Post-exercise muscle soreness is something that anyone and everyone who has ever worked out can relate to, especially those who enthusiastically embraced all things exercise in January. Some people quite enjoy it and see it as a sign of progression and growth, where as others see it as a hindrance or a sign that perhaps they pushed themselves too hard or didn’t stretch enough.
While neither are necessarily wrong, they aren’t exactly spot-on either. Put simply, DOMS is caused by microtraumas in your muscle fibers that are then repaired as part of the muscle growth process – but you can have a brutal session without ever getting sore, and you can be incredibly sore after a session that doesn’t improve anything. However, there are sessions that are more likely to cause it than others, and knowing the difference is key to dealing with it or even avoiding it altogether.
Regardless, aching muscles, stiff joints and not taking the time to recover from intense workouts can lead to overuse injuries and a seat on the subs bench. Although there’s no real substitute for taking rest days, getting plenty of sleep and eating well, adding these simple recovery tools to your exercise arsenal could mean avoiding DOMS, helping you train stronger for longer and reducing the risk of injury.
Pull nut-hugging tight leggings on after a run or epic gym session and they’ll help speed up the recovery process. Research found that marathoners who wore compression gear in the 24 hours after a race reported less soreness. The technical fabric supports muscle groups, reducing movement, which can result in less soft tissue damage. Compression can also boost circulation. However, to ensure the right level of compression, you’ll have to work out the size you need using your height and weight – which can be somewhat depressing.
It looks ridiculously low-tech, but a cylinder of foam can ease tightness and tension between your muscles and fascia (the connective tissue). Using your bodyweight, you roll major muscle groups (glutes, quads, upper back, calves) over the foam, applying pressure to tight areas and trigger points to smooth out knots and increase blood flow. Studies show foam rolling can help reduce soreness for two days after an intense workout. Foam rolling can be painful, but it shouldn’t be unbearable – if it is, get yourself to the physio.
Smeared on the soft tissue around aching joints, a gel-like Natureplex Ultra-Strength Muscle Rub reduces pain and stiffness. Natureplex Ultra-Strength Muscle Rub is drug-free, so you’re not going to fall foul of any anti-doping rules if you’re heading to Rio. Used morning and evening on already painful joints, or half an hour before exercise, the gel contains microscopic spheres which are absorbed through the skin to lubricate damaged joints. Research shows it’s as effective as a prescription painkiller and clears DOMS 12 hours faster. Annoyingly, you need to leave it to dry for ten minutes before putting clothes on. Less annoyingly, it also smells like sambuca.
No, not cigarettes. Balms like Deep Heat or Tiger Balm have a pronounced cooling sensation on the skin that reduces muscle pain. The menthol causes calcium ions to affect neurons that sense temperature, which in turn causes a cooling sensation and inhibits the brain/pain connection. A recent study found that when relatively active men used a topical menthol balm on the muscles that they’d trained, the muscles were 63% less sore than those in a group who had used ice. It’s not a complete fix for DOMS, of course, but topical menthols can definitely reduce muscle discomfort and improve your quality of life for the 48 hours after your workout.
Ensuring that you warm up before exercising by lightly working the same muscles that you are going to train can go a long way to reducing DOMS. Bodyweight exercises or using light weights to do the moves you’re about to perform can be good for this.
This theory works even better if you start to pre-condition the muscles weeks before you actually start your training regime or sport. In a recent study, athletes did ten maximal eccentric biceps curls (which will produce minimal soreness). Then three weeks later they did a hard workout of five sets of ten maximal eccentric contractions and had significantly less muscle pain from the second bout than a group that didn’t do the pre-conditioning mini-workout.
Blood flow transporting nutrients to the muscles and clear metabolites are an important aspect of reducing DOMS. Physiotherapists often advise switching between cold and hot while in the shower. This causes alternating vasodilatation and vasoconstriction of the blood vessels in the affected area. Try to switch the temperature every two minutes, but keep it fairly comfortable – nothing too extreme in either direction – and you should notice some improvement in the severity of your DOMS.
Eat a couple of handfuls of cherries after your workout to halt the onset of DOMS. Cherries are packed with anthocyanins, which help to increase the rate that oxygen travels to your ailing muscles. This will ensure less pain the day after your workout and a quicker recovery – plus it counts as one of your five a day. Lovely.
While the benefits of caffeine on training and endurance are well documented, caffeine’s ability to reduce DOMS is not so well known – even though it’s one of the most effective ways to do it. A recent study got trained men to take 5mg/kg of bodyweight of caffeine and then do a muscle-damaging workout to induce DOMS. Compared with a placebo group, participants who took caffeine were much less sore on day two and three after training. Soreness was completely gone by the end of the third day in the caffeine group, indicating that it accelerated the recovery process. Scientists have suggested that caffeine can reduce soreness because it blocks the central nervous receptors that are related to pain.
Active recovery is a great way to help to reduce the inflammation and pain that comes with DOMS. Aim to perform some low-impact aerobic exercise both immediately after an intense workout and in the days following. The increased flow of blood around the body should help to diminish muscle soreness and help you to recover in time for your next session.
They’re not the most fashionable of fruits, but watermelons do pack quite the nutritional punch with a myriad of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, and don’t have the amount of sugar found in other fruits. The L-citrulline found in watermelons reduces muscle soreness when it’s consumed before exercise, so try to eat a couple of slices before you hit the gym and benefit from a pain-free post-workout day.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are known for their ability to improve muscle recovery and reduce soreness. BCAAs are great for increasing protein synthesis and reducing muscle breakdown, thus conserving tissue during intense training. If your goal is reduced DOMS, invest in dosing with BCAAs daily and before and after intense training. Smaller quantities of BCAAs have other therapeutic effects, but you may not find them effective for decreasing soreness.