Exercise is vital for our health, but it can also leave us feeling tired, drained and sore, especially if we aren’t used to it. Once you get past that difficult adjustment period, you can get a lot out of regular workouts and get fitter, faster and stronger. The challenge is learning how to relieve muscle soreness and recover from your workouts more quickly.
What Causes Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness?
Post-exercise muscle soreness is common, even people who work out regularly and are quite fit can suffer from it. Muscle soreness is not a bad sign, in fact, it can be a sign that your muscles are adapting and that you’re getting fitter.
When your muscles are stressed in ‘new’ or different ways, this causes microscopic damage to them, and this is what makes your muscles sore. When they repair themselves, you will feel fitter and stronger.1 DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, is something that is often talked about in the fitness community. People used to think that it was caused by lactic acid, but that is not the case. Rather, it’s just a sign of adaptation to a new training regimen.
How Can You Relieve Muscle Soreness
There are a lot of ways that you can relieve muscle soreness. The first thing that you need to do is figure out what kind of soreness that you are suffering from. If you are generally achy, stiff or sore and you exercised within the last 24 – 72 hours then there’s a good chance that your aches and pains are caused by DOMS. If you’re in constant pain and it’s immediately after exercise, then your pain could be an injury. In most cases, it’s immediately obvious whether you have DOMS or something more serious.
Gentle Exercise to Recover
You can relieve muscle soreness by warming up and cooling down properly, and by using ‘active recovery’. Cooldowns are very important. They help to increase blood flow to your muscles, and this can help to stop you feeling so sore the following day.2
If DOMS has already set in, then you may benefit from using a foam roller to get rid of the soreness. Foam rolling is useful for both releasing tension in your muscles and improving blood flow. Foam rolling isn’t the same as a gentle massage, it can be quite uncomfortable in its own right, but once you are done you should find that you feel a lot better!
Epsom salts are popular among athletes as a form of recovery aid. The science behind them is controversial. While some people market Epsom salts as a ‘detox’ agent, this is not strictly true. Epsom salts are unlikely to have any meaningful impact in terms of ‘drawing toxins out’ of muscles, or even drawing lactic acid out of them. Even so, they do provide for a relaxing bath and this alone can help with muscle soreness because the heat will help your muscles to relax, and the buoyancy in the bath is helpful as well because it means that you can simply ‘relax’ and not have to worry about the strain on your muscles.
Essential oils are useful for relaxation and also for combating inflammation. Many people opt for massages with essential oils, providing similar benefits to a foam roller but in a slightly more pleasant and relaxing form. If you don’t have the luxury of getting a proper massage with essential oils you can still benefit from using a room diffuser or a portable diffuser. The Relieve blend is popular with athletes who are struggling with aches and pains because it contains ginger and spikenard. Ginger has an appealing flavor and is often used in home remedies, and spikenard has a lot of research supporting its benefits for fighting inflamation.3 The Healthy blend, too, is loaded with inflammation-fighting ingredients.
Heat and Cold
If you follow professional sports you have probably seen people using heat and cold as a way of speeding up their recovery. Many athletes take ice baths after a hard workout or use contrast bathing where they combine a short period of ice exposure with a hot shower, and sometimes repeat that process to enjoy the inflammation-reducing and circulation-boosting benefits of different therapies.
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Some athletes use cryotherapy too, which relies on blasting the body with very cold temperatures for a short period. This is thought to help promote recovery and cellular repair, although research into the subject is still in its infancy. Certainly, early research into cryotherapy as a recovery aid and even to prevent injury is promising.4
Don’t Give Up
People who are new to exercise often feel like something is very wrong when they experience post-exercise muscle soreness, but that is not really the case. DOMS is normal and it is healthy. It is a sign that your muscles are adapting. If you work through DOMS you can get stronger, faster or more flexible. Learn to listen to your body. Make sure that you are getting the sleep that you need and that you are eating enough to recover from your workouts.
It can be tempting to rest until the soreness has completely gone away, but that may actually slow down your improvements. It is a good idea to work up to regular exercise, but if you work out one day, rest another, then work out the day after this is a good balance that will offer you some recovery time while still allowing you to see strength and cardiovascular improvements as well as muscle-memory improvements if you are playing a sport or doing an activity where that applies.
Of course, if you are actually in severe pain you should rest, and seek advice about any potential injury. General soreness is a vastly different thing to pain, however, and you should aim for active recovery to beat that kind of stiffness and the general feeling of aches and pains.
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