It can feel good to push yourself during exercise, but your body may sing a completely different tune the day after a rigorous bar workout or an intense trip to the weight room. Your muscles—the same ones that worked so hard just 24 hours before—may now protest when doing simple things like walking down the stairs, reaching to grab something off a shelf or bending down to tie your shoes. These post-workout aches are what’s known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and, although the feeling may be a little uncomfortable, it’s a normal part of getting stronger.
If you’re training correctly, soreness is a very natural process that’s caused by cellular damage, inflammation and repair. If you’re not creating any soreness, you’re not creating any change. This achy feeling comes from damage to your muscle fibers during activities ranging from weight lifting to Pilates to a difficult hike—any exercise that challenges your strength. As you push your limits, particularly during resistance training workouts, small tears develop in the muscles you’re using; your body heals by rebuilding and repairing the tissue, ultimately helping you become stronger.
If you’re new to working out, the sting may last a few days; for others, it will ease up around 24 hours after onset. Although soreness is normal and even beneficial, that doesn’t make the aches any less uncomfortable. These six tips can help you feel better sooner:
Drink Water Before, During and After Workouts
Hydrated tissues are healthy tissues. The more fluid you have, the more you’re going to reduce muscle cramping and maintain a balance of liquid in your muscle cells. Additionally, more liquid moving through your cells can help flush out some of the byproducts of strength training that can lead to pain. Water is your best bet. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women get roughly 2.7 liters of water a day and men 3.7, although not all of that has to be in the form of drinking water (water from fruits, juices and broths counts, too, for example). If you’re engaged in vigorous sweat-producing workouts, you may need to drink more water.
Do Light Cardio While You Recover
Sure, your first instinct may be to just wait it out on the couch, but some activity is actually a better way to go when you’re achy. When you’re sore, the best thing to do the next day is something light and cardiovascular. Activities that boost your heart rate and build endurance such as brisk walking, moderate- to slow-paced cycling, swimming and yoga can help bring blood flow and extra nutrients to damaged areas, speeding recovery. This increase in circulation can also help remove some of the byproducts that are produced by strength training.
Give Your Muscles a Rubdown
Massage is one of the most effective ways to heal your body after a serious workout, so consider booking an appointment if you’re particularly sore. Deep tissue massage increases blood flow to damaged muscle, encourages lymphatic drainage, decreases fluid retention and breaks up damaged fascia, the sheet of connective tissue that binds your muscles together, all of which can help alleviate pain. Self-massage with a foam roller is also an effective way to ease soreness right after a workout. With both therapies you should expect to experience some discomfort—these aren’t relaxing massages, per se—but your massage therapist should be able to work with you to gauge the proper level of pressure.
Get a Dose of Antioxidants
What you eat can also affect how your body reacts to physical challenges. Scientists have spent a lot of lab time researching the best ways to use food to combat delayed onset muscle soreness and they’ve found two strong contenders: watermelon and tart cherries, both of which contain antioxidants that reduce soreness-causing inflammation. Studies show these fruits work their magic best if you enjoy them in the days both before and after your workouts. Munch on watermelon slices or juice it in your blender with some water for a pre- or post-workout snack. You can find tart cherry juice blends and concentrates in stores.
Herbs add flavor to food, but many also have healing properties, such as reducing inflammation. Ginger, in particular, has been shown to reduce muscle soreness. In fact, one study out of the University of Georgia found that taking daily ginger supplements for a week before a workout was enough to reduce DOMS by up to 20 percent. To get the best healing effect from the active compounds, gingerol and shogaol, it’s best to consume ginger (either in supplement form or in food) for several weeks before you try a new strength-based activity or step up to a much more difficult regime. Add the spicy herb to a stir-fry or a homemade juice, or grate it over a fruit salad. Even some ginger teas, ginger ales and ginger beers that contain lots of this superfood may help. (Cinnamon and turmeric may have a similar effect.)
Take Medication Wisely
Reaching for ibuprofen or aspirin may be your first response when you realize your muscles ache from the previous day’s workout, but it’s best to proceed with caution. Soreness is a reminder to take it easy while your body recovers; while ibuprofen does relieve soreness, it doesn’t restore muscle function. If you absolutely have to take medicine, that’s fine, but know that it can confuse your body. So temper the ache if you need to, but continue to rest your affected muscles until the pain totally disappears or you might risk injuring yourself.
A note on the “no pain, no gain” mindset: Soreness is a sign of a challenging workout, but acute pain is a more serious condition. Know the difference: DOMS is a slow, aching feeling that can show up as late as 48 or 72 hours after a workout, whereas pain is a sharp sensation that usually appears during or right after a fitness session. If your ache feels more like true pain than soreness, you could be injured and you might need medical treatment. Consider seeing a doctor.