensive. If you’re training for a race or a competition, shelling out that money might be worth it. If you just ran a long race or participated in some other strenuous physical competition… a cold plunge might be in order. For most healing processes, it’s almost better to just feel like you’re doing something rather than sit back and twiddle your thumbs until you get better (yeah, we’re all a bit mental that way). However, don’t rush the recovery process. Listen to your body, and give it what it needs.