Muscle Pain After Workout: How to Reduce Pain
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the medical term for when you feel sore following a tough workout. The soreness is part of the body’s healing response to micro muscle tears resulting from rigorous activity. Most active people have confronted DOMS and know firsthand that it can be as frustrating as it is uncomfortable. No doubt you will want to overcome the pain and get back at your full fitness level as quickly as possible. Find out how to relieve muscle pain after working out with these 10 tips below.
1. Get Cold
There has been some debate over the years as to when to use cold or hot therapy when your muscles are sore. The general consensus, based on recent studies1, is that cold therapy is generally better for acute healing periods, particularly the first 24 hours after an intense workout. The reason being that cold combats inflammation, the body’s protective response to injury. Cold therapy, known as cryotherapy, can make your muscles stiff, so be sure you are counterbalancing ice therapy by staying mobile while you recover. Icing with an ice pack is ideal for localized pain. If you need a full-body cooldown, consider taking a cold shower or bath at about 55 degrees. Cold therapy sessions should last about 15 minutes.
Elevating sore muscles above the heart can help to prevent sore muscles by combating inflammation and associated discomfort. Prop up your legs while resting on the couch or in bed. If you have just finished a leg-heavy anaerobic workout, like sprints or other explosive leg movements, elevate your legs right after cool-down. This will help recirculate the blood quickly and flush out lactate released during anaerobic exercise. You can sit next to a wall and simply raise your legs up the wall so they are perpendicular to your body. You can also do a free-standing leg inversion. A good example is the classic yoga pose shoulder stand. Lay on your back and lift your legs and hips off the floor, while supporting your lower back with your hands. This is also a great way to stretch your upper back and neck when you’re feeling sore.
You likely have seen compression garments on professional athletes and runners jogging around your neighborhood. Compression garments have become popular in recent years for improving athletic performance and facilitating recovery. Wearing compression garments after a workout alleviates discomfort and expedites healing by way of accelerating blood flow. Specifically, compression garments improve blood flow in the veins. By constricting the surrounding tissues, venous blood moves faster back to the heart. Metabolic waste is then removed more quickly and oxygen is delivered to muscles faster, both crucial components of muscle repair.
Taping has long been used in physical therapy to support injured muscles and soft tissues and prevent further injury. More recently, taping is used as part of recovery protocols to improve lymphatic circulation to sore muscles. A taping technique that lifts up the skin and decompresses the underlying fascia allows lymphatic fluids to better circulate through injured tissues for efficient metabolic waste removal. Kinesiology taping may also change the pain signals your nervous system sends to the brain, thereby reducing perceived pain associated with sore muscles. When an area of soreness is lifted and decompressed by the tape, a different signal is sent to the brain associated with a lifting of tension.
5. Topical Treatments
Unlike the other mentions on this list, topical treatments do not directly assist with muscle recovery; rather, these treatments minimize or mask muscle soreness. Your local drug store likely has an entire shelf devoted to topical muscle soothers, from balms and creams to sprays and patches. These treatments typically produce hot and/or cold sensations that instantly and temporarily alleviate discomfort by altering or blocking pain signals. Formulas vary, but most topical therapies rely on menthol or camphor. Alternatively, all-herbal formulas are available and CBD-based topical treatments are seeing a boom in popularity.
6. Take a Magnesium Salt Bath
While there is no conclusive data on how effective magnesium salt baths are at relieving muscle pain, the anecdotal data can’t be denied. Many an athlete swear by the rejuvenating effects of a good soak in a magnesium salt bath. Despite its popularity, many people do not realize that there are actually two types of magnesium soaking salts: Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) and magnesium flakes (magnesium chloride). Epson salts are the more popular and cost-effective of the two. However, magnesium flakes are thought to be more efficacious for topical absorption. Whichever soaking method you try, the warm water will help relax muscles, thereby reducing discomfort.
7. Drink Cherry Juice
Studies have shown that drinking tart cherry juice following a workout can reduce muscle soreness and damage2. The antioxidant anthocyanins, found in tart cherries, is a powerful anti-inflammatory that reduces swelling and discomfort in over-worked muscles. You can simply add raw cherry juice to a smoothie, drink it straight, or take a tart cherry supplement. The idea is to get this naturally-occurring antioxidant in a concentrated form via juice or supplements, rather than trying to the equivalent in cherries.
8. Self-Massaging Tools
Massage is a powerful modality to relieve sore muscles, besides of course to feeling amazing. Having a self-massaging tool for use at home, in the gym or wherever you are in need of a massage, is a must for athletes of all levels. Specifically, massage reduces painful muscle contractions, spasms, knots, and nerve compression. Manipulating muscles also increases blood and lymphatic circulation to reduce inflammation and pain and help your muscles heal. Getting into the habit of massaging yourself with a massaging tool at least a couple of times a week can be a game-changer in your recovery routine.
Self-care massage tools can be divided into two general categories: non-electric and electric. Non-electric includes massage balls, massage sticks, and foam rollers. These tools help loosen tight muscle tissues, but have the downside of requiring physical exertion to use them. You may need to lay against the object, as is the case with a foam roller, or press the object against you, as is usually the case with a massage stick. On the other hand, electric massagers don’t require as much effort on the user’s part. They are also more effective at normalizing and penetrating deeper into muscle tissue.
A percussive massage gun expedites and enhances muscle repair by providing bursts of concentrated pressure. Look for models with adjustable intensity levels to accommodate your massage and recovery needs. Our Compex massager, for example, has three levels:
- Soft - good for small or over-worked muscles that can benefit from blood circulation and gentle manipulation.
- Medium - ideal for medium-sized or tired muscles that need some release.
- Firm - great for larger muscles or muscles that need deep tissue manipulation.
9. See a Massage Therapist
Seeing a massage therapist carries all of the benefits of self-massage: enhanced blood and lymphatic circulation, pain reduction and improved healing times. Additionally, there is a critical relaxation component to receiving a massage. Studies show that massages elicit an involuntary parasympathetic nervous system response that allows you to de-stress, conserve energy and reduce your heart rate3. In other words, receiving a massage puts you in a relaxed state of mind that is necessary for healing.
Regularly seeing a massage therapist is a cornerstone to any athlete’s recovery routine. It is a key step to reduce inflammation and in helping to recover quicker after workouts. Professional massage sessions should be supplemented with at-home care, including regularly using massage tools. It’s not a matter of either/or when it comes to professional massage and self-massage; think of the two working together to keep your body and mind balanced.
10. Keep Moving
A common mistake people dealing with delayed-onset muscle soreness make is to become sedentary while their body heals. It may seem like your sore muscles need a time-out, but you actually want to do the opposite and keep moving around, albeit lightly. This approach to helping relieve sore muscles is called active recovery. Rather than curling up on the sofa for a day or two, which can cause your muscles to stiffen and become more tender, choose a light form of exercise. Engaging in physical activity will keep the muscles and joints loose, thereby reducing pain as you heal. Choose an activity that has little or no impact, like walking or swimming. Yoga, pilates, stretching, and light resistance training are also great forms of active recovery. Just be sure to keep it at a low intensity.
How to Reduce Muscle Pain After Working Out
With these ten tips on how to reduce muscle pain after working out, you’ll be back to full strength before you know it. Keep in mind that these treatments are best used in combination, not in isolation. Using two or more of these recovery methods creates a synergistic effect that will dissipate muscle soreness faster than relying on one therapy alone.
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
2 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
3 Diego M.A., Field T. Moderate pressure massage elicits a parasympathetic nervous system response. Int J Neurosci. 2009;119(5):630-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19283590