How to Treat Post-Workout Muscle Soreness and Inflammation
If you work out regularly, you're no stranger to delayed-onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS. But why do some workouts feel fine, while others leave you all but crippled? Even if you can work through the pain, you still have to deal with inflammation. Training hard almost every day definitely leaves its mark, and chronic inflammation is associated with all sorts of health issues.
What Is Muscle Soreness, Anyway?
Once attributed to lactic acid build-up, we now know DOMS actually comes from microtrauma in your muscle fibers. Exercise always breaks some part of us down. That's how we create enough energy to sustain. However, in the presence of DOMS, research shows biochemical markers of torn myofibrils within the bloodstream. The exact cause is still up for debate, but we know it's a specific form of degradation that results in lasting pain. Eventually, as the body heals, the pain will subside. But is it possible to avoid serious muscle soreness in the first place?
Common Contributors To DOMS
Like we said, every single training session doesn’t leave you floored. Some exercise methods, however, tend to be the culprit more often than others. It’s important to note here that DOMS isn’t always a bad thing. Those microtears trigger a rebuilding process where the body lays down new muscle tissue. While you don’t have to be sore to get stronger, feeling a little pain doesn’t make you weak.
However, sometimes we’re trying to mitigate soreness. Maybe you have a competition in a few days. Or maybe your wedding is tomorrow. Whatever the reason, avoid the following if you want to be extra careful.
Anyone who’s done tempo training doesn’t need research to prove this fact. But here it is anyway:
According to a study published in the Exercise Immunology Review, 10 sets of 40 reps of eccentric calf raises caused delayed-onset muscle soreness in all subjects. In a post-exercise blood test, researchers discovered an elevated migration of neutrophils, leukocytes, and inflammatory markers. If this means nothing to you, just know that they found damaging metabolites on the move towards their muscles. Neutrophils, in particular, generate reactive oxygen species, which are those pesky molecules you're always trying to get rid of with your antioxidant-rich diet. Interestingly, a subsequent study found that women were more likely to experience neutrophil-based DOMS after eccentric quadriceps contraction.
Outside of research, if we think about the way eccentric contraction works, it makes sense that we'd be sore. Concentric contraction finds actin and myosin hooking on to each other like velcro. While we resist force, our contracted muscle fibers are doing their best to hang on. Eventually, however, they can't, and they rip apart. You're literally ripping your muscles (on a very small scale) during eccentrics. Of course, it's going to hurt the next day.
Trying new things is a great way to challenge yourself, but it’s also a recipe for soreness and inflammation. When we do something over and over again, say, distance running - our body adapts. We get used to that stimulus. Our muscles, nerves, and connective tissue have figured out how to respond, and we’re less likely to be sore.
However, if you’ve only ever run for exercise, you’re going to be hurting after that first metcon. Thrusters, burpee box jump-overs, and pull-ups will leave your muscle screaming. The good news, however, is after that first running-based Metcon, you'll be laughing at your friends. It's all relative.
New exercises create discomfort. Your body isn’t prepared, and it essentially scrambles to keep up with the demand. Your immune system responds as if it were dangerous, so inflammation kicks in. And it hurts. After a while, though, your body builds some armor and deals with it much more effectively.
Finally, soreness comes down to some sort of intense stressor. Since we’ve talked about mechanical stress with eccentrics, we’d be remiss to ignore metabolic stress. Your muscle cells are constantly running chemical processes to produce energy. That’s how metabolism works. The harder you work those mitochondrial factories, the more byproducts they yield. Of course, some of those byproducts are energy. Others, however, cause cellular damage.
This is where the whole lactic acid myth was born. While yes, lactic acid does build up in the muscle during intense, anaerobic exercise, it simply slows you down in the moment. Soreness and inflammation, however, stem from reactive oxygen species (ROS). Also known as free radicals, ROS are atoms with unpaired electrons just floating around in your body. If you remember anything about chemistry, electrons don’t like to be without their buddies. Therefore, these ROS roam your tissue in search of something to scavenge. That means they actively detract from your happy, intact cells, damaging them in the process.
Intense metabolic overload happens when we push past our anaerobic limits. Cases include trying to beat your time in a hero WOD, Death by Wall Ball, or a 2000m row time-trial. Feel free to go for broke, but don't be surprised if you're sore afterward.
What About Inflammation?
You can’t turn a corner nowadays without someone mentioning the dangers of inflammation. Let’s get this out of the way first - inflammation, in the very short term, is part of a healing process. It’s the body’s natural response to disease, infection, or other damaging stimuli. When inflammation hangs around, however, it causes the very issues it was designed to restore. The difference between acute and chronic inflammation is important for any athlete to understand.
Acute, or short-term, inflammation is a localized response causing swelling, redness, heat, and pain. Let's say you go to drop a heavy dumbbell and it lands on your foot. First response - ow. Soon after, your toes start to get red and swell up to rush blood and nutrients to the site. It's an alarm bell calling for all-hands-on-deck. Interestingly enough, exercise itself triggers an acute inflammatory response. Neither of these situations is bad for you, assuming inflammation diffuses as your body recovers.
Chronic inflammation is exactly what it sounds like - inflammation that won’t go away. Causes include too much exercise, too little exercise (ironically), a poor diet, disease, and stress.
Why is this bad? Think of taking a wire brush to your skin. Do it once, and it's annoying, but you'll get over it quickly. Now, what if you kept brushing your skin with that wire... over and over. Not so fun anymore, is it? If you don't remove the harmful stimulus and let yourself heal, you become chronically inflamed. Even when you do stop scraping at yourself like an idiot, that wound will likely scar. Take that analogy and apply it to harmful reactions inside your body, and you’ve got a recipe for some long-lasting issues.
How Do You Treat Muscle soreness and Inflammation? Get Ahead Of It
The best way to treat soreness and mitigate inflammation is through proper recovery. Get ahead of the issue before it gets worse. We already went over the primary issues above - latent chemical and metabolic damage. Instead of letting all of that junk sit around, keep it moving! Therefore, here are some of the best recovery modalities to treat muscle soreness and inflammation.
We all know the adage of rest, ice, compression, and elevation to treat swelling. While the first half is probably wrong for healing (it turns out movement and circulation are better), compression still holds strong. Compression squeezes out standing fluids and metabolites, pushing them back into the body for removal.
It’s easy to visualize this in acute injury - just wrap up an ankle sprain and watch the swelling go down. But smaller inflammatory issues hide undetected beneath the skin, so we forget about it. We shouldn’t. Multiple studies, such as this one, this one, and this one, show compression garments are associated with decreased muscle damage and soreness.
Ice baths constrict blood flow to muscles while numbing pain. As such, they were originally heralded as queens of recovery. Unfortunately, modern research is completely inconclusive about their ability to reduce soreness, and there’s even evidence they stunt anabolic growth.
Instead, try swimming. For one, it facilitates free movement, opening up muscles and joints with ease. It can also elevate your heart rate just slightly, recycling stagnant blood and nutrients. Even more, if you have access to a hot tub AND a pool (or cold tub) - take a contrast bath. Research shows that contrast water therapy reduces muscle soreness from 6 to 96 hours after intense exercise when compared to passive recovery.
Massage and Active Recovery
Let’s face it - massage simply helps our emotions recover. I know we’re talking about muscle soreness and inflammation, but hear me out.
This is grossly oversimplified, but intense exercise induces stress. Stress triggers a response releasing adrenaline, cortisol, and other sympathetic mediators. When those signals persist, so does inflammation. If we catch them in time and return to a restful, relaxed state, however, the signals fade. That’s one reason why gentle massage is a huge recovery tool.
There’s also the somewhat logical factor of physically pushing the damage away. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the resources to get a massage as often as needed. That’s where active recovery comes in. Low-intensity exercise promotes circulation in its own right. Hop on the bike, do a quick yoga flow, or simply walk the dog and stretch the legs.
Hydration, Sleep, and Nutrition
With all of this talk around “flushing out the soreness” - where does it go? Eventually, we’ve got to kick these toxins out. Drinking enough water alongside your recovery is the best way to eliminate waste. You might have to pee every 30 minutes, but you’ll sure feel better the next day.
Sleep and nutrition go hand-in-hand, both before and after your workouts, to reduce soreness and inflammation. The less energy you have, the harder your body has to work during training. Don’t go into a session tired and underfed expecting to come out unscathed. Get in your pre-workout carbs and eight hours of rest. The same goes for after a workout. Start replenishing and recovering with carbs and protein as quickly as possible. It probably won’t completely remove DOMS, but it’ll sure help. Whether you opt for whole food or supplements like Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate & Colostrum or Glyco-Muscle Fueler, the key is to consume carbs and protein as quickly as possible.
I Did Everything You Said, And I’m Still Sore. Now what?
We said it at the top - no one has pinned down exactly why soreness happens. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it just does. Temporary muscle soreness isn’t inherently bad. It’s just your body’s way of saying, “okay, that was new”. It can still be annoying, though. So what do you do?
Common methods to treat soreness include NSAIDs and topical analgesics. These interventions provide temporary relief from painful symptoms but don't solve the underlying problem. Feel free to use them in small doses when you're really hurting, but try not to rely on them consistently. Research shows that long-term NSAID use can impair healing, and chronic reliance risks some serious side effects.
A better option, once again, is to get moving. Light exercise warms the muscles up and generates elasticity in stiff tissue. Gets the blood flowing, start up the endorphins, and soreness will temporarily fade away. Just make sure you don’t repeat the same inflammatory exercise day-in and day-out. If soreness never fades, that’s a huge sign you’re overtraining. Reduce the intensity for a few days and see how you feel. If you’re always tired, in a bad mood, or every workout seems like an 11/10, step away from the metcons for a bit. Let your body recover fully before hitting high intensities again. I promise you’ll be better for it.
The best way to treat muscle soreness and inflammation is with a well-structured exercise program that allows for regular recovery. Switch up the intensity every few days and just get the blood moving. You’ll come away feeling rejuvenated, and you’ll mitigate your chances of overtraining. However, some exercises are bound to leave you sore. If you’re starting a new training program, going heavy on eccentrics, or testing anaerobic capacity, prepare to recover as hard as you worked. Eat as big as you train, sleep 7-9 hours a night, get your hydration in, and try a few of the tricks we mentioned to feel better.