How to Prevent and Ease Sore Muscles After Exercise

Sore muscles can last a few days. Find out what you can do at home to soothe the soreness, especially after an intense workout.

a man and a woman jogging side by side with sun rising behind them

It’s normal to have sore muscles after strenuous exercise. It can also happen if you make a change in your exercise regime or start a new exercise program. When muscles are pushed to work harder than they are used to or used in a new way, it can result in microscopic damage to muscle fibers. This triggers delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. You’ll begin to feel the ache or soreness about 6 to 8 hours after your workout. It’ll normally last for 24 to 48 hours. Muscle soreness is mistakenly attributed to a buildup of lactic acid. However, lactic acid is not involved in DOMS.

The good news is that once the fibers repair themselves, the result is bigger and stronger muscles.

Why Does Exercise Make Your Muscles Sore?

In addition to DOMS, muscle soreness can be caused by sprains, stress, dehydration, and nutritional deficiency. Infections and specific diseases can also cause sore muscles. So, if your muscle soreness persists for many days, you might want to see a medical professional for a consultation.

Sore Muscles, According to Traditional Chinese Medicine

From a TCM perspective, a weak digestive system, reduced kidney strength, dampness, and circulation problems can cause sore muscles.

“A weak spleen or a weak kidney are the usual causes of sore muscles,” says Senior TCM physician Brandon Yew from Real Health Medical clinic in Singapore. “In TCM, we don’t classify organs anatomically; they are part of a larger system. So, if you have a weak spleen, it means your digestive system is weak—and TCM says this directly affects your muscles. This is also the case if you have a weak kidney. The bones are directly related to the kidneys in TCM. Your bone health will affect your muscles because they work closely together to enable your body to perform many movements.”

How to Ease Sore Muscles at Home?

If DOMS is making you uncomfortable or it does not resolve as quickly as you would like, try these pain-relief techniques.

Gentle exercise and stretching

A man and a woman stretching together by holding a leg with one hand
Do gentle stretching before and after a workout session to help soothe sore muscles.

When you are sore, you may not want to move, but walking and stretching are good for sore, tight muscles. The best results happen if you avoid intense exercise for a day or two. If you do exercise (gently), target less-affected body parts. Sore legs? Do upper body workouts. 

Physician Yew also recommends sweating it out with light exercise to help remove dampness. “However, don’t sweat profusely. In TCM, sweating too much would be counterproductive, as it might deplete your vitality, cause you to lose too much qi, and thus harm the body,” physician Yew adds. He suggests doing regular activities or simple exercises.

“Going into a sauna would be fine, as long as it’s only for a short period of time,” he says. You can also consider getting acupuncture or Tui Na treatments. Tui Na is a TCM manual therapy that incorporates acupressure, deep tissue and meridian massages, and bone adjustments. Both treatments are highly sought-after for their effectiveness in relieving muscles soreness. As for using a medicated oil, it is best to seek the advice of a TCM professional to decide on the suitability of use. 

Cold therapy 

It is common for people to put ice packs on sore areas or swollen joints, but is it effective?

John Hopkins Medicine suggests that a cold towel or cold compress can help ease the pain. It numbs the affected area, reduces swelling and inflammation, and in the case of injuries – reduces bleeding. However, sports medicine research does show that while cold therapy effectively reduces pains associated with DOMS in the first 24 hours after exercise, it is ineffective after that. Cold therapies include cold water immersion, ice packs, and ice massage. 

Heat therapy 

Heat is effective for decreasing the discomfort of DOMS, easing joint stiffness and relieving muscle spasms. A hot shower, a soak in a hot bath, or the application of a warm towel or a muscle relief patch to the affected area can make you feel better. The Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine notes that when low-temperature heat wraps were applied continuously for 8 hours starting immediately after heavy exercise, there was a reduction in DOMS. When the heat was applied 24 hours after exercise, it helped alleviate the discomfort, but not as much.

Muscle massage 

Muscle massage can also help alleviate sore muscles. A 2014 study shows that massage therapy after an exercise session effectively reduces the intensity of muscle soreness at 48 hours after exercise and helps the recovery of the gait pattern. To reduce skin friction, always use massage oil that can also provide heat to improve blood circulation.

Ginseng for sore muscles

Dried ginseng roots, a cup of ginseng tea, and a teapot on a wooden table
Ginseng can help to lessen the intensity of muscle soreness.

Consuming ginseng can effectively lessen the intensity of muscle soreness 24 hours after exercise. According to studies in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, ginseng supplementation can reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammatory responses. 

Similarly, the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine reveals that ginseng effectively reduces the magnitude of soreness 24 hours after resistance exercise. Also, ginseng may improve post-exercise muscle fatigue, because it makes neuromuscular function noticeably better.

Try consuming supplements, soup, or tea containing ginseng after your exercise to reduce the soreness in your muscles. 

Collagen 

Collagen protein has high amino acid content, making it ideal for promoting muscle repair and recovery after a workout. Drinks or supplements containing collagen may help repair muscles and improve joint health. 

The journal Amino Acids published a study that investigated whether consuming collagen peptides (CP) before and after strenuous exercise significantly affects muscle damage, inflammation, and bone turnover. The research showed that CP has moderate benefits for easing muscle soreness, but has no influence on inflammation and bone collagen synthesis. 

Tart cherry juice 

Packed with antioxidants, tart cherry juice can help reduce muscle soreness. It is available in capsules and powder and you can add it to a post-exercise smoothie. 

According to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, tart cherry juice can help in the recovery of muscle function following strenuous exercise by increasing total antioxidative capacity, reducing inflammation and lipid peroxidation. Lipid peroxidation is when free radicals take electrons from the cell membranes of lipids, causing damage to the cells. 

Over-the-counter medicine 

If DOMS pain is too uncomfortable, you can consider taking over-the-counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). However, if the pain becomes unbearable, you notice swelling, or your urine becomes dark, please consult a medical professional.

References

  1. American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 2011. Effects of Panax ginseng supplementation on muscle damage and inflammation after uphill treadmill running in humans. [Accessed 2 October 2021]
  2. Amino Acids. 2019. The effects of collagen peptides on muscle damage, inflammation and bone turnover following exercise: a randomized, controlled trial. [Accessed 2 October 2021]
  3. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2017. The Efficacy of Sustained Heat Treatment on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  4. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 2014. Effects of therapeutic massage on gait and pain after delayed onset muscle soreness. [Accessed 27 October 2021]
  5. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2018. The Effects of a Korean Ginseng, GINST15, on Perceptual Effort, Psychomotor Performance, and Physical Performance in Men and Women. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  6. National Health Service (NHS). 2021. Why do I feel pain after exercise?. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  7. National Kidney Foundation. n.d. Understanding Muscle Soreness – How Much is Too Much?. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  8. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2010. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  9. Sports Medicine. 2003. Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  10. Sports Medicine Research. 2021. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Put a Freeze on it or Heat it up. [Accessed 5 October 2021]
  11. John Hopkins Medicine. Ice Packs vs. Warm Compresses For Pain. [Accessed 5 October 2021]

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