Feel the Burn—then Cool It!

You’re off to a great start: You’re eating healthier, getting enough sleep and your exercise plan is going well. As your conditioning project progresses though, you may find that you’re a bit sore afterward or even worse, the next day. At that point, it’s easy to say, “let’s take a day off to recover.” And from there it’s easy to let one day become two and two days become three. Before you know it, a couple of weeks have passed and you need to start over. It happens to all of us at some point!

Take heart. First, it’s important to note that after a short layoff your muscles will return fairly quickly. Next, it’s important to distinguish between soreness and injury. Feeling achy and stiff for a day or two after a demanding workout falls into the “hurts so good” category—you’re feeling the effort. Severe pain, swelling and bruising—well, that could be an injury, and deserves medical attention. Knowing the difference between workout pain and injury pain is essential.

Let’s talk about the good pain

Not all soreness is the same. Acute muscle soreness (ACM) is also referred to as immediate onset because it is felt during or immediately after exercising. When you exercise, your muscles may not have enough oxygen available to burn so they use a an enzyme called lactate for energy instead. This often leads to a build-up of lactic acid—which you feel as that familiar “burn” in your muscles. ACM will typically fade once you stop exercising and isn’t usually bad enough to keep you from your regular schedule.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the name for the soreness you feel hours after you exercise, or even the next day or two. Don’t worry: This is muscle-building soreness. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, DOMS appears to be the result of tiny tears in muscle fiber that occur when muscles are used beyond their capacity (that is, during a tough workout). As the microtears heal, though, they form new fibers that make your muscles become stronger. Ouch! But yeah! For me, I feel DOMS when I walk longer distances than normal in hilly environments. The pain is usually enough to get me to want a rest day. And it can happen to anyone, from elite athletes to beginners and everyone in between.

Here are some great tips to help ease those aches and pains. Remember, if you feel severe pain or have swelling or bruising, get medical attention. Otherwise, the old adage about “no pain, no gain” is true, but a little soothing goes a long way.

Rest days aren’t bad, but unless you’re in severe pain keep moving. Listen to your body! The day after a tough workout, try switching to something moderate with gentle movements, such as gentle yoga, swimming or stretching. It won’t speed your recovery, but may lessen the pain and stiffness.

Massage it! Several recent studies found that people who received massages 24 to 72 hours after an intense workout reported significantly less soreness than people who didn’t get a post-workout massage. Forty-eight hours out seems to be the sweet spot. If you can’t get a massage after your workout, try self-massage. Apply oil to the affected area and then squeeze or shake your muscles. Use a foam roller after exercise to help stave off the aches. And if you can stand the smell of liniment, it can be very soothing.

Hot or Cold? Yes. As it turns out, both heat and cold can help with DOMS. A recent review of studies found that 10 to 15 minutes of full-body immersion in a cold bath (think 50-59°F or 10-15°C) lessened the muscle aches. For those of us that can’t stomach the idea of a cold bath, try a warm (not hot) one. Soaking in a warm tub with bath oils or bath salts also works to ease the pain and stiffness you’re experiencing.

Mushrooms? Cherry Juice? While more research is needed, there is evidence suggesting that eating antioxidant-rich foods can help muscle soreness. Numerous sources have identified mushrooms as having anti-inflammatory properties that may help. Studies from 2013 and 2017 suggest that the amino acid L-citrulline found in watermelon can reduce muscle soreness. Other anti-inflammatory foods that have shown promise are cherry juice, pineapple and ginger.

Are sore muscles avoidable?

If you want to take your workouts—and your body—to the next level, some soreness is inescapable. But —and I can’t repeat this enough—be sure you’re not confusing inflammation and injury. Even if you’re sore, you should be able to move. If you can’t function, you need to contact a medical professional. While normal DOMS doesn’t need a trip to the doctor, the American Council on Sports Medicine suggests you see your doc or a nurse practitioner if your pain stops you from a normal day’s activities or if it lasts more than seven days.

You can minimize the discomfort that goes with muscle building by staying hydrated and making sure you add both a warmup and a cool down to your sessions. Introduce new exercises to your routine in small increments so you don’t overtax your muscles or become discouraged. When it comes to your body, patience pays off.

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