Working out is exhilarating and rewarding but exercise too much and your body will let you know. Sore, tender muscles after a long or intense workout can last for days, leading to misery and regret—the exact opposite of your exercise intentions. Here are a few ways to avoid or minimize post-exercise muscle soreness as well as speed up your recovery when it happens:
This technique, based on gua sha, a centuries-old traditional Chinese practice, uses contoured hand tools to lightly and rapidly scrape the surface of the skin over the affected area until the skin reddens. Muscle scraping increases blood flow; however, a less apparent benefit is its effects on the central nervous system, activating pathways in the brain that suppress sensations of soreness2.
Muscle scraping has been shown to safely improve flexibility in chronically tight muscles, including tight, sore legs and calves. In one study, scraping the hamstrings translated to a reduction in low back pain3. With a little practice and attention to basic precautions, such as avoiding bony areas and broken or damaged skin, you can easily perform muscle scraping on yourself as part of your self-care routine. Modern muscle scraping tools are designed in a variety of ergonomic shapes and are made with durable, hygienic materials.
A long or intense workout can cause your muscles to become temporarily depleted of certain minerals. Calcium and magnesium work in tandem to signal muscles to contract and relax, with magnesium performing the latter. A high-quality mineral supplement can help prevent DOMS as well as restore mineral balance and bring welcome sore muscle relief to stiff, post-workout muscles.
Additionally, there are times when a little extra magnesium can push the equation decidedly in the direction of relaxation and bring welcome relief. Magnesium absorbs easily through the skin, so topical applications, such as an Epsom salts bath is a practical indulgence for sore muscles after a workout.
Over time, bands or nodules of taut, tense muscle fibers known as trigger points can develop. These areas of chronic tension inhibit circulation to the affected fibers, which impairs muscle function, leads to a reduced range of motion and contributes to muscle soreness. Deep sustained pressure applied to trigger points promotes circulation and also releases stored tension, restoring normal muscle function.
Another effective way to resolve trigger points is vibration therapy. In a study of elite athletes, vibration therapy reduced exercise-induced muscle soreness by approximately half, resulting in improved posture4. Massage tools that combine trigger point therapy with vibration provide the best of both modalities.
Your muscles consist of about 75% water by weight and need to be fully hydrated to function optimally. When you become dehydrated your peak strength decreases, you are more vulnerable to injury and are far more likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). After a long or intense workout, rehydration helps flush lactic acid out of the muscles and is one of the most important first steps to prevent or reduce muscle soreness and one that should not be skipped or overlooked. If you participate in endurance events some experts recommend devising a planned rehydration strategy rather than relying on a drink according to thirst approach as a way to prevent dehydration.
Though it might not seem like the most comfortable way to alleviate muscle soreness, studies have found that rolling on a foam roller (known as self-myofascial release) immediately after an intense bout of exercise—before the soreness sets in—and for a few days afterwards can help lessen the degree of soreness you experience and help your muscles recover faster1. Additionally, it is thought that muscle soreness may involve connective tissues such as fascia, tendons, and ligaments as well as the contractile components of muscle tissue. Foam rolling addresses both, remediating connective tissue damage as well as promoting circulation to muscles. To maintain a treatment level that is comfortable and effective start with light pressure and gradually work up according to your own tolerance.
Every athlete experience’s occasional muscle soreness, particularly when seeking to improve performance and attain higher fitness and strength levels. However, by adhering to the basic rules of muscle physiology and adding some simple self-care techniques, such as those outlined here, you can considerably reduce the degree and duration of post-exercise soreness.
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