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9 Mar

How to Relieve Sore Muscles

soremuscleDear Mark,

Been eating primal for a few months now, loving it, but I just started doing some workouts and the soreness that comes a day or two later is just killing me. Does it get better? Maybe I’m doing them wrong?

Thanks,
Jill

Thanks, Jill, for the question. It’s a subject that, had you not mentioned it, might never have popped up. What you’re describing is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it’s completely normal – especially for people just getting started exercising. The symptoms include muscle tenderness, soreness, weakness, and even swelling. As you’ve noticed, DOMS usually manifests a day or two after a particularly strenuous workout. It afflicts millions of people, from weekend warriors to hard-core athletes. Some dread it; others relish the feeling for days as proof that they’re making progress. But despite its ubiquity, science still hasn’t been able to nail down the precise cause of DOMS.

That hasn’t stopped several popular theories from circulating. You’ve probably heard about a few of them in the weight room.

One is that lactic acid is to blame. Lactic acid is what causes the “burn” during a workout, so it might sound natural and perfectly believable that lingering lactic acid is what causes DOMS, but it’s not. For one, the intense lactic “burn” feels nothing like DOMS, which is a duller type of pain. Two, lactic acid concentrations return to pre-workout levels within 60 minutes of working out, while DOMS occurs days later. Lactic acid has nothing to do with DOMS.

Another popular notion is that DOMS occurs because intense exercise breaks down your muscle fibers: you tear the muscle fibers apart with resistance training and they respond by coming back stronger than ever. The pain, then, comes with breaking down and rebuilding muscle fibers. Either that or it’s inflammation. Or it’s increased pressure on your nerves as a result of expanding muscle. There are a ton of possibilities thrown out there, and they all sound vaguely plausible, but the science is still murky. Whatever the cause, we do know that it can’t be neatly explained by a single factor. This article approaches DOMS by examining various research studies in an attempt to figure out the mystery, but the basic conclusion seems to be “DOMS simply is” (as if Descartes were a sports medicine physician).

It has been firmly established that a certain type of exercise – eccentric contraction – is more likely to cause DOMS. Eccentric contractions include walking downstairs, running downhill, and negative movements when weight training (lowering weights in a controlled motion, as opposed to letting gravity take over). I suppose eliminating as many eccentric contractions from your workouts as possible might reduce DOMS, but you’d be losing a major aspect of total strength building. It’d also be completely unfeasible, unless you plan on starting all your squats from the lowered position or somehow constructing a bench press rack that allows you to start each rep from your chest. No, negative movements are just as (possibly more) important, and it’s better and healthier to simply accept DOMS. You don’t have to like it, but you have to understand that it’s a normal part of working out.

That said, it might be possible to mitigate the intensity of DOMS. No silver bullets, of course, but there are methods that some people swear by.

  1. Time – Sometimes, you just need to give it time. The severest cases of DOMS shouldn’t last longer than 3-4 days. Most will subside after 1-2.
  2. Stretching – Stretching is just a good general policy already, and although the research doesn’t support it as a valid treatment for DOMS, stretching might at least make you feel better.
  3. Massage – It might not improve the function of DOMS-impaired muscles, but it does seem to help with the actual soreness.
  4. Ice Baths – Though there’s no clinical support, some people report an ice-water soak after a workout helps reduce incidence of DOMS.
  5. Anti-Inflammatories – Try ibuprofen or a chemical equivalent. Better yet try these 10 natural ways to reduce inflammation. They might reduce the pain, but – like with massage – your strength will still be impaired.
  6. Exercise – Warming up before your workout is always a good idea. Afterward, beset by DOMS, light exercise can “train” your body to work through the pain. Don’t work through any particularly severe DOMS, but it’s safe to get back on the wagon on the tail end of the soreness. Eventually, you should stop getting it altogether.

Remember – DOMS is different from a pulled or torn muscle, or a strained joint. As animals with pretty complex nervous systems, we should be able to instinctively tell the difference. DOMS shouldn’t be sharp and biting, and it shouldn’t affect the joints.

Above all, I consider DOMS to be a crucial step in the adaptive process. Not everyone gets it, but if you do you can rest assured you’re doing something right. I know from personal experience that introducing a completely new exercise into my routine or making a substantial jump in weight or intensity can induce DOMS. So for a beginner, like you, DOMS is probably inevitable. You can try the above methods, but ultimately your best option is to embrace the pain. Some sickos (like myself, actually) actually learn to love it and use it as a yardstick for progress (although a lack of DOMS does not indicate a lack of progress).

Believe it or not, I think that suffices. Muscles get sore. It may or may not be a concrete sign that our muscles are repairing, but I don’t think it really matters. At the very least, DOMS is a sign that our muscles are becoming attenuated to our workouts (after time, DOMS does significantly lessen – I, for instance, rarely get it anymore). The more we do them, the less sore we get. It’s a war of attrition. It’s supposed to hurt, at least a bit.

Anyone out there have a good method for dealing with DOMS? Let me know!

Further Reading:

Exercising Through Injury

Insects: Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

Tips for Getting the Best Massage

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Mark,

    Here’s one study that points to coffee being a possible remedy for muscle soreness:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070109172152.htm

    -JD

    JD wrote on March 9th, 2009
    • Coffee as a muscle relaxant? Pshhh, caffine dilates + shortens blood vessels, which is good for your pain–but not for strength building. Plus caffine may keep you up and you may not realize how tired you actually are, and a lot of sleep is integral for getting big.

      Bryan wrote on June 13th, 2009
      • You can’t physically shorten your blood vessels. Caffeine does dilate them, shorten them no.

        Chris wrote on March 14th, 2010
  2. When I get DOMS, I hit the hot-tub. I don’t know if actually helps… but it feels like it does.

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on March 9th, 2009
  3. Mark, the main thing I see that helps minimize DOMS is maintaining conditioning. This means working out frequently at less than maximal levels. The worst thing is to work out hard and wait for the DOMS to completely subside before you work that muscle group again. That will guarantee you’ll be sore again next time. Any time you increase the volume or intensity of a workout, you should expect an increase in DOMS. The best strategy is to ease into anything new with light workouts and progressively get more intense.

    A popular misconception is that DOMS is an indicator of a workout’s effectiveness. It’s not, you can make considerable progress without it.

    Stu

    Stu wrote on March 9th, 2009
  4. Mark,

    Making sure I do a light warm up before a workout usually helps me avoid DOMS. When I do get it though, I find ice packs help the best.

    - Dave

    David at Animal-Kingdom-Workouts wrote on March 9th, 2009
  5. Cherry juice is proven to help –
    http://tinyurl.com/bjztmf

    re_mute wrote on March 9th, 2009
  6. I agree with Stu about not waiting for DOMS to completely subside before attempting another workout. The simple act of doing another workout that targets those sore muscles seems to alleviate the pain both during and after the workout. Ellington Darden and Arthur Jones have both written about this topic particularly with regard to bodybuilding and it seems to be one of the best solutions (but you shouldn’t train the same body parts on consecutive days so you can expect to be sore for at least 48 hours).

    Dave wrote on March 9th, 2009
  7. The two most effective things I’ve found to combat DOMS is an active cool-down (stretching, light calisthenics) after an intense workout, and a PWO drink within 30 minutes. I use kefir or whole milk. Seems to really help.

    Daniel wrote on March 9th, 2009
  8. Just like you, I like it. But what I don’t like and don’t understand, is the stiffness and soreness I sometimes feel the day after an intense yoga session. The next day I feel like an old man, and the day before I was Mister Bendy.

    SuperMike wrote on March 9th, 2009
  9. DOMS is a lot like growing pains, IMO. I get DOMS a lot worse if I fast for awhile before I work out (like 20 hours). I’ve read some papers recently that show testosterone and human growth hormone production are both boosted after fasting, so I’ve been experimenting (and Mark has commented on this in the past).

    If I had to make a wild-ass guess/hypothesis, I might think it’s related to penetration of neurons into the muscle tissue so that more muscle fibres can be recruited during a contraction. In that case, you have a more direct understanding of why you might be suffering pain. This fits within Supermike’s yoga issues, or how sore people report getting after doing kettleballs or some other activity that requires fine muscle control.

    Robert M. wrote on March 9th, 2009
  10. I have been working out for a long time. I added P90X about 6 weeks ago. Wow! I love it! Before adding this I always ran, biked, lifted ,etc. Workouts are really fun again.

    Terrilee wrote on March 9th, 2009
  11. No wonder I’ve never found infos on how to “heal” DOMS. I like the Zen attitude: “DOMS simply is” :)

    I’m actually experiencing some rare DOMS right now after some serious hole digging over the weekend. Digging holes (by hand with a shovel) is a nice full body workout. The sore muscles are the ones that get neglected during my regular workouts.

    WT - Food Ideas wrote on March 9th, 2009
  12. I try to avoid DOMS because of the pain and because I theorize that the pain indicates a significant catabolic/cortisol response. Being 57 years old, I exercise to enhance the release of growth hormone and for the “exercise high”; if I was involved in competition, then I would accept DOMS.

    Mark L. wrote on March 9th, 2009
  13. Isn’t the easiest way to deal with DOMS simply to avoid it? DOMS is worst when you dive into an exercise or movement and overdo it. Any time you add a new movement (or restart an old one) to your regime, you should go relatively easy the first few times (sessions, not sets) before going heavy.

    If you do that, your DOMS will be the manageable kind that let’s you know you’ve worked hard, not the crippling kind that makes you never, ever want to do that again!

    Jody W wrote on March 9th, 2009
  14. I know what not to do about DOMS – keep excercising just as hard. It can make it last for about 5 days.

    I also found this weekend that starting squats from a lowered position and then lifting doesn’t prevent it. We carried a pile of railway sleepers and I can still feel it in my legs today.

    Spring Girl wrote on March 9th, 2009
  15. Wow! I didn’t know it had an official name. I can remember reading my “bible” in the early 80s, Marty Liquori’s Guide For The Elite Runner (not that I resembled anything close to elite). Marty referred to the “two day lag rule” which meant that you really felt a workout two days later. I’ve always scheduled my workouts with that in mind.

    DaveC wrote on March 9th, 2009
  16. Nice informative article. I’ve found downing a nice fat tablet of magnesium works real well for me. In fact, any time I am in pain, one of those sets me right.

    Ailu wrote on March 9th, 2009
  17. THere was a good study last year on preventing soreness….

    http://conditioningresearch.blogspot.com/2008/02/how-to-avoid-sore-muscles.html

    cardio acceleration before the resistance exercise. Sprint then lift. Sounds quite primal

    Chris wrote on March 10th, 2009
  18. Mark,

    I try to avoid DOMS as well. It s funny that you mention “Running Down a Hill” as something that would cause DOMS. I consider myself pretty darn fit, but last summer I went hiking up a 4 mile steep incline outside of Seattle called “Mt. Si”. It took us 2-3 hours to get up and maybe a little over 1 hour to hike down.

    My legs were sore for close to 5 days. I have never experienced anything close to this type of soreness.

    How did I get better? Lot’s of Couch Time :)

    Rusty

    Rusty - Fitness Black Book wrote on March 10th, 2009
  19. Hey Mark,

    It’s worth checking out this video on how reflexology can be used as a natural way to help relieve muscle pain…

    http://www.lamuscle.tv/player/cranereflexology/5

    Hope its of some help!

    xxx

    Marisa wrote on March 10th, 2009
  20. My wife and I have discussed this frequently. Seems like the second day after a particularly hard (or new) workout is the worst. We attribute it to a change in routine. If we build up slowly to a hard workout over a period of weeks, it’s not too bad, but a dramatic change in routine will inevitably lead excessive soreness.

    Greg wrote on March 10th, 2009
  21. I’ve always found that DOMS was alleviated by a run. Sure, it hurts when you start, but it all goes away, unless it’s a really bad case, but it feels much better.

    I don’t run anymore, so I don’t know if it works as well to do sprints. That would probably help too.

    Sara wrote on March 10th, 2009
  22. Jill and all, these things help me a lot:

    Fish oil: it helps blood flow to/thru those sore muscles that need the attention;

    Contrast Water Therapy*: turn that hot shower to cold for 30 sec, then warm back up for 2 min., repeat several times.

    Don’t use DOMS as an excuse not to work out! Just focus the next workout in different areas.

    Good luck, Mike S.
    *credit goes to Mike OD over at I-Life

    Mike wrote on March 10th, 2009
  23. Proper recovery methods have always helped me with lessening DOMS.

    - Epsom salt baths after the workout (doesn’t have to be immediately after, but the same evening)

    - Glutamine post-workout

    - ZMA supplement before bed

    Lauroo wrote on March 10th, 2009
  24. Try Burt’s Bee’s Therapeutic Bath Crystals. They are excellent in relieving DOMS!!

    Terrilee wrote on March 10th, 2009
  25. Hi Lauroo,
    I totally agree with you about epsom salt soaks.
    My sister in law is a Nurse and she says epsom salt actually works as a “natural” muscle relaxer.

    Donna wrote on March 10th, 2009
  26. Yep on the Epsom salts, which is again, magnesium. I’ve found magnesium in all forms to be a wonderful muscle pain reliever – the most effective form I’ve tried is Target-Mins (a multi-spectrum combination of magnesium aspartate, oxide, citrate, taurinate and alpha-ketoglutarate). Pop one of those babies and I feel like I’ve taken a vicodin (only unlike pain meds, this is actually good for me). Excellent stuff.

    Ailu wrote on March 10th, 2009
    • Thanks. I have magnesium but will get the Target-Mins as suggested. :-)

      Pat wrote on September 1st, 2011
  27. Best cure for DOMS in my experience is to work out again. If I work out three days in a row I will be slightly sore on the morning of day 2, quite sore on the morning of day 3, and oddly not very sore at all after day 3′s workout and on day 4 ready to go again on day 5.

    Ryan wrote on March 10th, 2009
  28. For me it’s hot/cold alternating shower. Leave it on each temp for approx. 45-60 secs and rotate 4-5 times each. Agree with the others, hop back on that horse, nothing feels better than sweat.

    RP wrote on March 10th, 2009
  29. I can’t find the research at this moment but I found that green tea reduces DOMS and fasting increases the EGCG (green tea Catechin) in your blood by 3.5 FOLD. So… I workout, eat dinner afterwards and then fast the next 20 hours until dinner. (all the while drinking about 5-6 cups of green tea over the course of the day). This protocol significantly reduces DOMS for me.

    Brian wrote on March 10th, 2009
  30. Dr squat used to tell us to take l arginine, l carnitine and a few other supplements 30 min before a workout. It helped but I was still sore 2 days after a heavy workout. After I started hearing and reading about D ribose I decided to give it a try. About the 5th day (taking 20 grams a day) I noticed that half way through my workout I wasn’t dragging ass like normal. I thought, great, this stuff is good. Then a few weeks later I realized I wasn’t sore 2 days after a heavy squat day. This is the only thing I am doing different. This D ribose is the best supplement I’ve ever taken. I can squat heavy TWO days a week now. If we would have had this back in the ’70s I could have been squatting and deadlifting 900 lbs. Try 5 grams L arginine, 4 grams L carnitine and a 5 gram scoop of D ribose 30 min before a workout. I then take 5 gram scoop of ribose right after the workout.

    Big John wrote on March 11th, 2009
  31. I have found that I no longer have any soreness after back to back long runs of 20+ miles ever since I started using VESPA. It is an amino acid supplement with all natural ingredients of filtered water, orange juice, honey, royal jelly, bee propolis, and wasp extract. It also keeps you from bonking during a run since it uses the amino acid extract derived from the Asian Mandarin Wasp (which flies 70 to 100 kilometers daily and carries half it’s weight in food on it’s back), it allows you to use your steady burn fat as fuel rather than having to intake large amounts of calories. I have found it to work very nicely with the primal lifestyle as it no longer requires one to use carbs as fuel, you can stick with your fat stores as grok did. If anyone is interested I order mine from: http://www.vespapower.com, you can make a comment to Peter Defty if you order and tell him you heard about it from me and that you live a primal lifestyle, as he does too and would be very interested to hear about your results.

    Marissa wrote on March 11th, 2009
  32. I use Quick Relief from the TriVita company. It has an anti-inflammatory extract from the NewZealand green-lipped mussel, as well as white willow bark, and works very well. It comes in capsule form, as well as a rub-in gel cream. They really work!!! Beats ibuprofen and/or Celebrex.

    Carroll wrote on March 11th, 2009
  33. Gardening always finds muscles you NEVER use for anything else.

    My #2 plan is to start slow, always do less than you think you can get away with the first day, then rack up the exertion from day to day, this seems to ameliorate the problem.

    My #1 plan is not to let the exertion levels drop to the point you need to do this, but I don’t usually manage that. :(

    Trinkwasser wrote on March 12th, 2009
  34. If you’re not opposed to supplements, and your soreness is primarily caused by lactic acid buildup, then beta-alanine is _THE_ supplement you should take. Beta-alanine forces your body to synthesize carnosine (a dipeptide built out of histidine and beta-alanine), which is a powerful acid buffer.

    I haven’t had sore muscles ever since I started using beta-alanine. It’s both cheaper and more efficient than taking carnosine supplements. Win-win.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_alanine

    S-252 wrote on March 16th, 2009
  35. Hi all. I find the morning after exercise warm sesame oil self massage before a shower helps followed by some gentle stretching / yoga.

    The massage instructions I follow from here:

    http://mapi.com/ayurveda_health_care/newsletters/ayurvedic_abyanga.html

    You can actually do this daily and its really great.

    Short-e wrote on March 18th, 2009
  36. Coffee as a muscle relaxant? Pshhh, caffine dilates + shortens blood vessels, which is good for your pain–but not for strength building. Plus caffine may keep you up and you may not realize how tired you actually are, and a lot of sleep is integral for getting big.

    Bryan wrote on June 13th, 2009
  37. I use DOMS as my way of measuring if I’m over training or not. If I don’t get much then my muscles don’t seem to grow much so I usually don’t do any weights for a week. This really helps me avoid plateaus.

    This leads me to think that it is more to do with muscle growth then lactic acid or muscle repair.

    Mike wrote on June 26th, 2009
  38. Eat/drink “fast carbs” like cooked carrots,raw, organic vegetable juices, fruits and fruit juices etc. post workout w/ protien/fat meal or shake. seems to work best for me to alleviate DOMS.Im guessing that the insulin is feeding my cells and restoring glycogen stores.

    Chris wrote on April 15th, 2010
  39. According to this study, carbing up before exercise can actually increase muscle soreness and inflammation:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/373874t588614803/

    S-252 wrote on April 15th, 2010
  40. I worry a lot when I’m not sore the day after. For some odd reason, I have associated muscle growth and soreness in my head — can’t have one without the other.

    Ben Marks wrote on April 21st, 2010

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