Your muscles make every pullup, press, jump, crunch, run, squat, and curl possible. But after a brutal workout, taking a single step can feel like the greatest form of punishment. That's because vigorous exercise causes small tears in muscle fibers, leading to an immune reaction as the body gets to work repairing the injured cells. Any type of soreness indicates that your muscles have been broken down. And while “broken down” isn’t synonymous with “injured,” it does mean that your muscles are compromised. That discomfort you feel 12-48 hours after a squat-heavy workout? It’s known as “delayed onset muscle soreness”.
Some soreness is inevitable—in fact, it can be a sign of a good workout. But, to make the most of your sweat sessions, knowing how to prevent and cure (or at least alleviate) sore muscles and muscle damage is key. Here are 21 ways to do just that.
Know the difference between soreness and a strain
Knowledge is power—and identifying the cause of your pain is key to recoverying quickly, or ending up sidelined for a while. Muscle soreness can last up to 72 hours, so if you find the feeling of pain in your muscles is lasting a week or more, you may have a strain. It’s important to listen to your body. A strain occurs when those same muscles that are torn during exercise are torn in larger amounts and to more significant degrees—and takes several weeks to heal. Check in with your doctor if you feel like your soreness is beyond "just" soreness.
Keep switching up your workouts
If you are constantly doing the exact same routine, the minute you try something new the muscles you haven’t been incorporating are going to suffer tenfold on the soreness scale. Try different workouts, like swimming, rowing, running, or boxing, to build total-body strength so you can keep all of your muscles ready for anything.
Eating protein won’t reduce muscle soreness, but it will help your muscles recover more quickly so you don’t feel the pain as long. Consuming 10g of whey protein before and 10g of whey protein following your workout will help reduce symptoms of DOMS, according to a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Wearing compression garments can help speed up muscle recovery when you’re sore. Try TINTIN weighted compression shorts (which come with gel inserts to heat or cool muscles) or any of this compression gear for post-workout recovery.
Get a massage
Many pro athletes swear by this tried and true method, and work massages into their weekly training plans. “In prep for Rio, the past four years of my training has included less swimming and more recovery,” says three-time Paralympic medalist Tucker Dupree. "Massages have made a huge difference there.” Scheduling a bi-weekly or once-monthly deep tissue massage is worth it, and it’s backed by science.
Take a day off
Since sore muscles are already compromised with slight damage, it’s important to not keep pushing through the pain with tougher workouts. “Soreness is your body saying, ‘Hey, you broke me a little bit, so let me build back up,’” says Aguillard. So, consider a total rest day if the soreness is intense.
Do some light activity
That said, there are benefits to a recovery workout in lieu of total rest. Light activity can alleviate soreness just as well as a massage, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Go out for a light 20-minute jog, swim, bike ride, or row session the day after a demanding workout.
Drinking enough water ensures that those nasty toxins trapped in your muscles that make DOMS even worse get flushed out faster, and that your muscles are hydrated enough to stay supple. Dehydrated muscles become tight and easily injured, so try to keep them hydrated by drinking at least half of your bodyweight in ounces of water a day.
Have certain muscles that always feel tight and restricted? Roll them out with a foam roller before you work out to mobilize the muscles, get blood flowing, and keep overuse injuries at bay. “You should foam roll the muscles that get sore often so that you can get full range of motion and build strength in muscles that may be underdeveloped," says Brooke Ficara, DPT, at Spear Physical Therapy in NYC. Foam rolling is also great post-workout even if it hurts so good.
Consider upgrading your go-to roller for The VYPER, a cutting-edge roller that uses both pressure and vibration to improve circulation and work on tight muscles. The VYPER uses three different speed settings powered by rechargeable lithium ion batteries.
Prime your muscles
For example, if you have a heavy squat session planned, do a few unilateral bridge exercises before picking up the weights to warm up the muscles you want to engage. This prevents excessive soreness and also imbalances that result in overuse injuries of more dominant muscles, such as hip flexors or hamstrings.
Drink cherry juice
One study found that drinking tart cherry juice for one week leading up to a strenuous running event (like a marathon) could help minimize post-run muscle pains and strains. Another study found cherry supplements (1 pill had the anti-inflammatory content of about 100 cherries) reduced muscle soreness by 24% two days after a strenuous resistance workout. And yet another study found post-lift strength loss was reduced 18% among those who drank cherry juice before their workouts.
Take a nap
Research suggests taking a nap around two hours after a workout helps the body enter deep, restorative states of sleep, which releases natural growth hormones to improve musculature and helps your body to repair.
Alternate muscle groups
While many advocate two days between workouts involving the same muscle group, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for recovery time. So the best assurance that you are giving your muscles the rest they need in between workouts is to alternate the muscle groups that you focus on each day.
Soak in an Epsom salt bath
Using Epsom salts in a bath soak isn’t just Grandma’s trick, it’s backed by science to help muscle restoration by supplying your body with the muscle-relaxing mineral Magnesium. Magnesium is a primary component of Epsom salt. It's a mineral that the body needs, and, unlike other minerals, is absorbed through the skin as you soak in the bath.
According to studies, the muscle's primary fuel source during exercise, glycogen, is replenished more rapidly when athletes have some caffeine with their post-workout carbs. Research results show that athletes who ingested caffeine with carbohydrates had 66% more glycogen in their muscles four hours after finishing intense, glycogen-depleting exercise, compared to when they consumed carbohydrates alone.
Build up your tolerance
In other words, don't overdo it when you up your intensity. If you normally run five miles at a given pace, then don’t go much above six miles on the next run. For lifting weights, if you normally complete four sets of arms-intensive exercises, don’t go above five sets the next time. If you exceed the 10-20% increase threshold, the chances of experiencing severe muscle soreness soars.
Get some vitamin C
Vitamin C is shown to be effective in helping to prevent muscle soreness. Incorporate chili peppers, guavas, and citrus fruits—which are all high in vitamin C—into your diet.
Invest in some technology
NormaTec sleeves are recovery leggings that use "dynamic compression" with a peristaltic pulse that squeezes and travels up the leg from the bottom to the top to increase blood flow. Ironman record holders, the Boston Celtics, and Ryan Hall all swear by the high-tech system to speed up recovery.
Eat some kiwi
Everyone knows that potassium is a go-to nutrient to keep muscle cramps and soreness at bay, but you don’t have to eat bananas by the bunch to get your potassium. Two kiwis supply more than 540mg of potassium (16% of the daily value) for 100 calories. One extra-large banana also delivers 16% of the daily value for potassium, but it also contains 25% more calories than a serving of kiwi. Bananas are also higher in sugar and carbs than kiwis.
Try a topical cream
Think of your typical topical pain reliever as a good standby for quick relief. Rock Sauce packs a combo of hot and cold relief, thanks to ingredients methyl salicylate, menthol, and capsaicin.
Cut back on the booze
Sorry about this one, but research suggests more than one or two drinks after working out could reduce the body’s ability to recover.