It was in the mid-morning on a warm August day when I was getting ready to do a serious deadlift workout. I love the barbaric strength you feel after a good lift, so I was pumped.
However, on my 2nd warm-up set, I felt a twinge in my lower back. I instantly dropped the bar knowing my workout was over. I knew this muscle tweak would take me off the grid, but weeks of chiropractic visits and body-numbing massages proved not to be enough.
If you’ve ever experienced similar soreness or pain after a workout then you know how much it sucks to be sidelined by little tweaks that keep you from moving forward with your training.
But it’s more than that because the nagging pain and discomfort seeps into every aspect of your life: you don’t move the same, sitting becomes a pain in the ass (literally), and you get to the point where you’ll do just about anything to get rid of the soreness.
Now, even if you haven’t tweaked a muscle, muscle soreness caused by your workouts can be just as demotivating.
With that said, I want to share 5 proven (and scientific) ways to help you recover from your workouts so you’re not sidelined and putting your life on your hold while your body gets its shit together.
What Causes Sore Muscles?
Muscle soreness, in a nutshell, occurs due to “microtrauma” of the muscle fibers and connective tissues. I know, it doesn’t sound pretty, but I promise, it’s a completely natural result of the breaking down of muscle that occurs during weight lifting or strenuous training.
These tiny tears cause pain due to the low-level inflammation that occurs as the body works to repair them. This process can take several days, which is why it can sometimes take 24-48 hours for you to feel sore.
After this bout of pain, however, the muscle has fully repaired itself and as a result has become stronger and denser.
However, this doesn’t mean we can’t try out a few tactics to lessen our post-workout pain. Check out some of the most effective ways below.
Warming up before a workout is one of the most overlooked ways prevent and ease delayed onset muscle soreness (that kind we feel a day or two after our workout).
One of the reasons we shrug off the warm up is because the idea of “warming up” is still kind of vague. Should we focus mostly on stretching out our muscles? Or on doing something aerobic, like jumping jacks?
The short answer: your warm up should be dynamic.
By dynamic, I mean performing movements that mirror what you’ll be training that day.So, say you’re focusing on lower body training; you’ll want to perform dynamic movements like walking lunges, leg swings, butt kicks, and lateral lunges, combined with dynamic stretches like the plantar flexor stretch and a light aerobic activity.
So, say you’re focusing on lower body training; you’ll want to perform dynamic movements like walking lunges, leg swings, butt kicks, and lateral lunges, combined with dynamic stretches like the plantar flexor stretch and a light aerobic activity.
For more dynamic warm-up ideas, check out this post.
This type of warm-up will take about 10 minutes, and research shows it’s a worthwhile time investment if you’re trying to reduce next-day soreness (1).
As a bonus, research also shows warming up with dynamic stretching improves power output and reaction time – definite pluses, especially if you’re training for a sport (2).
2. Get Enough Protein
Getting enough of the right kind of protein is crucial when it comes to easing muscle soreness.
Remember how we discussed that soreness is caused by microtrauma of the muscle fibers? To repair this trauma, the body needs sufficient amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
Research shows getting protein immediately before and after exercise (combined with a small amount of carbohydrates) can help ease muscle soreness.
This can help because it increases the body’s rate of muscle synthesis, but that’s not all.
One study conducted on 130 U.S. Marines found that marines eating protein (compared to a group who took no protein before or after exercise) had, “33 percent fewer total medical visits, including 28 percent less visits due to bacterial or viral infections, 37 percent less orthopedic-related visits, and 83 percent less visits due to heat exhaustion.” (3).
The study also found muscle soreness was “significantly reduced” in the subjects ingesting protein.
For most active individuals, 0.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is plenty to meet your needs. If you weigh 180 pounds (82kg) then you’re looking about 66 grams of protein per day.
So what kind of protein is best to consume, and how much?
The above study consisted of a “protein supplement” containing 8 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein, and 3 grams fat, which definitely isn’t a huge serving.
To keep things simple, focus on consuming whole-food sources of protein coupled with healthy amounts of carbs and fat. If you’re meeting your caloric needs with well-balanced meals then you’ll easily meet your protein requirements.
You can also chew on a few pieces of beef jerky with nuts and dried fruit, or 3 ounces of chicken or turkey with apple slices, or your favorite protein shake.
3. Soak in Epsom Salt
Most of us are familiar with this one. Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate, is a natural mineral compound historically known for its ability to reduce inflammation, ease stress, and flush toxins from the body.
Today we know that magnesium is indeed a true powerhouse nutrient, regulating over 300 enzyme reactions in the body.
Not to mention, 99 percent of magnesium in the body is located in the bones and muscles, making it a key player when we talk muscle repair (4).
Interestingly, magnesium has also been shown to aid in the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which increases muscle endurance, as well as protein synthesis, neuromuscular contraction, nerve transmission, and insulin metabolism (5).
Even though we rarely need an excuse for a long, hot soak in the tub, it’s indeed a bonus that magnesium absorbs best through the skin. In fact, doing do a few times a week after a brutal workout is an effective and proactive way to ward off muscle soreness and get rid of it faster.
4. Fortify Your Body with Anti-Inflammatory Foods
One of the side effects of any injury (even if it’s positive, like in the case of muscle soreness) is inflammation. Undoubtedly, with inflammation comes pain as the body fights to shuttle nutrients into the “wound” and rebuild tissue.
Because of this, trying out anti-inflammatory foods might help to quickly get rid muscle soreness. A few stellar foods fit for the job are below:
Turmeric is possibly the most well-known anti-inflammatory spice.
Its active anti-inflammatory ingredient, curcumin, has been shown in several human studies to reduce inflammation by actively blocking molecules that play a role in the inflammation process (6).
You can add more curcumin to your diet by either taking a supplement form, or enjoying curries with liberal amounts of turmeric and curry powder.
Ginger is another powerful anti-inflammatory spice. Although it’s commonly used to help ease digestive problems, it has also been shown to be effective against a variety of inflammatory diseases such as gastritis, esophagitis, and hepatitis.
When you feel soreness creeping in, make a cup of ginger tea, add it to a smoothie or juice, or down a couple capsules.
Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, and tuna contain potent omega-3 fatty acids that play a huge role in lowering inflammation. They are particularly rich in DHA and EPA – polyunsaturated fatty acids that have shown anti-inflammation effects against diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and Alzheimer’s (8).
In essence, don’t be shy about noshing on some fatty fish when you’re feeling sore
5. Foam Roll
Foam rolling is essentially an inexpensive, convenient way to give yourself a deep tissue massage.
The fancy term for foam rolling is self-myofascial release, which refers to releasing those deep knots formed in our muscles that can cause pain and stiffness.
But the benefits don’t stop there: foam rolling has also been shown to alleviate muscle fatigue, soreness, delayed-onset muscle soreness, and even enhance performance. One study found that foam rolling immediately after exercise improved muscle tenderness by a “moderate-to-large amount,” and also increased power and strength endurance (9).
Looking at these results, it seems the best time to foam roll would be after a workout. In reality, you can foam roll anytime you feel stiffness or soreness.
To foam roll, simply place your roll beneath the area that’s bothering you (say, your glutes) and slowly roll over it, lingering for a few breaths on really tight areas.
For step-by-step instructions on how to do all kinds of foam rolls, check out this post.
With these techniques, hopefully getting out of bed after a brutal workout will be less stressful and allow you to get back in the gym faster.
- Olav Olsen., et al. The Effect of Warm-Up and Cool-Down Exercise on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in the Quadriceps Muscle: a Randomized Controlled Trial. J Hum Kinet. 2012 Dec. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3588693/ >
- Perrier, Erica T., et al. The Acute Effects of a Warm-Up Including Static or Dynamic Stretching on Countermovement Jump Height, Reaction Time, and Flexibility. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: July 2011. < http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2011/07000/The_Acute_Effects_of_a_Warm_Up_Including_Static_or.19.aspx >
- Flakoll PJ, Judy T, Flinn K, Carr C, Flinn S: Postexercise protein supplementation improves health and muscle soreness during basic military training in Marine recruits. J Appl Physiol. 2004. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14657039?dopt=Abstract >
- Wilhelm Jahnen-Dechent and Markus Ketteler. Magnesium basics. Clin Kidney J (2012). < http://ckj.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/Suppl_1/i3.full >
- Uwe Gröber., et al. Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients. 2015 Sep. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4586582/ >
- Chainani-Wu N. Safety and anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin: a component of tumeric (Curcuma longa). J Altern Complement Med. 2003 Feb. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12676044 >
- Nafiseh Shokri Mashhadi., et al. Anti-Oxidative and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Ginger in Health and Physical Activity: Review of Current Evidence. Int J Prev Med. 2013 Apr. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665023/ >
- Wall R., et al. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev. 2010 May. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20500789 >
- Gregory E. P. Pearcey., et al. Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. J Athl Train. 2015 Jan. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299735/ >