“This is going to hurt tomorrow.” We’ve all said it after a particularly grueling workout or return to the gym after an extended break.
Delayed onset muscle soreness, commonly referred to as DOMS, describes the muscular pain and stiffness that occurs following a heavy workload. It typically peaks around 24 to 48 hours after leaving the gym, explains exercise physiologist Matt Unthank, CSCS, director of training for Crossover Symmetry. “While the process is complicated and remains to be entirely understood, it is widely viewed as an inflammatory response due to a breakdown in muscles tissue.”
But that breakdown’s not necessarily a bad thing. “For a fit person who exercises regularly, I would actually view the occasional attack of DOMS as a good thing,” says Unthank. “It suggests an elevation in intensity and the inclusion of novel movements to a workout program, both of which are extremely good things for a training program.” After all, for your muscles to repair, grow and become stronger, you first have to give them something to repair. And we’re talking about the same microscopic tears in the muscles that can leave you waddling the morning after your workout.
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So how can you kill the pain without killing your results? Just turn to these five research-proven strategies.
5 Ways to Reduce Muscle Soreness, STAT
1. Eating Tart Cherries
The science: Research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that marathoners consuming tart cherry juice five days before, on the day of, and 48 hours following their races reduced muscle soreness. And how’s this for the cherry on top? The athletes also showed signs of improved muscle recovery and function. Tart cherries are rich in anthocyanins, colorful antioxidant compounds that are believed to work their magic by decreasing excess inflammation.
Try it: “Under regular training conditions, good nutrition is enough to get antioxidants where they need to be,” Unthank says. But for an extra boost, you can work tart cherries, or just their juice, into your regular diet. A couple of servings per week, along with a generally nutrient-rich diet, is plenty during typical training. However, if you are gearing up for marathon, it can be beneficial to switch to a once-daily plan. Don’t like cherries? Red raspberries are another great source.
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2. Drinking Coffee
The science: Multiple studies show that pre-workout caffeine consumption can reduce subsequent muscle soreness and fatigue. In one study published in the Journal of Pain, the strategy scored exercisers a 48 percent drop in DOMS. Apart from generally making everything better, caffeine has analgesic (pain-killing properties), which is why it is commonly contained in over-the-counter pain medications.
Try it: An hour before a particularly grueling workout, drink two cups of coffee (the amount of caffeine used in the Journal of Pain study). Bonus: 2014 PLOS ONE research shows that coffee hydrates as well as water, which is important to keep in mind when trying to combat muscle pain. Getting dehydrated during your workouts can significantly exacerbate symptoms of DOMS, according to the Journal of Athletic Training.
3. Getting a Massage
The science: Finally, justification for those spa days. Research from a 2014 study found that a post-exercise massage can significantly reduce pain. And over the long term, regularly getting massages may increase your body’s ability to fight off DOMS. Another 2015 study showed that massaged muscles contain more blood vessels than massage-free ones, which may result in improved recovery. They also display only half of the scar tissue that non-massaged muscles do. Not bad for some low-key me-time.
Try it: Schedule your sports massage directly following your workout. In the study, immediate massage was more effective at promoting tissue regeneration and reducing fibrosis compared to massage delayed 48 hours after exercise.
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4. Foam Rolling
The science: Similar to massage, foam rolling is all about myofascial release, which relieves tension in the muscle’s connective tissue. And your trainer is right: Research has found that rolling out your muscles like dough can help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. It can also improve performance in subsequent workouts.
Try it: Invest in a foam roller (we’re big fans of the TriggerPoint Grid), and spend about 10 to 15 minutes with it each day. You can make it part of your warm-up, cool-down, and on days that you don’t work out, part of overall recovery. (Also, check out these five moves that might be missing from your rolling repertoire.)
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5. Performing Recovery Workouts
The science: Consider this permission to turn down the dial from time to time. In one 2012 study, women who performed a 20-minute bout of low- or moderate-intensity cycling immediately following their DOMS-inducing strength workouts enjoyed a reduction in muscle pain along with a added boost in strength. “Light recovery workouts increase blood flow, which does a number of things to naturally nudge the inflammatory process along, such as lymphatic draining, moving immune cells, and clearing inflammatory mediators,” Unthank explains.
Try it: Cool down from your workouts with some light cardio, and schedule low-intensity, recovery-focused workouts throughout the week, he says. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) go heavy during every single workout for ultimate results. Aerobic exercise, like jogging or cycling as well as yoga, Pilates and other low-impact workouts are all great options for keeping DOMS at bay.
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Other Recovery Methods
Epsom salts, cold compresses, ice baths — a lot of other pain-relieving techniques top the lists of weekend warriors and professional athletes alike. But not all are well-studied or have conclusive findings, Unthank says.
For instance, you’ll mostly find anecdotal evidence backing the use of post-exercise Epsom salt baths. And emerging evidence suggests that cold therapy might not be the pain reliever everyone thought it was. In one British Journal of Sports Medicine study, for example, three one-minute ice-water immersions were ineffective at reducing DOMs in a group of 40 exercisers. Contrary to popular opinion, research also shows that static stretching — whether performed before or after exercise — doesn’t reduce DOMS.
So what’s behind the rave reviews on these other methods? While it’s totally possible that there really is a benefit (and research just hasn’t caught up yet), a placebo effect could also be at play, Unthank says. In the end, it’s best to stick with science-backed strategies as your staples. If you want to supplement with other techniques, by all means. As long as you feel like it helps your post-workout soreness (and, of course, doesn’t pose any health risks), what’s the harm? If anything, those happier muscles just might be all in your head.