How to Relieve Sore Muscles Fast
Stepping up the rigor of your workout, or working your muscles in a different way, can cause muscle soreness. This condition is medically known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The longer your muscles are sore, the more likely you will be sidelined from physical activity as your body takes time to recover. When active people find themselves in this situation, the question at the fore of their mind is usually: how to relieve sore muscles fast? To get you back to form, below are eight tips on how to help sore muscles recover as quickly as possible.
What Is DOMS?
As the name suggests, delayed onset muscle soreness is a condition characterized by muscle soreness starting 24-48 hours after unfamiliarly difficult physical activity. Many an athlete has had this happen: they give themselves a well-earned pat on the back after a tough workout, initially thinking soreness is avoided, and are hit with discomfort and reduced mobility a day or two later.
While DOMS can be uncomfortable and prevent peak performance for a few days, it does have an upside: it’s a sign that your body is becoming stronger. When you push your body with a higher intensity workout than normal or move differently than usual, the exertion causes micro tears to your muscle fibers. Your body responds to the micro tears by sending lymphatic fluids and electrolytes to the area to heal the tissue. The tissue ultimately heals stronger than before the micro tears. Unfortunately, the cost of this healing process is inflammation and soreness. DOMS lasts about two to four days. Any soreness longer than five days may be a sign of muscle strain or another injury.
How to Help Sore Muscles
Keep in mind that any recovery modality comes with a big caveat: don’t do it if it feels uncomfortable. As your body heals during DOBS, the intensity and location of muscle soreness can alter. Be aware of these changes. You can injure your healing muscles, rather than support them, if you pursue a therapy that hurts. In other words, listen to your body.
#1 Active Recovery
Actively recovering from DOBS can include stretching, light resistance exercises or low-intensity, low-impact cardio like walking, jogging or swimming. The idea behind active recovery is increasing blood flow to the affected muscles. Delivering oxygen-rich blood to assist with repair and encouraging lymphatic removal of waste connected to muscle-building expedites the recovery process. Active recovery keeps the muscles and joints moving too, preventing them from getting stiff. Light cardio exercises will also help maintain endurance levels.
#2 Eat Right
A key element of any training program is nutrition. You probably already know that protein-rich foods like cottage cheese and fish provide muscles the fuel they need to repair. But you may not know that studies show a couple of cups of coffee can reduce muscle soreness by half. Recovering athletes may also want to reach for tart cherry juice, which reduces post-workout discomfort, expedites recovery time and minimizes muscle damage1. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, delivers similar benefits to cherry juice in improving muscle performance and decreasing muscular discomfort. Adding curcumin to your diet is easy, either by sprinkling turmeric on your food or taking a curcumin supplement.
#3 Ice Therapy
Icing sore muscles for 15-minute intervals sporadically during the days you are sore reduces inflammation and discomfort. Most at-home cryotherapy, or cold therapy, involves applying an ice pack to the affected area. If a head-to-toe ice-down is needed for full-body soreness, consider a cold bath or shower. No ice cubes are needed, as long as you can get the water temperature to the mid-50s.
#4 Compression Garments
Compression garments are tight-fitting clothing that, as the name suggests, compresses the underlying area of the body. By constricting the muscles and connective tissue, swelling is reduced and lymphatic and blood circulation is improved. There are different compression garments available for the lower and upper body, providing DOBS recovery support wherever you need it.
#5 Kinesiology Taping
This type of tape is designed to lift the skin, allowing lymphatic fluids to better circulate through the area to remove waste byproducts from muscle repair. The tape is worn for about a day. Taping also has the advantage of supporting the adjacent muscles, which may be weaker than usual as they heal, thereby helping to avoid injury.
#6 Self-Massage Tools
Massaging sore muscles is an effective post-workout recovery modality as any in terms of relieving discomfort and facilitating muscle recovery. Self-massaging tools come in all shapes and sizes. There are massage balls, massage sticks, and foam rollers on the non-electric side. On the electronic side, massagers may come in shiatsu, massage wand or massage gun styles.
It probably goes without saying that an electric massager requires less effort to use than a non-electric massager; you simply hold the electric device to the area of discomfort and it does the work. Non-electric massage tools, on the other hand, require you to physically exert yourself in order to create tension against the massage device. Besides being more relaxing, electric massagers are faster and more effective in breaking up tight connective tissue and relieving soreness. The most effectual electric massager will have varying speeds and specialized movements, such as percussion.
If you are considering an electric massager, and we recommend everyone have one from the not-so-active to the elite athlete, consider the following in the device you choose:
- Battery Operated - besides the convenience in not having to deal with cords while you use it, battery-operated massagers allow for go-anywhere portability. This is especially important for an active person wanting a handheld massager that can be brought to workouts or competitions. Be sure to review the battery life on the model. Some lower-end models have a short window of use before they need to be rebooted.
- Noise Factor - some massagers, especially massage guns, are excessively loud. A massager as loud as a blender isn’t going to provide a very enjoyable experience overall, even if it does massage you well. Consider a low-noise model for a more relaxing massage.
- Speed Variability - when your muscles are super sore, you’ll want a lighter touch massage than when your muscles are healthy. Your handheld massager should provide varying speed levels so you can get the exact massage you need when you need it.
#7 Get a Professional Massage
Spending time on the massage table is pretty much always a good idea. Having a professional massage therapist work out the knots, flush out toxins and improve the circulation in your muscles and soft tissues will go miles in hastening post-workout recovery, relieving soreness and loosening tight muscles. Keep in mind that if you are in the throes of DOBS, you should forgo a deep tissue massage. Too much pressure when you are still sore can end up hurting, rather than helping. A lighter massage will still confer the benefits of rejuvenation and improved circulation.
Pro Tip: Professional massages shouldn’t be a stand-in for self-care massages at home. The smart athlete knows to get a professional massage regularly and maintain a self-massage routine for best outcomes.
#8 Use an EMS/TENS Device
Applying low-frequency electric impulses to overworked muscles via an electric muscle stimulator (EMS) unit increases blood circulation and relaxes muscles. EMS devices emit frequency through stick pads that are applied to the area of concern. Portable EMS units with multiple programming capabilities allow for muscle recovery, as well as training purposes.
Many EMS devices also feature transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) functionality. Rather than sending electrical impulses that target motor nerves, as in the case of EMS, TENS electric impulses block pain signals and stimulate endorphin production and release. Since an EMS/TENS machine can be used for muscle relaxation, repair, and pain management, it is a favorite recovery modality among athletes. Maybe you have used an EMS/TENS device as a patient during physical therapy and experienced its benefits firsthand. You may want to consider getting one of your own. Being able to use this highly effective treatment whenever you need it, rather than only when you see your physical therapist, is a worthwhile investment in your health.
Combining Therapies for the Best Results
If you find yourself torn about how to let your muscles recover faster after a workout, try combining at least two of the recovery therapies mentioned above to reduce inflammation and muscle pain. It’s best to combine modalities, creating a multi-pronged approach to improving blood flow and lymphatic circulation to weary muscles. By going for a synergistic recovery process, you will feel better sooner and be back on top of your game faster.
1 D.A.J. Connolly, M.P. McHugh, O.I. Padilla-Zakour. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/40/8/679.short