How to Relieve Sore Muscles After Workout
Athletes of all stripes confront muscle soreness following an intense workout. Besides causing discomfort, sore muscles can compromise athletic performance and set back training schedules. To put you back on top of your game, below are our tips on how to relieve sore muscles after workouts and how to recover faster after workouts.
How to Relieve Sore Muscles After Workouts:
- Use compression modalities, like taping or garments.
- Ice sore muscles, or take a cold bath or shower, after a workout.
- Go for a massage, or give yourself one with handheld massage machine.
- Use an electric muscle stimulator (EMS) machine to enhance healing and reduce inflammation and soreness.
- Try a TENS machine for temporary relief of localized discomfort.
The Science Behind Sore Muscles
In order to appreciate muscle recovery therapies, let’s take a step back and review why it is your muscles are sore in the first place. Despite those tales of lactic acid you might have heard in your youth, lactic acid is not to blame. Instead, it’s your body’s healing responses to the micro muscle tears that cause soreness.
Microscopic tears occur when muscles are pushed to perform at a higher level than usual, or are worked in a different way. This muscle damage causes an increase in fluids to the area, including the accumulation of electrolytes. Additionally, a type of lymphocyte called T-cells permeates the damaged muscles. These natural response mechanisms cause inflammation, but also repair each affected muscle tissue, ultimately building them up and making them stronger. Unfortunately, a side effect of this crucial healing process is muscle pain and discomfort.
Compression is an effective way to combat the inflammation and fluid build-up associated with muscle repair. Regardless of which compression modality you choose, it works by way of this principle: muscles are constricted to reduce swelling and fluid accumulation, while at the same time promoting lymphatic circulation and blood flow to increase oxygen delivery to affected muscles.
The two most accessible and popular compression modalities are:
Taping - when correctly applied to lift the skin, compression taping, sometimes called kinesiology taping, facilitates lymphatic fluid movement to the affected muscle tissue. This means the white blood cells that remove muscle-building byproducts can do their job better. Taping has the additional benefit of supporting affected muscles and joints without compromising mobility. Compression tape is usually worn for 12-24 hours, during or after physical activity. The tape can be self-applied, but requires some know-how in order to maximize its benefits.
Compression garments - you likely have seen professional athletes wearing compression garments during competition, or eyed a fellow gym member in compression gear while working out. These garments are characterized by their tight fit and spandex-like material, often a combination of nylon and elastin. Like other compression modalities, the purpose of compression garments is to reduce recovery times and alleviate muscle stiffness. Compression garments come in just about every variety you can imagine:
- Leg sleeves
- Short sleeve shirts
- Long sleeve shirts
- Arm sleeves
When choosing a compression garment you want one tight enough to actually compress, but not so tight as to feel uncomfortable or restrict movement. If you will be wearing one during a workout, be sure that they have wicking properties to keep you dry.
Don’t let the fancy name put you off from trying this method - cryotherapy simply means cold therapy. The idea is to immerse muscles in cold temperatures to reduce muscle inflammation and soreness. Studies show that cryotherapy is particularly useful within the first 24 hours of an injury or intense workout1. The cold approach to combating sore muscles has long been used by athletes of all levels, whether competing in Olympic or high school stadiums. While easy to use and efficient, cryotherapy does have the downside of potentially being uncomfortable and causing stiffness.
You may have heard of elite athletes jumping into a cryotherapy chamber, which uses liquid nitrogen to lower body temperatures. Since most of us don’t have access to this high-tech therapy, below are at-home solutions that produce the same benefits. The key with all of them is to shoot for a session of about 15 minutes within 2 hours of your workout.
Icing - you have likely tried this method before. Simply apply an ice pack to the area of your body that is sore, or you can tell is going to be.
Ice Bath - your bath water doesn’t need to reach sub-Arctic temperatures to be useful. Just be sure it is down to about 55 degrees. Jumping into a lake or pool shortly after you exercise can also provide some anti-inflammatory assistance.
Cold Shower - start with a shower that is a comfortable temperature then slowly turn the temperature down as much as possible. If a head-to-toe cold shower is too much, just let the water run over parts of your body that feel strained.
When deciding how to recover muscles faster after a workout, consider getting a massage. Massage is a favorite muscle recovery tool for its dual benefits of being effective and feeling really good. Gently manipulating muscle fibers and soft tissues facilitates the biological processes connected with muscle repair. Traditional massages, like Swedish massage, and more intense massages, like deep tissue massage, both stimulate blood and lymphatic circulation. The oxygen-rich blood supplied to sore muscles speeds up their healing and minimizes soreness. Massage has also been shown to reduce swelling by way of suppressing the release of cytokines, a type of cell that regulates inflammation.
In other words, all types of massage confer substantial post-recovery advantages. The level of massage intensity is more of a matter of personal preference, rather than harder must be better. Athletes going for a massage within a day of rigorous exercise should consider a lighter touch massage since the muscles are in an acute recovery process. Sports massages and other deep tissue work are typically reserved for times when muscles are not sore or inflamed.
If you don’t have the time to see a massage therapist, there are plenty of massage tools to use at home. In fact, even if you do see a massage therapist regularly, it’s a good idea to augment your time on the massage table with one of the modalities below:
- Foam rollers
- Massage sticks
- Massage balls
- Shiatsu massager
- Electric massage handheld devices
Pro Tip: Electric massagers require less physical work to use than non-electric massagers, making them extra relaxing. If you’re serious about post-workout recovery, try a variable speed electric massager made for athletes.
Electric Muscle Stimulator Devices
Electric muscle stimulator (EMS) units release electric impulses through pads adhered to the body, causing adjacent muscles to twitch or contract. When applied at a low frequency, EMS devices increase blood flow to the nearby area and aid in the removal of waste products associated with muscle recovery. EMS also helps muscles relax, an essential to maximize muscle healing, and one that is often taken for granted. All taken together, an EMS unit is a powerful ally in speeding up muscle recovery time after high-intensity workouts.
You may have used an EMS unit in a physical therapy office or at a chiropractic practice. But having an EMS unit of your own can pay dividends in terms of accelerating the recovery process and easing discomfort. There are differences between the EMS units used in professional settings and what you want in a unit of your own. Here’s a couple of important considerations when choosing your own EMS unit:
- Useability - select a unit that you can easily wear around the house, office, gym, or anywhere else you may find yourself in need of therapy. Go with a unit that is battery operated for optimal portability, and one that gets high marks for its durability, quickness of set-up, ease of use and pad adherence. (Pads that don’t stick on are a big annoyance and not uncommon on lower-end units).
- Multiple Programming Capabilities - some muscle stimulator machines allow the user to adjust electronic frequencies within a limited range. This may be fine for non-athletes, but an active person in need of expediting recovery to get back to top form will want frequency programming flexibility.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units work much like EMS units in that electrical impulses are sent via pads adhered to the user’s skin. The main difference between EMS and TENS units is the type of nerves that are targeted. EMS devices influence motor nerves associated with motion and coordination, while TENS devices block pain signals to the central nervous system. TENS machines can also stimulate the production of endorphins, a neurotransmitter responsible for relieving pain and stress.
While TENS machines do increase localized blood circulation, they generally do not facilitate muscular healing in the same way the other modalities listed above do - compression, cryotherapy, massage, and EMS units. A TENS unit is your best friend, however, in overcoming certain types of pain or discomfort, including muscle soreness.
The good news is that you don’t have to decide between an EMS or TENS unit. Many devices feature both types of electronic frequencies, giving recovering athletes the power of expedited muscle recovery and pain blocking. Compex offers a traditional tens ems unit, as well as units with combined EMS and TENS capabilities. Our TENS devices are programmable for low-frequency endorphin release, or high-frequency pain signal blocking. As a top of the line device geared towards athletes, our TENS machines feature extensive frequency customization so you can program the exact treatment that you need to get back on the playing field.
Finding the Right Recovery Modality for You
While all of the recovery therapies listed above have been shown time and again to relieve sore muscles and speed up muscle recovery time after workouts, choosing the right one for you is a matter of comfort and convenience. Keep in mind that none of these therapies are mutually exclusive. In fact, combining muscle recovery treatments can create a synergistic effect for faster recovery times than only relying on one therapy.
1 Petrofsky, Jerrold S; Khowailed, Iman Akef; Lee, Haneul; Berk, Lee1; Bains, Gurinder S.; Akerkar, Siddhesh; Shah, Jinal; Al-Dabbak, Fuad; Laymon, Mike S. Cold Vs. Heat After Exercise—Is There a Clear Winner for Muscle Soreness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: November 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 11 - p 3245–3252. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/11000/Cold_Vs__Heat_After_Exercise_Is_There_a_Clear.33.aspx