Sore muscles after a workout can range from uncomfortable to incapacitating. So what can be done to boost muscle recovery to help you feel better—and get you back to your exercise of choice?
Postworkout soreness is common, but that doesn’t make it any more bearable for the people who are experiencing it. (Still, it can be encouraging to know that in most cases it’s a normal reaction to your training stimulus—more on that below.) So for people who are bothered by sore muscles after a workout, it’s no big surprise that they want to know what they can do to stop it.
First, though, it helps to understand what’s causing that muscle discomfort—what experts refer to as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Once you understand what’s behind that discomfort, you can focus on treatment—or, in other cases, what you can do to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Here’s everything you need to know about DOMS and muscle recovery.
Why are your muscles sore after a workout?
Experts believe that delayed onset muscle soreness is a result of the small tears to your muscle fibers that occur while you’re working out, New York fitness trainer and physical therapist Laura Miranda, DPT, CSCS, tells SELF. “The small microtears to our muscles cause pain and usher in inflammation,” she says. The pain usually begins to develop between 12 and 24 hours after your workout, and peaks around 24 to 72 hours after your training stimulus.
This is actually the same process involved in building muscle—when your muscle fibers build back after these tears, they recover and come back stronger, Miranda says. It’s a normal part of the muscle-building and strength-building process.
But more muscle soreness or DOMS does not equal better or quicker muscle-building or strength-building results, Miranda says. In fact, getting too sore after a workout can be counterproductive to those goals, since you may find yourself skipping a few workouts due to the discomfort.
There are varying degrees of pain depending on how much damage has been done (and other factors like genetics and how hydrated you are), but regularly experiencing an extreme level of soreness isn’t something you should make a habit of.
What kinds of workouts lead to muscle soreness?
Workouts that include a lot of eccentric exercises are more likely to leave you hobbling the next day. Strength exercises have two obvious phases: the concentric (the lifting part) and the eccentric (the lowering part). The eccentric phase is where you’re actually creating tears in the muscle fibers, and it’s also where your muscles are working at their strongest. (Downhill running can also count as eccentric exercise, which is why DOMS can be more likely to occur after it too.)
“You get this really high level of force production in the muscles, so you have a false sense of how much exercise you can keep doing because you haven’t fatigued that much,” exercise physiologist Joel Seedman, Ph.D., owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta, tells SELF.
Unfortunately, this can make it tricky to tell when you’re overdoing it.
You’re also more likely to experience DOMS if you push your body to movement patterns that it’s not accustomed to, engage smaller muscles that your workouts don’t typically touch, or stress the muscles way more than they’re accustomed to or prepared for. That might mean a virtual boot camp class with tons of lateral lunges, too many biceps curls (especially if they’re eccentric-focused), or just way more volume (more sets and reps) than you’re used to.
“Every now and then, you might get carried away, you might go to a new class, or you might have a [substitute instructor],” exercise physiologist and ACE-certified personal trainer and spokesperson Pete McCall, M.S., CSCS, host of the All About Fitness podcast, tells SELF. Basically, extreme soreness can happen anytime you do something your muscles aren’t familiar with—even if that’s just going extra hard in a competitive boot camp class.
What are the types of muscle soreness?
There are a few different types of muscle discomfort you could be feeling: the DOMS mentioned above, acute muscle soreness, or an actual injury.
Acute muscle soreness refers to that burn you’re feeling while you’re exercising, says Miranda. So while DOMS won’t rear up for hours or days, you’ll experience acute muscle soreness right during your workout. You’ll feel it in the muscles you’re working—so if you’re doing overhead presses, for instance, you’d feel it in your shoulders and triceps—and it pretty much tells you when it’s time to stop and that you can’t squeak out another rep.
Both DOMS and acute muscle soreness tend to feel more global than an actual injury—your whole leg or glutes area might be sore, for example. But with an injury the pain or discomfort tends to be more focused. “A pain or an abnormal feeling would be usually with a specific movement, and it’ll be a different family of pain—sharper and more specific,” Miranda says. “It also may be triggered by one particular range of motion, so it might not be anytime you move your arm, but with one specific way you rotate it.”
Another possible way to tell which kind you’re experiencing? If you feel the discomfort bilaterally after your workout (like on both quads instead of just one spot on one leg), it’s probably more likely to be DOMS than an injury, says Miranda. DOMS should also start to feel better after that three-day mark, whereas if something lasts for a week or more, it might be an injury. In that case, it might be worth visiting your doctor or physical therapist.
How can you ease DOMS and decrease your recovery time?
Unfortunately, if you’re already in the throes of monumental soreness, the only surefire remedy is time. But there are a few things you can do to help ease the pain while you wait and speed the process along.
Yes, this sucks. “But if you’re really sore and you decide you’re not going to get off the couch, that’s the worst thing you can do,” says McCall. This is because activity increases circulation, improving blood flow throughout the body.
“It’s thought that increased blood flow and nutrients to the muscles does, in fact, speed up the repair process, which in turn should reduce DOMS,” says Seedman. While more research needs to be done, we do know that blood carries nutrients and oxygen to muscle tissue, he explains. The idea is that the faster these nutrients get to their destination (via blood flow), the faster they can get to work, and the faster you’ll feel better.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should go back to your regularly scheduled workout programming—we’re talking gentle activity, like going for a walk or hopping onto a recumbent bike. If you can manage it, Seedman also recommends some very light strength training. “Blood flow is huge, and that’s why strength training is so productive,” he says. “It’s one of the best ways to get blood flow [directly] into those muscles.”
But seriously, light means superlight, since you don’t want to do more damage to the muscle fibers. Seedman suggests using just 25% to 50% of the weight you’d normally use, or stick to bodyweight exercises.
Step two: Drink water. “A brief body of research shows a correlation between dehydration and increased muscle soreness and DOMS,” says Seedman. While more research needs to be done, “researchers and practitioners have postulated that if dehydration increases soreness, then increased levels of hydration can minimize it,” he adds.
The main theory here is that water helps flush out waste products, Seedman says. When muscles break down, they release waste products and toxins that need to be filtered out of the body, he explains, and these waste products are associated with increased soreness.
Again, the keyword is light. Stretching can be a great way to release tightness and increase your range of motion when you’re sore—which can make you feel better, even though it’s not actually healing the tears in your muscles or making them repair any faster. (While stretching preworkout usually focuses on dynamic moves, you can use static stretching after your workout, as SELF recently reported. This can help increase your range of motion, and, since your muscles are already warm, it can feel easier to get in that good stretch.)
But more isn’t always more. “You have to be careful,” says Seedman. “Doing some light stretching can be good, but trying to overstretch the muscle when it feels extremely tight can actually cause the muscle to come back even tighter because the body is trying to resist it.”
So how do you know how far is too far? “Stretch until it feels pretty tight, let up after 5 to 10 seconds, and then repeat that, without ever getting to the point where it feels unbearable,” says Seedman. If it’s too painful to even think about stretching, skip it—it’s really just about getting some temporary relief if you can.
Protein is a critical nutrient for building and maintaining muscle, so it plays a huge role in helping your muscles recover from a tough workout.
While you should be eating enough protein all the time to prevent recurring or long-lasting soreness from your workouts, says Seedman, it can still be helpful to double-check that you’re eating enough protein after the damage is done. “You can almost make the argument that that’s going to be as vital as light exercise [to recover],” he says.
This doesn’t mean excessively high amounts of protein, necessarily. While needs vary, people who work out should aim for about 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For an active person who’s 150 pounds, that’s about 95 to 136 grams per day, split up between all your meals.
The debate between heat therapy and cold therapy is ongoing, but when it comes down to it, it’s really just about what feels good to you—for the most part, the effects are temporary. But when you’re super sore, any fleeting relief (as long as it’s safe) is worth it.
Ice can help reduce the swelling that sometimes comes along with extreme soreness, says Seedman. Bringing the swelling down can help reduce some pain-causing tension. Elevating your legs (if that’s where you’re sore) can also help with this.
However, heat can also minimize tension and pain signals, says Seedman. So if relaxing in a warm bath makes you feel better, do that. McCall also notes that this may help with circulation.
What can you do to prevent muscle soreness after a workout?
While the tips above can help you improve soreness that you’re already experiencing, there are also some things you can do to prevent DOMS from happening in the first place—or at least limit it.
Since too-much-too-soon is a big trigger of DOMS, it makes sense that easing into a new kind of training (or into any training, if you’re just starting out) can help make muscle soreness after a workout less likely.
Progress slowly with new workout types, says Miranda. So if you normally do equally timed contractions for strength training—spending about the same time on lifting and lowering—but want to start incorporate eccentric training, you might want to start gradually adding it into your routine. If you normally do four sets of regular biceps curls, maybe you do one or two sets the first time you try eccentric biceps curls, for instance.
If you want to try a new type of training, like with a virtual class, choose a shorter class aimed for beginners, which will introduce you to the moves rather than throw you right in.
Foam rolling after your workout may also help reduce the intensity of DOMS. A review of 14 studies published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy concluded that self-myofascial release, as performed by a foam roller or a roller massager, after an intense exercise session helped decrease perceptions of muscle soreness in the following days.
“This improves blood flow and the oxygenation to the area, which they believe helps in the perceived reduction of DOMS,” says Miranda. (Percussive therapy devices like the Theragun Elite may also help you feel better too, as SELF recently reported.)
Overall, time should heal your soreness—as long as it’s not something more serious.
While you’re recovering, it’s also important to watch for signs of something more serious. A syndrome called rhabdomyolysis occurs when overworked muscle fibers die and release the protein myoglobin into the bloodstream, which can lead to kidney damage and even failure. This is a medical emergency, and along with extreme muscle pain, weakness, and swelling, the main sign is often cola-colored urine. If you notice these signs, get to a doctor ASAP.
If you experience sharp pain during your workout, or if the soreness doesn’t start improving after a couple of days, that can be a sign that you’re actually injured and need to see a health care professional.