How to Finally Beat Post-Workout Muscle Soreness
When the aftermath of heavy leg day leaves you wincing, try these strategies to speed up the recovery process.
On the day after leg day, the mere act of sitting down on the couch can seem like the most difficult task in the world. Netflix binging difficulties aside, though, nursing sore muscles after a workout isn’t necessarily a bad sign. “Muscle soreness happens when you either do a new exercise that requires the use of different muscles you’re not accustomed to working, or it could be the product of strenuous exertion,” says Akin Akman, co-founder of AARMY. “It’s good in the sense that you’ve worked to your capacity. I associate muscle soreness to progress.”
In the meantime, though, the fruits of your labor can be really unpleasant. So we asked a few experts about the tricks they use to fight post-exercise muscle soreness and get back into gym- or run- or spin-ready shape as soon as possible. You’ve probably heard some of these tips before. Others are a little more unconventional. But on days when every movement is accompanied by a wince, they all might be worth a shot.
- Start with the basics
The amount of sleep you need varies based on your activity level, which means you should try to get as much sleep as possible when your body aches just won’t go away. Studies show that meditation can help reduce chronic pain in adults, too. “Mental and emotional health are a big part of conditioning and proper recovery,” Akman says. “Always get a good night’s sleep, but also, take naps midday when you need to.”
Similarly, you can’t eat chips for dinner and expect to feel better. (This is true, it should be noted, even if you didn’t work out recently.) This regimen can be as simple as a post-workout protein shake, or a lot more involved than that. “After heavy training sessions, I always make sure I drink my protein and fast-acting carbs to help the muscle healing process,” explains Yavuz Akman, a founding trainer at AARMY. “Usually about 10 minutes after that, I take vitamin C and B-12 (for antioxidants and red blood cell production). An hour after that, I typically eat chicken and rice. I always make sure I drink a lot of water throughout the day as well. This is so important for proper recovery and alleviating extreme soreness.”
- Consider CBD
Studies on the effects of CBD aren’t conclusive, but many people swear by it to help them get a good night’s rest and alleviate muscle pain. One recent study found that regular consumption of CBD reduced the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in saliva, which suggests that it needs to be a regular habit in order for people to see results.
“CBD can work to decrease inflammation in the body, reduce muscle soreness through the use of rubs or salves, and balance our stress response, whether physical or mental,” says Jason Loebig, a trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp in Chicago. “It’s best utilized immediately post-workout or before bed (especially in tincture form) to recover from intense physical activity or aid with sleep.”
- Get in some (very light) cardio
You need to prepare your muscles for intense weight training—which means if you go to the gym without warming up, you’re allowing your muscles to experience delayed-onset soreness, or DOMS, that much quicker. Warm-ups matter because they boost blood circulation, which is what helps muscles heal. And while you can’t go back in time and change what you did before you did whatever it was that made you so sore, you can start changing your approach when you make your glorious gym return.
“When I’m sore, I like to get right back on the horse,” says Noah Neiman, co-founder of Rumble Boxing. “Light jump rope or jogging for even as little as 10 minutes will help break up muscle stiffness and increase blood flow to the muscles. It hurts to just get moving again, but it will expedite recovery if you can knuckle up and get through it.”
- Switch up your shower temperature
While you’ve probably heard of ice baths to reduce muscle pain, Loebig recommends trying hot and cold temperatures instead. “An unconventional method of muscle recovery is combining the benefits of both cold and hot therapies into one method: contrast therapy,” he says. “Essentially, you hop from a cold tub into a hot tub, on repeat, for two to four cycles. Finish with cold!” Again, this works by increasing blood circulation around the injured muscle, which can help heal post-workout inflammation faster than traditional cold therapy alone.
- Add magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral that is both depleted by strenuous exercise and, inconveniently, very important to the recovery process. Studies have shown that those with low magnesium levels are less equipped to fight inflammation, so consider adding a supplement to your routine—or, if you love baths, try taking one with epsom salt sprinkled in.
“Epsom salt, made of magnesium and sulfate, is great for recovery in that it helps to reduce inflammation, swelling, and muscle soreness,” explains Max Karp, a founding trainer at GRIT BXNG. “I use 365 Everyday Value Epsom Salt from Amazon, but any reliable brand is bound to deliver the same results. Many brands also make epsom salt with essential oils—such as lavender, eucalyptus, and mint—to take the relaxation and total body relief to another level.”
- Slow your (foam) roll
By now, you’re probably aware that foam rolling can deliver a ton of pain relief, even though, frustratingly, the rolling process hurts, too. However, if it isn’t having the desired results, re-evaluate your methodology before you give up entirely. “People often roll back and forth along the muscle too quickly for the tool to be effective. Going slow allows the muscle to relax more naturally,” says Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d.
Make sure you’re not going overboard with the pressure, either, as that will cause even more damage to your muscles. “Start light and gradually increase the amount of weight you’re putting into the roller,” Brannigan says. “Combine the two and you’ll loosen up the tissue slowly, one layer at a time.”
- Fire up YouTube
Seriously. Laughing prompts your body to release endorphins, which are correlated with higher pain thresholds. And although you probably shouldn’t rely solely on sitcom reruns to facilitate recovery, if you need something to put that last bit of stiffness behind you—well, YouTube is free.
“You cannot beat the natural release of endorphins for minimizing discomfort,” says Pilates expert Mimosa Gordon. “I do this fairly often when I’m sore.” Her go-to clip, if you’re wondering, is the classic Dramatic Chipmunk. “A few minutes of giggling changes my mood, and flips my perspective from ‘I’m so sore’ to ‘Wow, I must have had a great workout.’“