Fitness: How to Soothe Sore Muscles

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Foam Roller

All your life you have probably dealt with DOMS following a hard workout, but have you ever wondered what is going on? People might have told you different things to help relieve sore muscles, take a bath, sit in a jacuzzi, foam roll, get a massage, pop some advil or drink water. Did you ever wonder why? Did you ever wonder how it benefitted you, or if it even did? Do you even know what soreness is? Well, I am a gigantic bath-time fan, a foam roller addict, an Advil-popping, water-consuming, sore-muscle whiner. So I decided to dive a little deeper into the mysterious land that is “DOMS.”

What is DOMS?

DOMS is an acronym for “delayed onset muscle soreness.”

What Creates DOMS?

Many people think that soreness stems from lactic acid build up, but this is not the case. In fact most of the pain you feel after an intense workout (roughly 12-48 hours after) is from micro-tears or micro-trauma in the muscle tissue. When repeatedly putting stress on the muscle during an exercise you actually create small tears within the muscle tissue, when this happens the muscle will react by rebuilding muscle tissue to come back even stronger. Too much muscle trauma can be a bad thing, so it is important to be aware of how hard your body is working in order to avoid injury. Lactic acid is most commonly felt during an exercise rather than after exercise or during muscle recovery. Lactic acid creates the burning sensation in your legs during a prolonged wall sit, or during an intense sprint. But almost as soon as the muscles are relaxed, the acid is washed out of the area and the burning sensation passes. There are many different theories on this topic, but the main consensus is that DOMS is created from actual tears within the muscle fibers that were worked, not due to lactic acid build-up.

Is Muscle Soreness Necessary to Build Muscle?

No. There are many different answers out there right now and this will always be a topic of debate for trainers and athletes but my personal opinion is that soreness is not necessary to build muscle. Yes, creating muscle trauma is a sign that you worked a muscle hard enough to actually tear it and therefore it will repair itself and hopefully come back stronger (aka hypertrophy), but there is also an element of surprise with muscle soreness. Many professional athletes train for hours a day for their specialty but if you asked a swimmer to try a ballet class or a baseball player to jump hurdles, they would be working different muscles in ways they had never tried before, so they will probably be sore. You can almost always count on a muscle being sore if it is doing something it has never done or rarely ever does, and doing it repeatedly. But in order to build muscle and build strength it is important to do the same exercises week after week, adding more and more weight to build strength in one muscle group. After a certain point you may need to switch up the movements and exercises but don’t underestimate the power of consistency with workouts, it is one of the most central aspects of exercise. Just because you are sore after a workout does not mean you worked your muscles harder or more effectively than a workout in which your muscles were not sore. DOMS is most common and most intense among individuals just starting a workout routine, coming back to their routine after time off, and among those that are constantly changing their workout routine.

How do I relieve DOMS?

Muscles need to rebuild, that is the bottom line. The best way to support your body during this time is to get enough rest, eat well, sleep at least 8 hours a night and drink a lot of water. But there are other things you can do to relieve the pain or some of the pain associated with DOMS. It is in debate whether or not any of these things can shorten the duration of your soreness, but if nothing else these all help alleviate some of the pain and stiffness.

1. Drink water. Staying hydrated helps your body function more effectively in every aspect of your health, so mending sore muscles is no different. Drinking water maximizes circulation, and speeds the recovery process.

2. Sleep. Our body does most of its maintenance and repair work while we sleep, so if you are sleep deprived you are not giving your body enough time to heal. This is arguably the most important factor in any recovery process for the body.

3. Take anti-inflamatory medication or try some natural anti-inflammatories for pain relief.Ibuprofen is an amazing little drug that I will take if I am in severe pain from DOMS. It helps alleviate some of the discomfort. I do NOT believe in taking ibuprofen regularly, or before workouts as a preventative treatment, but when my body tells me that I have some major inflammation, I find it very helpful. If you are not a fan of ibuprofen then try some natural anti-inflamtory foods like: fatty fish, whole grains, dark leafy greens, nuts, soy, tomatoes, beets, ginger, tumeric, garlic, onions, olive oil and berries.

4. Take a bath with Epsom salts 24-48 hours after exercise. Why? The Epsom salts in warm water provide a source of sulfur that can be absorbed through your skin and the warm water helps to soothe aches and pains. Don’t take a warm bath immediately after exercising, but 24-48 hours post-workout when the stiffness has set-in. It has been shown that taking a cold bath or shower the day of intense exercise can help to soothe muscles. Also alternating hot and cold helps to increase circulation. I have always believed that within the first 24 hours cold is best, and after that, the warmer the better.

5. Move. Sitting still will only intensify the stiffness, moving and exercising is a great way to keep the discomfort at bay.

6. Get a massage and/or foam roller. If you can’t afford a massage, then you better own a foam roller. Massage is not only for relaxation, it is one of the oldest forms of medicine we have. The health benefits correlated with massage are countless. Foam rolling (AKA myofascial release) helps to stretch and lengthen muscles as well as break off soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. 

Simonton is a longtime Malibu resident and certified personal trainer. Read more from her blog by clicking here