By Dr. Mercola
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or the muscle soreness you've probably experienced one to two days after exercise, is actually caused by inflammation stemming from microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, or, more specifically, microtears between your muscles and their surrounding tissues.
These damaged muscles release biochemical irritants that trigger mild inflammation, which awakens your pain receptors. If you ignore DOMS, it will eventually go away on its own, but it can be uncomfortable and may prompt you to be less active than you’d like.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to deal with DOMS, both by helping to prevent it in the first place and helping to relieve it once it occurs. To start, be sure you are not making these common workout mistakes, as they could end up increasing your pain.
10 Common Post-Workout Mistakes to Avoid
1. Icing Won’t Eliminate DOMS
Ice is often recommended for treating acute injuries, but this does not apply to DOMS. Ice works for injuries because it narrows your blood vessels, which helps prevent blood from accumulating at the site of injury, which will add to inflammation and swelling.
However, this will also delay healing and muscle repair, which means the DOMS may ultimately feel worse and last longer. To be fair, the delay in healing isn’t much – only about half a day – so if ice feels good to you, it might be worth it for you to use it.
In fact, after analyzing 17 trials involving over 360 people who either rested or immersed themselves in cold water after resistance training, cycling or running, researchers found the cold-water baths were much more effective in relieving sore muscles one to four days after exercise.1
Most studies on cold-water immersion report no or minimal side effects, so if you're willing to spend 20 minutes or so in a cold tub of water, you may very well find some relief.
2. Popping Pain Pills Like Candy
Popping painkillers like ibuprofen work by blocking inflammation. However, ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) delay healing of acute ligament, muscle, and tendon injuries.2
Many athletes take NSAIDs routinely before workouts or events because they believe they will lessen pain. But research shows no difference in pain levels during or after physical activity among those who had taking ibuprofen and those who had not.3 And it’s not simply a matter of not helping either. NSAIDs have the potential to cause harm, including:4
- Adverse gastrointestinal and cardiovascular effects
- Inhibiting the production of collagen, which is essential for healing tissue and bone injuries
- Reduced tissue adaptation to exercise, which could increase your risk of injury
According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine:5
“There is no clinical evidence to suggest that regular use of NSAIDs reduces injury risk or improves function in the typical athlete… there is sufficient concern regarding potential side effects of NSAIDs to warrant their judicious use…
NSAIDs should not be used prophylactically (in the absence of injury)… Ultimately, there is no indication or rationale for the current prophylactic use of NSAIDs by athletes, and such ritual use represents misuse of these potentially dangerous agents.”
3. Not Foam Rolling
Foam rollers are often used by therapists and athletes to mimic myofascial release treatments, which are typically used to help reduce muscle immobility and pain.
Its benefits are often compared to getting a massage, because as you roll on it, fibrous tissue is broken down and circulation is boosted, helping to relieve tension and pain. Using a foam roller has been shown to help reduce muscle soreness when used for 20 minutes following a strength-training workout.6
While foam rolling can be done both before and after a workout, pre-workout sessions should focus on problem areas whereas post-workout sessions can focus on all of the muscle groups worked that day.
You can actually use a foam roller daily (even if it's for just a few minutes) to help prevent trouble spots in your muscles from occurring. The actual foam rolling should feel mildly uncomfortable but not painful. If you use too much pressure, you can cause your muscles to tense up instead of relax.
So start out gradually and lightly, and increase the pressure slowly until you experience only a tolerable level of discomfort. I particularly like a padded plastic roller called the Trigger Point Performance Foam Roller, as this one doesn't wear out over time; it retains its shape to help you get the benefits.
4. Compression Aids Healing
Compression helps healing by minimizing swelling and fluid build-up that can delay healing. Pneumatic compression are inflatable sleeves that can be worn on your arms or legs. They apply pulsating pressure that may help clear blood lactate as well as reduce swelling, pain, stiffness, and DOMS.
Such devices can be costly, however, ranging from $50 to $1,500. Another option is to wear compression garments, which are available as shirts, shorts, socks, or tights. Such garments have been shown to help prevent DOMS in studies on athletes.7
5. Warm-Up Mistakes
It’s important to warm-up before an intense workout, and it’s best to do so gradually. Those who warmed up by walking on an inclined treadmill for 10 minutes prior to a workout had less delayed-onset muscle soreness.8 However, cooling down afterward did not seem to have an effect.
Your warm-up should include low-level cardiovascular activity, such as power walking, jumping jacks, jump rope, martial art kicks, squat thrusts, or any full-body calisthenic type exercise.
Static stretching, the kind where you hold each stretch for 60 seconds or more, is not recommended. Prolonged static stretching actually decreases the blood flow within your tissue creating localized ischemia (a restriction in blood supply) and lactic acid buildup. This can potentially cause irritation or injury of local muscular, tendinous, lymphatic, as well as neural tissues.
Dynamic stretching, however, is an active form (such as what occurs when you perform lunges, squats, or arm circles), and this type of stretching can be integrated into your warm-up as it helps improve your power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, and strength.
My favorite type of dynamic stretching is Active Isolated Stretching or AIS, in which you hold each stretch for just two seconds. AIS works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints.
6. Not Drinking Enough Water
Dehydration can contribute to post-workout fatigue, so it’s important to drink plenty of water when you’re exercising. While some experts recommended drinking about 20 ounces of water four hours before exercise and another eight to 12 ounces 10 minutes before, exercise scientist (and experienced endurance athlete) Dr. Tim Noakes believes drinking before thirst is misguided.
He uses the example of African hunters who were able to chase down an antelope for four to six hours in mid-day heat, without a source of fluids until after the hunt ended (when they would drink the animal’s blood and intestinal water). He continued:9
“Dehydration is not a disease, and it only has one symptom, and that is thirst. If you start to exercise, and you don’t drink, after a period of time, you will become thirsty—that’s your body’s way of telling you to drink.The idea that you should drink ahead of thirst is absolutely nonsensical… why should humans be different from every other creature on earth to be told when and how to drink?
The reality is you don’t need to be told when and how much to drink.We have a 300 million year developed system that tells you with exquisite accuracy how much you need to drink and when you need to drink. It’s called thirst. If you rely on thirst you won’t ever become dehydrated, and you won’t also ever become overhydrated.”
Overhydrating will actually worsen athletic performance, not improve it. As you begin to consume too much water, your cells will start to swell, leading to such symptoms as gastrointestinal upset, dizziness, soreness, and others. In severe cases, the sodium levels in your blood may drop to dangerously low levels, causing hyponatremia — a condition in which your cells swell with too much water.
So while you will need more water if you’re exercising intensely, your body will tell you when it's time to replenish your water supply, because once your body has lost between one to two percent of its total water, your thirst mechanism lets you know that it's time to drink some water!
The color of your urine will also help you determine whether or not you might need to drink more. Your urine should be a very light-colored yellow. If it is a deep, dark yellow then you are likely not drinking enough water. If your urine is scant or if you haven't urinated in many hours, that too is an indication that you're not drinking enough. (Based on the results from a few different studies, a healthy person urinates on average about seven or eight times a day.)
7. Protein to Fuel Your Muscles
Your post-workout meal can support or inhibit the health benefits of exercise. Previous research has shown that eating fewer carbohydrates after exercise more effectively enhances your insulin sensitivity, compared to calorie restriction, for instance.10 Consuming protein immediately prior to sleep, after strength training late at night, effectively stimulates muscle protein synthesis and improves whole-body protein balance during overnight recovery.11 Generally speaking, after exercise your body is nitrogen-poor and your muscles have been broken down.
Providing your body with the correct nutrients after your workout is therefore crucial to stop the catabolic process in your muscle and shift the recycling process toward repair and growth. If you fail to feed your muscle at the right time after exercise, the catabolic process will go too far and can potentially damage your muscle. Amino acids from high-quality animal proteins, along with carbohydrates from vegetables (not grains) are essential for this process. Good sources of animal protein include:
- Whey protein (minimally processed, and derived from organic, grass-fed, non-hormonally treated cows)
- Humanely raised, free-range chicken
- Organic eggs from pastured hens
- Grass-fed beef
Beneficial sources of carbohydrates include:
- Virtually any vegetable (limiting carrots and beets, which are high in sugar)
- Dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, or Swiss chard
- Low-fructose fruits like lemon, limes, passion fruit, apricots, plums, cantaloupe, and raspberries. Avoid high-fructose fruits like apples, watermelons, and pears
It's important to combine a quality protein with a veggie-type carb in every meal, no matter whether it's a resistance training day, an interval cardio day, or a non-workout day. However, after strength training (as opposed to cardio training), your body tends to need more rapidly absorbed nutrients and a higher glycemic (fast released, starchy) carbohydrate.
8. Not Refueling Fast Enough
Whey protein is considered the gold standard of protein by many, and is one of the best types of foods you can consume before and after exercise. One of the reasons whey protein works so well is that it assimilates very quickly, so the protein will get to your muscles within 10-15 minutes of swallowing it, supplying them with the right food at the right time.
Another study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise showed the amino acids found in high-quality whey protein also activate certain cellular mechanisms, including a mechanism called mTORC-1, which in turn promote muscle protein synthesis, boost thyroid, and also protect against declining testosterone levels after exercise.12
Whey protein earns its title as the perfect “fitness food” as it contains not only high-quality protein, but also extremely high amounts of leucine, which is particularly important for muscle growth and repair. It’s best to consume your whey protein smoothie (or other high-quality protein/carb snack) within one hour of your workout.
9. Sitting on the Couch
Do you rest on the couch when DOMS hits? You might be better off going for a brisk walk instead. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found exercise to be as effective as massage in relieving those post-workout aches and pains.13 Not to mention, most Americans sit far too many hours in a day, which increases your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer, along with premature death.
Plus, research shows that maintaining a regular fitness regimen cannot counteract the accumulated ill effects of sitting eight to 12 hours a day in between bouts of exercise. This is very strong evidence to seriously consider eliminating as much sitting as you can. You can install a standing workstation at the office, and try to keep moving. I suggest aiming for 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day, over and above any exercise regimen you may have. A fitness tracker or pedometer can help you keep track of your steps and motivate you to reach your goal.
10. Too Many Cocktails
Heavy drinking may impair your muscle repair and recovery, so you might want to think twice before working out intensely and then heading out for an alcohol-infused night on the town. Heavy drinking (six drinks in three hours) was found to decrease muscle protein synthesis by 37 percent, and researchers noted,
“acute alcohol consumption, at the levels often consumed by athletes, may negatively alter normal immunoendocrine function, blood flow and protein synthesis so that recovery from skeletal muscle injury may be impaired.”14
If you choose to drink alcohol after exercise, be sure to keep it to a minimum amount. The researchers concluded:
“…if athletes are to consume alcohol after sport/exercise, a dose of approximately 0.5 g/kg body weight is unlikely to impact most aspects of recovery and may therefore be recommended if alcohol is to be consumed during this period.”
Amino Acids to Relieve Sore Muscles
We’ve covered mistakes you’re better off avoiding, but there are additional natural strategies you can use to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. If you have a juicer, try juicing about one-third of a fresh watermelon and drinking its juice prior to your next workout. This contains a little over one gram of l-citrulline, an amino acid that seems to protect against muscle pain. One study found men who drank natural unpasteurized watermelon juice prior their workouts had reduced muscle soreness 24 hours later compared to those who drank a placebo.15
In addition to its l-citrulline content, it could be that watermelon helps relieve muscle soreness because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Watermelon contains the anti-inflammatory antioxidant lycopene as well as cucurbitacin E, or tripterpenoid, which blocks the activity of the pain and inflammation-causing enzyme cyclooxygenase. While watermelon does have beneficial nutrients, however, it might not be the best idea to drink it prior to every workout, as it contains fructose, which should be consumed only in limited amounts.
Carnosine is a pluripotent dipeptide composed of two amino acids, beta-alanine and histadine, found in many tissues but most notably in your muscles. It serves several important roles, including helping to buffer acids in your muscles and serving as a potent antioxidant to quell inflammation. It appears particularly useful for improving anaerobic high-intensity exercise performance and may help reduce muscle soreness. However, if you are considering using carnosine as a supplement it is important to realize that carnosine itself is probably not that useful because enzymes rapidly break it down to its constituent amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine), which are then absorbed by your muscles and re-formed back into carnosine.
Most studies find that if you want to increase athletic performance with carnosine, your best bet is to use beta-alanine instead, since beta-alanine appears to be the rate limiting amino acid in the formation of carnosine. The foods with the highest amount of useful dietary dipeptides like carnosine would be animal proteins like eggs, whey protein, poultry and beef.
What Else Works for Preventing Muscle Soreness?
As mentioned, cold water and ice baths, otherwise known as cold water immersion or “cryotherapy,” is a popular technique among amateur and professional athletes, as it is thought to help reduce muscle inflammation and pain after exercise, as well as speed recovery time. If you’re willing to take a quick cold shower or take a quick dip in a cool pool, it might help. You may also want to try:
- The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): EFT can be an effective way to reduce pain very quickly, with very high rates of success. And it’s free! This simple technique can be learned by just about anyone, including children. If you’re interested in learning how to do this yourself, please visit my EFT guide.
- Grounding: A pilot study found that grounding yourself to the Earth (also called “Earthing”) might help relieve delayed-onset muscle soreness.16 When walking barefoot on the Earth, free electrons in the ground transfer into your body through the soles of your feet. These free electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known to man. Experiments have shown grounding can decrease pain and inflammation, improve sleep, and make your blood less viscous, which is good for your cardiovascular health. Ideal locations for grounding are on beach sand, close to or in the water, and on dewy grass.
- Acceleration Training: Acceleration training, also called Whole Body Vibrational Training (WBVT), can significantly accelerate tissue healing. Acceleration training essentially involves standing on a vibrating plate that works ALL your muscles and nerves at the same time. It stimulates your white muscle fibers, which are your fast and super-fast twitch muscle fibers, which kick-starts your pituitary gland into making more human growth hormone (HGH).
You can exercise while on this vibrating plate, or simply stand on it passively, which means any person of any age or fitness level can benefit. Vibrational training has been demonstrated to improve circulation, increase range of motion, improve balance, decrease pain, and speed recovery from injuries. Think of acceleration training as “mechanical massage.” In my view the most effective vibrational training device on the market is the Power Plate.
Several additional nutritional factors have been proven useful by science in preventing and resolving delayed-onset muscle soreness, including:
|1. Ginger: A natural pain reliever with a long history of medicinal uses, ginger (both raw and heat-treated) has been shown to reduce muscular pain by about 24 percent.|
|2. Curcumin: Studies have shown curcumin (the pigment that gives the spice turmeric its vibrant yellow-orange color) is effective in relieving pain, increasing mobility, and reducing inflammation.|
|3. Omega-3 fats: These beneficial fats are highly anti-inflammatory, as well as very beneficial for your heart. My favorite omega-3 fat is krill oil, which has unparalleled ability to quell pain and inflammation.|
|4. Sulfur/MSM: MSM, which is 34 percent sulfur, is well known for its joint health benefits, improving metabolism, and reducing inflammation. MSM also appears to improve cell wall permeability, so it is useful in helping deliver other active ingredients. Sulfur also plays a critical role in detoxification and is the primary component in your body’s most important native antioxidant — glutathione.|
|5. Astaxanthin: This naturally occurring supernutrient is a powerful antioxidant boasting an encyclopedia of health benefits, including decreased post-exertion soreness and faster recovery time.|
|6. Cherries: Cherries are a proven anti-inflammatory, as well as reduce your uric acid level. Cherries have been scientifically shown to help with conditions like arthritis and gout, and may have some usefulness for general muscle soreness. One study involving a group of long distance runners found that tart cherry juice significantly reduced post-exertion pain.17|
|7. Arnica: Homeopathic arnica was demonstrated to reduce muscle soreness among marathon runners in a 2007 study.18|