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7 Best Recovery Tips for Sore Muscles After Workout

Sore muscles after workout, a woman reaching for her back

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Picture this: you had a great leg workout at the gym yesterday and feel so proud of yourself. You then step out of bed to start your day only to find out you are struggling to even walk to the bathroom. Ouch!

You now have a case of post-gym muscle soreness. How is it possible that you felt on top of the world yesterday and now you feel like you have aged 30 years overnight?

This is why it’s important to have a post-workout strategy for adequate muscle recovery. With the right strategy, you will feel less pain and discomfort in the days following your workout. Plus, you will minimize your injury risk and promote proper growth of your muscle tissue.

In this article, we will go over 7 tips that can help you reduce post-gym muscle soreness and promote muscle recovery.

7 Tips for Sore Muscles After a Workout

A man doing sit-ups in the gym, sore muscles after workout

1. Post Workout Cool-Down

Do you tend to skip your cool-down after a workout? You might want to rethink this. Here are some of the benefits of performing cool-down exercises:

  • To slow down your heart rate
    Your heart rate goes up when you do a workout, cooling down gives it a chance to go back to baseline.
  • To prevent blood pooling in your legs
    Cooling down should be active and not standing still, this will help the blood in your legs to make its way back toward the heart.
  • To promote recovery
    Cooling down helps to bring our nervous system back to a state of rest which is when muscle recovery can begin to happen.
  • To improve psychological health
    The cool-down encourages you to take a moment to be proud of the workout you just finished and to mentally prepare for the rest of your day.

The 3rd point concerning recovery is especially important when it comes to reducing muscle soreness after a workout. If we skip the cool-down, it’s a missed opportunity to help our muscles recover optimally.

So, what should a post-workout cool-down look like? The number one thing to note is that it doesn’t have to be long or complicated. Here are a few tips to ensure you are successful with your cool-down:

A note on static stretching: this is when you stretch a muscle and hold the position typically for longer than 30 seconds. I still see a lot of people doing this as part of their cool-down after a workout. 

If you feel good doing this after a workout, please continue. However, it’s important to note that research has shown that static stretching after a workout doesn’t help prevent muscle soreness (Herbet et al., 2011).

2. Hydration and Fueling

It’s important to stay hydrated and properly fuel your body before, during, and after a workout to aid in post-workout muscle soreness. 

To help you with this, below is a breakdown of what this could look like for every phase of your workout.

Before a workout:

During a workout:

After a workout:

3. Foam Rolling

This is a big one. I often see people running straight toward the foam roller after their gym workouts in the hopes of limiting soreness the next day. But does it actually work?

Research indicates that foam rolling can alleviate some of the muscle soreness experienced after vigorous exercise. For instance, Pearcy et al. (2015) found a notable reduction in muscle tenderness following intense physical activity. That’s great news!

What we need to be mindful of is how to properly use a foam roller to get the most out of it and promote muscle recovery.

How long should you foam roll for?

Currently, the methods for using mobility tools like foam rollers vary widely. Studies have found benefits from using foam rollers for durations that can go as long as 20 minutes. 

However, studies by Sullivan et al. (2013) and Halperin et al. (2014) suggest that even short sessions of 10 to 30 seconds (per muscle group) can be effective. This seems a lot more reasonable, we don’t have all day after all!

How much pressure should you apply or how fast should go when foam rolling?

When using a foam roller, factors such as pressure and speed also differ across studies, with no universally accepted guidelines. 

As a physiotherapist, here is what I usually recommend to my patients for foam rolling:

4. Massage or Self-Massage

Sore muscles after workout, a woman stretching in the gym

The next way to relieve post-gym muscle soreness is to get a massage or perform self-massaging techniques. 

Studies have shown that massage can indeed reduce how severe and how long the post-workout muscle soreness is. This could be explained by the fact that massage can improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, and promote muscle recovery

When using self-massaging techniques, it’s recommended to use a cream to reduce friction on the skin so you can properly target your muscles. 

Beyond the Gym offers lotion bars that have all the qualities you should look for when looking for a lotion to treat your sore muscles. Here are some of the qualities this lotion offers:

For more information on Beyond the Gym’s lotion bars click here

The best way to massage your sore muscles is to pick one area to work on and focus on it for about 20-30 seconds. Start with a light pressure and go deeper once it feels more comfortable. You can do 3 sets of 20-30 seconds for each area.

In terms of technique, I usually tell my patients not to overcomplicate things. You can just apply pressure going in small circles, or if you’re more experienced you can try to follow the alignment of the muscle fibre.

5. Adequate Sleep

We have two very important components to our nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. 

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight or flight responses, and this is the one active during our workouts. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digestion, and this is the one we need for proper recovery.

One very effective way to activate our parasympathetic nervous system is to sleep. More sleep equals more recovery. More recovery equals potentially less post-workout muscle soreness. 

Even though sleeping sounds like a no-brainer, so many of us struggle with getting enough of it or getting good quality sleep. To help you achieve better sleep hygiene, here are some actionable tips you can implement:

If you manage to implement these tips on most days, you will be on your way to better sleep and better muscle recovery.

6. Respecting Your Limits During Your Workout

Back of a man in the gym, showing muscles, sore muscles after workout

I often remind my clients that they know their bodies more than anyone ever will. Injuries often happen when people push beyond their limits and ignore the warning signs. 

We mentioned before that some muscle soreness after a workout is normal. But how sore is too sore after a workout? We know that DOMS typically last 1-2 days after a workout with the peak being at 72 hours post-workout. 

If the soreness is at a mild to moderate intensity and disappears within a few days, this isn’t a cause for concern. As a physical therapist, I would recommend waiting until the muscle soreness subsides to work out those same muscles again or you can work on other areas in the meantime. 

However, if the soreness is severe, persists for an extended period, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as swelling, redness, or loss of joint mobility, it may indicate an injury or overtraining. In this case, it might be a good idea to seek help from a healthcare provider, like a physical therapist to get it assessed.

To enquire about an appointment with a physical therapist at Beyond the Gym, click here.

7. Heat and Cold Therapy

Our last suggestion to help with muscle recovery is using heat and cold therapy.

What are the effects of heat and cold therapy on muscle soreness?

Heat therapy, such as using warm packs or warm baths, helps to increase blood flow to the affected area, promoting relaxation and reducing muscle stiffness. It can also help in decreasing the pain by numbing the sore muscles and reducing muscle spasms. On the other hand, cold therapy, like applying ice packs or taking cold baths, constricts blood vessels (makes blood vessels smaller). This can help in reducing inflammation and swelling in the muscles. It also helps numb the area which can provide pain relief.

What is the appropriate amount of time to apply heat or cold therapy?

Generally, I recommend applying heat to an area for about 15-20 minutes whereas 10 minutes is sufficient for applying cold to an area. 

If you’re applying a heat pack or an ice pack, it’s a good idea to have a cloth (which can be wet for better conduction) between your skin and the pack to avoid burns and tissue damage. Make sure you set a timer, so you don’t lose track of the time. Before you consider reapplying cold or heat therapy to a specific area, make sure the skin is back to normal temperature.

Is one better than the other (heat or cold) when it comes to reducing muscle soreness?

In a recent systematic review of heat and cold therapy for muscle soreness, they found that both types of therapy were useful and couldn’t confirm that one was superior to the other (Wang, 2021).

They found that applying cold or heat therapy within a 1-hour window after exercising reduced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Cold water plunges and hot pack therapy seemed to have the best effect overall (Wang, 2021).

As a physical therapist, I tell my patients to try both and see which one helps them the most and which one they feel the most comfortable using. We know that both can be effective and that they don’t cause any harm when used appropriately.

Conclusion

After reading this article, you have a lot of tools in your toolbox that can help in reducing post-workout muscle soreness. 

To get the most out of these tools, it’s best to use them regularly and consistently. I have also found that using a combination of recovery strategies is a lot more effective in reducing muscle soreness than just using one in isolation.

So now it’s time to get out there and start implementing these tips after your next gym workout!

References:

American College of Sports Medicine, Sawka, M. N., Burke, L. M., Eichner, E. R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S. J., & Stachenfeld, N. S. (2007). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 39(2), 377–390. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e31802ca597

American College of Sports Medicine. (n.d.). Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/delayed-onset-muscle-soreness-(doms).pdf?sfvrsn=8f430e18_2

Armstrong L. E. (2021). Rehydration during Endurance Exercise: Challenges, Research, Options, Methods. Nutrients, 13(3), 887. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13030887

Guo, J., Li, L., Gong, Y., Zhu, R., Xu, J., Zou, J., & Chen, X. (2017). Massage Alleviates Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness after Strenuous Exercise: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in physiology, 8, 747. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.00747

Halperin, I., Aboodarda, S. J., Button, D. C., Andersen, L. L., & Behm, D. G. (2014). Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters. International journal of sports physical therapy, 9(1), 92–102.

Herbert, R. D., de Noronha, M., & Kamper, S. J. (2011). Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (7), CD004577. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3

Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4

Sullivan, K. M., Silvey, D. B., Button, D. C., & Behm, D. G. (2013). Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. International journal of sports physical therapy, 8(3), 228–236.

Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical therapy in sport : official journal of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Sports Medicine, 48, 177–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.01.004

Author

  • April Edwards

    Meet April, a licensed physiotherapist with over 10 years of experience, who specializes in sports injuries and orthopedics. She is on a mission to help people stay active and regain their full potential through her physiotherapy practice. April is also a certified Yoga teacher and an avid runner. When she’s not practicing as a physio, you are sure to find her training for her next race or doing Yoga. She’s also passionate about sharing her knowledge through writing to help others live their healthiest lives.

    View all posts

Author

  • April Edwards

    Meet April, a licensed physiotherapist with over 10 years of experience, who specializes in sports injuries and orthopedics. She is on a mission to help people stay active and regain their full potential through her physiotherapy practice. April is also a certified Yoga teacher and an avid runner. When she’s not practicing as a physio, you are sure to find her training for her next race or doing Yoga. She’s also passionate about sharing her knowledge through writing to help others live their healthiest lives.

    View all posts
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