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May 30, 2023

Sore muscles? Here are 6 recovery methods to get relief

Recover from muscle soreness without turning to NSAIDs.

Anyone who’s active will, at some point, experience sore muscles. This is especially true if you’re trying a new type of workout, working out for longer than usual, or increasing the intensity of your activity. 

“Muscle soreness is caused by micro-tears and inflammation in the muscle and is a response to physical stress from exercise,” says Kyle Gonzalez, NSCA, CSCS, CES, Pn1, a performance coach at Future, an app that pairs users with a remote fitness coach. “The micro-tears, increased blood flow and inflammation cause mild swelling, which makes pain receptors more sensitive to movement. Soreness is a natural process, but without the right guidance it can be debilitating and lead to injury.” This brings up a very important point: always listen to your body!

Here are six different ways to help relieve muscle soreness and speed up the recovery process so you can get back to feeling good as new.

1. Active recovery

Soreness can last 24 hours, or it can be a few days before you feel back to yourself. While you’re recovering it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t keep working out, but you might want to take it easier. Think: Doing an active recovery with lower-intensity exercise, like a good walk versus a difficult HIIT class. 

“Active recovery or light activity can reduce soreness, increase blood flow, remove chemical waste from your body and help you adapt to training,” Gonzalez says. “It’s one of the best methods for relieving sore muscles naturally because it’s easy and convenient—just get up and move throughout the day. I like to use lower-impact activities like light cardio (swimming, walking, biking), stretching and yoga.” Although stretching is one of the most prescribed methods for relieving muscle soreness, Gonzalez notes that static stretching does very little to relieve soreness directly. “Often it offers more of a placebo effect, and more focus should be placed on doing a proper dynamic warmup and cooldown.”

2. Massage

Massage is another commonly prescribed method for reducing muscle soreness. “Massage has been shown to reduce inflammation by increasing blood flow. It also increases mitochondria, which helps with cell repair and function,” says Gonzalez. Contrary to what you might think, he suggests opting for a gentle soothing massage over a deep tissue or more invasive massage for soreness.

3. Heat and ice

Heat and ice have both been shown to have benefits for sore muscles. “Heat therapy works by increasing blood flow and circulation to the muscles as well as soothing any discomfort and relaxing muscles, which can improve flexibility. Ice works by reducing blood flow to the muscles, therefore reducing inflammation and swelling,” says Gonzalez. Alternating heat and ice can be effective too. Gonzalez recommends taking a warm shower, or using an ice pack and then a heating pad on the specific sore spot. “Taking a warm bath with Epsom salts (which when broken down is magnesium and sulfate) can be beneficial in reducing pain and relaxing the muscles,” he adds.

4. Sleep

Sleep is not the glamorous choice, but it’s where most repair and recovery takes place. “During sleep the body can relax and clear chemical waste, repair damaged tissue and decrease pain sensitivity, so getting seven to nine hours a night is important,” Gonzalez says. 

5. Nutrition

There are many foods that can aid in reducing soreness by reducing inflammation and replenishing depleted energy stores. Gonzalez outlines some effective ones below: 

  • Tart cherry juice: can reduce muscle pain and inflammation (but watch out for high amounts of added sugar)
  • Turmeric: an anti-inflammatory spice that can reduce muscle damage 
  • Cottage cheese: packed with whey protein that helps quickly replenish muscle protein and casein protein, which is slow-acting and can help continue that process while you sleep
  • Green tea: full of antioxidants that reduce muscle and cell damage, and boosts hydration
  • Nuts and seeds: rich in omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation and protein to prevent muscle breakdown.
  • Sweet potatoes: a complex carbohydrate that’s rich in nutrients and replenishes glycogen stores

6. Muscle rollers

Foam rollers can release tension in the muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion. “Rollers can also facilitate blood flow and are a relatively cheap and efficient option,” says Gonzalez. 

Be careful with over-the-counter options.

As for over-the-counter options, Gonzalez suggests staying clear of them for most situations, but says anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can sometimes provide relief: “Having a coach who talks to you about your level of soreness and provides feedback as to how your body should be responding to training is essential to a healthy training routine. Always check with a professional before taking any OTC medications to ensure they’re safe and appropriate for you.” In that same vein, if your muscle soreness persists for more than a week, if you feel sharp pain instead of dull achiness, or if you can’t perform day-to-day tasks for an extended period of time, then you should check in with your health care professional.

Used with permission. © Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved.