Updated: Jun 1, 2021
So you know the feeling the day after the gym where we cannot even sit down on the toilet because those quads are just on fire. Or what about just laughing that it hurts your abdomen- does that sound familiar? I can definitely say yessss!
Well, it’s true that mild soreness is good and even necessary for muscle growth, severe soreness on the other hand is not necessarily a good thing.
It can mean 3 things:
1. You are just starting a new fitness program and your body still needs to adjust,
2. You are pushing yourself way over your limits, or
3. You are not following through with a proper recovery post workout routine.
Whatever the case, severe soreness can actually deter you from having the results you desire. Not only will you need more time to be able to get back to optimal performance, but by not recovering the proper way your muscles might actually suffer rather than grow.
So, what can we do to ensure that we recover from sore muscles quickly?
What are the best practices for rapid post workout recovery?
Why do we get sore?
Well before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s first very important to understand why we feel sore in the first place. Many people tend to confuse lactic acid with DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Lactic acid is not the reason you feel sore. In fact, lactic acid returns to its normal level already one hour after having exercised (nowhere even close to when you actually start feeling sore, usually about 24 hours later). So, what does lactic acid do, and above all else, what is causing the soreness then?
Lactic Acid vs. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: DOMS.
Simply put, lactic acid is a by-product that originates when we produce energy without oxygen. Don't worry, the whole concept was really confusing to me too. In other words, when we exercise our body often needs to produce energy at a faster rate than at which it can deliver oxygen. Producing energy without oxygen generates a “waste” called lactate. This lactate is what causes us to feel that burning sensation while we workout. Thus, lactic acid is produced WHILE we are exercising.
DOMS on the other hand is felt anywhere between 24-72 hours after a workout session. You know that when muscles are exerted enough, they actually develop “micro-tears.” These micro-tears (depending on how big or small they are) subsequently cause inflammation, tenderness, and inter-muscular fluid. (They are also the reason our muscles grow because the reparation process produces new muscle tissue). Back to the point, the reason then that we experience pain is because we have literally damaged our tissue fiber.
So, how can we recover from sore muscles quickly?
Post Workout Recovery: Do and Don'ts.
There are many ways to help prevent soreness; some are absolute myths, while others are quite effective.
1. DO. Massage/Foam Rolling.
Studies have shown that the most effective way of reducing DOMS is via massage or foam rolling. The Journal of Athletic Training explains exactly why it works and how it should be done. So how does it work? Well, foam rolling, massage, or any type of myofascial release aims to soften fascia (the tissue that holds muscle fibers together). In other words, by applying pressure, you are in a sense of trying to get that tissue “unstuck” and better able to move again.
There are many types of foam rollers, each with a different type of density (how soft or hard). The trick is getting one that works for you. Foam rolling shouldn’t be comfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful either. Remember that not all muscles are tense in the same way. I tend to like medium pressure and I alternate between my foam roller, simple tennis balls, and massage balls. On my glutes and neck for example, I like to use more static pressure and prefer to use the balls. My back that tends to be more tense, prefers softer pressure and more dynamic movements that I can incorporate with a foam roller.
For how long?
You don’t want to linger too much on any point. Particularly sensitive individuals can develop bruising if they spend more than a minute on any given area. However, you also don’t want to work too quickly. The movements should be slow, and at times you might lie completely still, holding a position and letting the roll do its magic on a particular spot. To experience a beneficial effect, fascia must have gradual and repetitive pressure. If the process is abrupt or too quick, you might actually just cause your muscles further discomfort and/or tension.
2. DO. Integrate your Protein.
Muscle development relies heavily on nutrition- and when i say nutrition, I mean protein. Why? Because the amino acids that make up proteins are what help create, develop, repair and build muscle and tissues. Remember those micro-tears we were talking about before? Well, protein steps in to repair them, consequently producing new tissue and thus bigger muscles.
Because of this, we must be sure we are providing our bodies with enough protein in order to sustain these vital processes. Protein not only helps to reduce soreness, but it allows you to recover from sore muscles much more quickly. It is a good habit to have a protein-rich post workout snack. If you’re always on the go like me, maybe you can try out a protein post workout shake.
3. DO. Get your Magnesium.
Magnesium has a wide variety of benefits: it helps with anxiety and depression, it helps relieve headaches/migraines, it helps with muscle cramping and menstrual cramping, it relaxes muscles, reduces fatigue, improves sleep quality and much more. Among the many benefits, it also has significant anti-inflammatory properties and aids with protein synthesis. This means that not only will soreness be reduced, but recovery will be more efficient if your body is getting a sufficient amount of magnesium.
4. DON'T. Skip Sleep.
I’m sure you have all heard that muscle development (thus muscle recovery) doesn’t happen in the gym… well that’s absolutely correct! Muscle recovery actually happens while you sleep. Besides being the moment that the body undergoes restoration, it is also the moment that your body regulates the activity of many hormones…and guess what?! The human growth hormone that allows muscles to recover and grow is actually released during sleep. So, if you maintain a healthy sleeping pattern, I can guarantee you will recover from sore muscles in much less time.
5. DON'T. Stretch Sore Muscles - mild stretching only.
This is my favorite because it goes against everything I ever thought. I always thought well if my muscles are tight, I should just stretch them out, the whole tale that you need to “lengthen” the muscles you are “shortening”. Well, in reality that is just a whole bunch of baloney! Number one, you are not shortening your muscles- you might be becoming less flexible, which is a different story. Number two, stimulating a tear is never a good idea, I mean hello!! Does it really make sense to go and aggravate an inflammation even more? I mean think about it, it’s like touching an open wound. Truth is you don’t want to stimulate it any more than it already has been! This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever stretch- sorry ya'll, you’re still not off the hook for stretching.
6. DO. Active Recovery.
Having said that overstimulation is bad for your muscles, you also don’t want to do the complete opposite and park yourself on the couch and do nothing. Continuing to move at a low intensity allows an enhanced blood flow that will speed up the process of recovery and will lessen soreness and aches. Just remember that the movement needs to be LOW in intensity. A simple bike ride, walk, or light jog can do the trick.
Happy Post Workout Day!
Ashley Lambeth, ACE-CPT, OES, FNS, SCS | 919-614-2286 | Founder
Anna S. Semon, BA Exercise and Sports Science, SCS | Assistant Training Coach