On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

How to Ease Post-Workout Muscle Soreness

28 November 2022

Posted in

An active lifestyle filled with regular exercise is great for mental and physical health and well-being. Regular exercise can help with longevity, keep us strong and nimble as we age, boost our mood and stave off obesity and other diseases. Regular workout classes can be fun social activities, too. 

Regular exercise brings with it many benefits, but with them can come muscle soreness. When we try a new exercise, work out a little harder than usual or restart a workout routine after a bit of time off, our muscles will ache. 

Turns out there are different types of muscle and post-workout aches and pains. Here’s a roundup of reasons for soreness, home treatments and remedies. You’ll also learn what’s normal and when to call your doctor. 

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is something most of us are familiar with. It develops 12-24 hours after exercising, and hits peak painfulness at 24-72 hours. DOMS develops as a result of microscopic damage to the muscles caused by the exercise. As muscles begin to heal and repair, they hurt. Types of exercise often associated with DOMS are strength training and weightlifting; jogging; step aerobics, aerobics classes or Zumba; yoga and Pilates. Any new activity can cause muscle soreness.

Acute muscle pain/soreness. This occurs during or immediately after exercise and subsides within an hour or so. Its cause is the buildup of the byproducts produced as the body breaks down glucose for energy. Byproducts, like lactic acid, are flushed away or used before they can build up during normal daily activity, but during intense exercise they build up, which causes that burning sensation in your leg muscles when you’re sprinting.    

Muscle pain requiring immediate care. If you experience muscle pain combined with trouble breathing or dizziness, extreme muscle weakness or with a high fever or stiff neck, it’s time to get immediate medical care. 

Let’s focus on DOMS. Although it hurts, it’s not actually a bad thing, but if it las more than three days you might be overtraining. Sore muscles can let you know that you’re getting stronger or making progress in your workout routine. It indicates that your muscles are working and adapting to the exercise you’re doing. The cycle of exercise, soreness and healing is what improves our fitness level. 

How can I tell if I’ve torn a muscle or sustained some other injury? A good way to gauge whether you’ve got DOMS or an injury is to notice whether the pain is just on one side or both. If you’re sore on both sides (bilaterally), that’s a good indication that you’re experiencing DOMS and you can plan to work out around it. If, for example, one knee is really sore and the other one is fine, that could spell injury.   

How to relieve DOMS

First of all, take stock of just how sore you are. If you are super sore, take a rest day. Recovery is an important part of improving our fitness, so if you’ve worked out hard or tried a new activity on one day and are sore the next, either take the day completely off or do something light – go for a walk. 

Other ways to ease or prevent workout-driven muscle soreness:

R.I.C.E. therapy.  Rest. Take a break from your normal activities; Ice: place an ice pack (or bag of frozen corn) on the sore area for 20 minutes 3-5 times a day; use a Compression bandage to reduce swelling; and Elevate the injured area above your heart level, especially at night, which harnesses gravity to help decrease swelling/inflammation.

Do an active cool down. Don’t just finish your workout and hop in the shower. Instead, stay moving with a 15-minute dose of light cardio and stretching. Light movement immediately after your workout will help cool down your muscles and give circulation a boost. A few minutes on a stationary bike at a very low resistance is ideal, as is walking.

Ice, ice baby. Cold packs, compresses and ice baths are great for lessening inflammation, which is a natural (albeit painful) part of exercise. Icing eases that pain by replacing it with numbness. Make an ice towel by wetting a towel with cold water – don’t soak it. Pop it in the freezer for 15 minute and place it on your achy muscles.

Take a contrast shower. In the shower, alternate between hot and cold water. Aim for 20-30 seconds each and try to go from piping hot to very cold – extreme temperature changes yield the best results. The idea is that doing this gets your blood pumping from the outside – the cold constricts your blood vessels and the heat increases blood flow, which may help break down lactic acid you’ve built up during your workout.

Sauna. Or a hot bath. Or a heating pad. Heat aids in healing by bringing more blood to the area where it’s placed and lessens muscle spasms and joint stiffness. Heat therapy useful starting 48 hours after your pain begins. If you soak in a hot bath or spend time in a sauna, don’t forget to hydrate a little extra.

Pain relievers. Over the counter, orally administered pain relievers can help you through the toughest hours of DOMS. You’ve got a lot of choices, but the best picks for muscle pain are ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, store-brand) or naproxen (Aleve). Muscle soreness generally stems from inflammation and relieving inflammation pain what these two do best. If you only have access to acetaminophen (Tylenol), it will help mitigate pain but won’t address the likely root cause – inflammation.   

Rest. Sleep is when our bodies do their best healing. After a tough workout, help your body recover by getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night, napping and just resting. Netflix or a good book plus your couch equals help healing tender muscles. 

Can I still exercise if my muscles are sore?

Yes, but be smart about it. Try an easier workout, or exercise parts of you that are not sore. If your arms and shoulders are sore, do a leg day. Take a low impact cycling class or go for a swim. If stretching sounds good, try a restorative yoga class.

Skip a day or go extra easy if:

If it’s tough to get up a flight of stairs, raise your arms to wash your hair or if getting out of bed makes you whimper, take a rest day – at least on that body part. You could use a foam roller or do some light, dynamic stretching to feel better, or if your upper body is sore, try some light cardio on the elliptical, take a walk or swim some easy laps. Think low intensity and low impact.

Movement doesn’t make it feel better. Stiff, mildly sore muscles often feel better once you get moving. If you don’t notice decreasing soreness after walking around a bit, your body is telling you it needs a rest day.

Go the hospital if:

Your muscles are swollen and your pee is dark. Although it’s rare, these are the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a muscle injury in which the muscles actually break down. It is life-threatening and if these symptoms appear, head for the ER. 


7 Tips for Taking Exercise Slowly

Taking it to the Water: An Aquatic Exercise Primer

Exercise and Your Memory