What helps sore muscles? How to feel better after a tough run
December 14, 2021|By K. Aleisha Fetters
For many runners, next-day muscle soreness can feel like a rite of passage. But it can also leave us limping, skipping workouts, or even having trouble lowering onto a chair. So when "hurts so good" muscle aches go too far, what helps sore muscles?
The first step to relief is understanding what causes post-run muscle aches, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is a completely natural byproduct of pushing your body past its comfort level.
When you do new things — no matter how fit you are going into them — your muscles respond with some soreness. So if you go for a longer or faster run than usual or try out a new cross-training strength workout, you can expect some DOMS to kick in. Usually, it hits about 24 to 48 hours after exercise and eases up on its own by about 72 hours.
It's important to realize, though, that the goal of training isn't to feel wrecked the next day. Soreness isn't a very good indicator of workout quality, and it has more to do with trying new things than doing great things. Being sore doesn't mean you got an awesome workout, and not being sore doesn't mean your workout was bad.
So listen to your body and take soreness as what it is: Just a part of exercise. Then, use these five science-backed strategies to take care of your body and recover better.
1. Light movement
When you're hurting, exercising might sound like the least fun option ever. But lightly — I repeat, lightly — moving your body can help sore muscles in a few ways. First, it increases blood flow through your body. This helps warm up your muscles to relieve tightness and deliver oxygen and other nutrients to your tissues to promote recovery.
Does stretching count? It can. While research reviews show that static, bend-and-hold stretching doesn't actually reduce exercise soreness, when your muscles are heavy or tight, it can still feel good.
Try it: On days when your muscles are particularly sore, opt for light, restorative workouts like walking, cycling or yoga. If your muscles are so tight or tender that it's hard for you to do a given exercise with good form, it's a sign today's not the day for that exercise. Stick to movements that feel good to you.
2. Massage, foam rolling, and percussion therapy
Whether a massage therapist, foam roller, or percussion therapy gun is doing the work, soft tissue manipulation is glorious for post-workout muscle soreness. A good rub-down, like light movement, increases blood flow and improves muscle elasticity.
Try it: For the best results, integrate some foam rolling (and percussion therapy, if you're into it) into every workout's cooldown routine. It's likely that the sooner you loosen up your muscles after your workouts, the better. If you're comfortable and able to get massages, they can also help sore muscles.
3. Balanced nutrition
Studies link everything from tart cherries and caffeine to muscle relief, but in the end, there's no one magic superfood that will nip muscle soreness in the bud. According to a Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation review, from a food perspective, what helps sore muscles is going to be the same thing that fuels your runs, keeps your body healthy, and you feeling your best.
Think lean meats, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc. These foods are rich in nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that keep your entire body healthy. And if it's good for your body, it's good for sore muscles.
Try it: At every meal, include a source of carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits, vegetables), protein (meats, dairy, legumes, soy), and fat (dairy, eggs, nuts) on your plate. Even better, make sure those foods are different colors. The color pigments in foods each point to different nutrients, so "eating the rainbow," so to speak, can help ensure you're getting all of the vitamins and minerals your muscles need to recover.
Sure, hydration is part of the balanced nutrition equation, but it's important enough to highlight on its own. After all, dehydration seems to be almost synonymous with being human, and the risk of dehydration goes up even further when you're regularly sweating it out on the trail.
Meanwhile, your muscle cells are largely made up of water and, when deprived of H2O, have a hard time recovering and even functioning.
Try it: You hit dehydration status when you've lost more than 2% of your body weight in water. So if you weigh 170 pounds, you should try to drink enough during your workout that, by the end, you weigh no less than 166.6 pounds. Every pound lost represents 16 fluid ounces, and to replace those losses, you need to drink about 1.5 times as much fluid. So, if you lose half a pound, you've lost about 8 ounces and need 12 to rehydrate.
5. Good sleep
Rest and recovery days are great for helping your muscles recoup, but you know what's even better? Sleep.
The ultimate form of total-body recovery, sleep exists to bring every system in your body back to baseline. When you skimp on sleep, your body loses a valuable opportunity to repair tissues, regulate hormones, and lower your body's stress levels and inflammation.
Try it: Start scheduling your sleep just like your workouts. Set a regular bedtime and wake-up time in your calendar and stick to them. Keeping a consistent schedule takes the guesswork out of the equation and can reduce any insomnia you might have.
Remember, most adults need seven to nine hours per night. And, as you ramp up your exercise routine, you will likely need a bit more sleep.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
K. Aleisha Fetters
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
I'm a quirky (aka nerdy) strength coach with a passion for science and sweat. I love to help people meet their body goals, but it's their mental and emotional gains that make me do a happy dance. My flirtation with running includes two half marathons and, someday, I will run 26.2.