It is a beautiful day out and you decide to go for a run. You lace up your shoes, pop in your earbuds, and go. You go uphill and downhill, over concrete sidewalks, across quaint uneven wooden bridges and through neatly manicured but slippery grassy lanes.
You finally head home and get on with the rest of your day. However, the next morning, you wake up with some serious muscle soreness.
This situation is fairly common and it illustrates a relatively normal pain response to exercise.
There are actually three types of exercise-induced pain:
- Pain during exercise or immediately afterwards
- Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Pain induced by muscle cramps
If you experience pain during exercise or right afterwards, it is probably due to a buildup of acids, rogue proteins, and hormones that are all acting on pain receptors in the affected areas.
DOMS usually starts 24-48 hours after exercise. Muscle cramps are caused by motor neurons becoming overstimulated and firing too often or too strongly. These can sometimes be caused by electrolyte imbalances brought about by sweating or improper diet.
To prevent or treat muscle soreness, consider these seven steps you can take to combat such pain:
1. Proper Warmup
The best way to stop muscle soreness is to prevent it in the first place. To do that, appropriate warm-up activities are crucial. Start with a mild, aerobic exercise. You must get your heart-rate elevated and increase your body temperature.
After 5 to 10 minutes, switch to stretches: static, dynamic, and ballistic. Research shows stretching can prevent muscle soreness.
For those just starting out with exercising, do not do ballistic stretching, instead stick to static methods. Ballistic stretching is more in line for athletes and bodies accustomed to intensity.
To do static stretching, slowly stretch out a muscle and hold it in a comfortable position for 10 to 30 seconds, and then slowly release. Dynamic stretching involves movement, rather than just flexing or stretching a muscle and holding it. The idea is to improve range of motion in order to prevent injury – lunges, wrapping your arms around your torso, and deep bows at the waist.
2. Stay Hydrated
When exercising, you must take care to stay hydrated and hydrate when you are done with your exercise routine. Losing just 1-2% of your body’s mass due to sweating and other fluid loss can alter how your body functions and can lead to muscle soreness. Fluid loss is also believed to cause myofiber and connective tissue damage during exercise conditions.
3. Foam Rolling
Pressing your muscle onto a foam tube, then rolling back and forth on it has been shown to dramatically reduce the pain and duration of DOMS, when used after intense workouts. To do this most effectively, use a foam-covered tube and place it at the far end of the affected muscle.
Place as much body weight on the roller as you can handle, then roll back and forth on it making roughly one round per second (ankle to knee, or knee to hip, then back) as smoothly as possible. This can be done for other muscles as well, including your back. This method helps move lactic acid away from the muscle, thus reducing pain and the likelihood of DOMS.
4. Ice and Heat
It is relatively easy to treat mild pain – first use ice, then use heat. Apply an ice pack to the sore or swollen area, but be careful with how long you leave it there. Also, take special care if it makes direct contact with your skin, too much cold for too long could cause nerve damage. Only apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and then take a break from it for about as long.
After your break from ice, you can apply heat. In this instance, aim for a warm temperature, not necessarily hot. Also, try and utilize “wet” heat from a warm shower or bath, moist heating packs, or steamed towels. Just as with the ice, do not use heat for too long, no more than half an hour at a time.
For both types of treatment, consult your physician first if you have an open wound, or a chronic health condition (diabetes, multiple sclerosis, DVT, or circulatory issues).
Eating the right foods is also important for preventing and managing muscle soreness. You may know that bananas provide potassium which is helpful to avoid muscle cramps.
You may not know that three other foods are scientifically proven to help with muscle soreness. These are cherries, coffee, and mushrooms. Each can help due to its unique properties.
Cherries, especially tart ones can help muscle soreness. Numerous studies show that cherries and their juice can reduce both the intensity and duration of muscle pain. Coffee and particularly the caffeine it contains are shown to improve running speed, endurance, and muscle recovery. It has also been shown to reduce feelings of pain after intense workouts. The benefits do max out though, so you do not need to drink more than a cup or two per day. Two specific species of mushrooms: Ophiocordyceps sinensis and Ganoderma lucidum are also found to improve muscle recovery after workouts. This seems to be a result of their antioxidant properties.
As professional athletes already know, supplements are practically necessary if you plan on engaging in intense athletic training. For example various studies have shown that creatine taken before intense workouts reduces muscle damage from intense and high-duration exercise. When taken afterwards, it can reduce oxidative stress upon the entire body.
Omega-3s are another common supplement that many people take for a variety of reasons: maintaining healthy skin, reducing harmful cholesterol, reducing blood pressure, and potentially improving brain functioning. They can also be used to help reduce the body’s inflammatory response after intense workouts.
When taken consistently on a regular basis, Omega-3 acids have been shown to help reduce pain through mitigating the inflammatory response.
Taurine, at a supplemental level, has been shown to help reduce oxidative stress in the body following intense exercise. This oxidative stress is known to cause DOMS, so by reducing this oxidative stress, pain can be reduced and recovery time shortened following intense workouts.
Finally, polyphenol, a phytochemical found in many plants, has been found to provide both an anti-inflammatory benefit as well as reduce the oxidative stress load following intense workouts. Supplements are available which contain polyphenols, but whole fruits and their juices also contain these compounds. Apples, blueberries, and pomegranates are just a few options.
7. Keep Exercising!
You likely got into exercising for good reasons, so do not let some transitory pain make you give up an activity with proven, life-long benefits. If you are just starting out with an exercise regimen, keep it up but take care to build up gently as you become more accustomed and adapted to the exercise. With enough time, the pain will pass and you can resume your workout routine.
If intense pain during or after exercise is a frequent problem, then you may want to seek out medical advice from your general practitioner or your local chiropractor. These providers can help you treat muscle soreness and assist in designing safe exercise regimens.
By Dr. Brent Wells, D.C
Biography: Dr. Brent Wells, D.C. founded Better Health Chiropractor Wasilla in Alaska in 1998. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nevada and his doctorate from the Western States Chiropractic College. When not with his family, continuing his professional education, or helping at the clinic, he can be found playing guitar.