How Do You Comfort Sore Muscles?

As littem noted today, sore muscles are a big reason to not exercise.  It’s not uncommon to start a workout program and end up pretty sore the day after exercising.  (Or to end up sore after going dancing or walking all over Disneyland.)  What to do?

First, the bad news: It’s supposed to hurt some if you’re trying to build your muscles.  It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness…and it’s normal.  (I think they skipped this in PE class!)  Stressing your muscles causes them to partially break down and re-grow stronger.  This can hurt.  Some soreness the day after exercising can mean you’re doing it right.  A lot of soreness the day after?  Can mean you overdid it.

No one is immune to muscle soreness. Exercise neophytes and body builders alike experience delayed onset muscle soreness.
WebMD

So, what to do?  Ask yourself if you want to be stronger or if you’re happy where you are. Nobody has to exercise — and if you do, you can focus on maintaining where you’re at, not on increasing strength or speed.  I choose to exercise for my own selfish reasons, so sometimes I’m sore the next day.  Especially when I decide to push myself to see if I can do something.  Or forget to do less after not working out for a week.  Or get lost in the music and dance an entire concert. Or ….

The rest of this post is divided into preventing soreness and alleviating soreness.

Some ways to try to prevent muscle soreness are:

  1. Don’t do too much.  How do you know what is too much?   For walking, think about what you do in your life now, and slightly increase it.  I’m not good at estimating distances, so I use gmaps pedometer* to estimate how far it is to walk from my car to my desk, or walking around the mall (Seattle example) or to go around the block.  This gave me a starting distance.   For strength training, start with bodyweight exercises and focus on how you feel during and after the exercises.
  2. Stop if something hurts while you’re exercising. Pain during exercise  (especially joints) can often mean something’s wrong.  This can range from taking a break from dancing to let your feet rest or to sit down on a walk to stretch your back to realizing your ankle is not only hurting but swelling and sprained.  If it hurts, stop.
  3. Warm up and cool down slowly.  If you’re using a treadmill, don’t hop on it and immediately start in a your best speed.  Start at a slower pace and increase gradually.  When you stop, again, slow down gradually.  It doesn’t hurt to slowly move around a bit when you’re done, either.   With strength training, it can help to warm up by walking or dancing or what-have-you for 10 or 15 minutes first.   After strength training, again, spend 10 minutes walking and do some stretches.
  4. Plan to take days off. Don’t necessarily expect to have the same intensity or speed every day.   If you took a week off?  You might want to drop it down a notch or two when you start working out again.
  5. Increase difficulty slowly.  There’s not a rush.  Maybe you walk a bit further on Monday.  This doesn’t have to lock you into doing Monday’s distance on Wednesday.  See how you feel.

Yeah, but what if you spent yesterday helping a friend move?  And the friend had a zillion books?  And you’re really really sore today?  What can you do?

  • Warmth can help; a hot bath, a warm shower, a heating pad.   Warmth can help increase blood flow and encourage healing.  I’ve heard that taking a warm shower after a workout and then gradually turning the water colder before getting out can help reduce inflammation, but see what works for you.   A warm shower or bath the next morning tends to make me feel a LOT better.
  • Gently stretch the sore muscles.  This can be after the workout, the next day, or both.
  • Massage the sore muscles.  Depending on what’s sore you may be able to do it yourself, or a friend or romantic partner might be willing to trade rubs.  You may also want to treat yourself to the occasional professional massage.
  • Elevation – putting up your feet or legs –  can really help alleviate sore feet and legs.   A couch or coffee table is often fine.  I discovered the “legs up the wall” trick during my first trip to New York; a decade later I found out it’s actually taught in some yoga classes.
  • A slow, short walk or swim can help get the kinks out.
  • Using an ice pack on a sore spot can reduce inflammation too — it’s what I use on my knee when it’s unhappy.
  • Drinking water is usually recommended but wine is also good. ;)   So’s ibuprofen or naproxen sodium.
  • The final suggestion I would have is to think of how you like to coddle yourself when you’re not feeling well.  Do you like to put on your favorite music and read a book in the tub?   Put your feet up and do your nails while watching Dr Who?  Whatever will make you feel better is a good thing.

What other things have people found helps with sore muscles?


*I find it helpful to set it to “Manually (straight lines)” mode when I’m not actually sticking to city streets. My Seattle example includes walking back and forth in 2 multi-level downtown malls and a couple nearby stores.

28 thoughts on “How Do You Comfort Sore Muscles?

  1. Except for the one time I really overdid it and had super extreme sore muscles, sore muscles the day after is one of the least annoying things about exercise for me. Do you know a way to get exercise without getting sweaty, or climb six flights of stairs without experiencing non-delayed muscle pain? Those are much more annoying (particularly sweat, because it means I have to plan the whole outing, or the whole part of the day, around exercise and the shower and clothes change I will need afterward–I hate changing clothes more than twice a day because it makes me feel like a fashion doll). Those, and how I could be spending the time doing something I actually enjoyed, and how it supposedly takes three days to make up for skipping one day, and so on.

    That said, yeah, on the occasions when I exercise enough to get muscle pain I will massage and stretch it, or if it is particularly bad (on my personal scale anyway) take a warm bath (all on your list already, nothing new from me). My parents always said that if you have muscle pain the next day that means you are in shape and building muscle, but if you have it the day after the next day you are out of shape. Is that true?

    • I can’t climb six flights without having to stop and catch my breath!

      Re: the day after the day after, I think it all depends on how challenging “what you did” is compared to “where you’re at”. Does that make sense?

  2. I rather *like* the muscle soreness, it makes me feel like I accomplished something. Yeah, weird, I know.

    As far as how to prevent it–I’ve found it helpful to block off a week where you know you’ll be sore, and spend a lot of time ramping up to at least half of your desired activity level that week. You’ll be quite sore, but it’ll go away sooner that stretching it out over a month.

    Disclaimer: this may only work in the twenties and early thirties where muscle recovery time is high.

  3. Thank you for this! It’s all more or less stuff I already knew, but had sort of forgotten. I am so going to try the legs on the wall thing. I’ve just moved back to my college campus and gone from a very very sedentary lifestyle this summer to walking everywhere. My campus is relatively small but I’m still probably walking several miles in a day, which is much more than I’m used to, and combined with lifting things during move-in and setting up for freshman orientation events I am sore all over. (I generally don’t mind soreness after exercising, but because I can’t really give my body a break, I’m sore all the time, and my muscles hurt more when I’m walking.)

    It’s good to know that I’m not alone in my pain.

  4. Like Chava, I generally enjoy the feeling of mild muscle soreness the day after a good workout. I’ve always taken it as an indication of a successful workout (at least, when I’m first [re]starting out or increasing my weights). Two things that I’ve found help me not get more sore than necessary are drinking milk (or taking calcium) regularly and eating a banana directly after a workout. I think it’s the potassium that helps muscles rebuild.

  5. I actually enjoy the feeling of being slightly, slightly sore later in the day or the day after exercising.

    It’s when that soreness gets in the way of me doing things (like exercising again) that I hate it. And I hate the cultural meme that, if you went to the gym for the first time and got an AWESOME workout, you basically can’t walk the next day.

    I think that’s destructive, because it encourages people to punish themselves in a sadistic manner, and because the pain then actually discourages them from exercising again.

    So, in that sense, I long ago decided that I don’t believe in pain when it comes to exercise. Fatigue, tightness or even slight soreness in my muscles that reminds me they’re there, but doesn’t get in the way of actually moving again? Fine.

    But pain? No way. Pain = no gain, in my world.

  6. I don’t have anything really new to suggest for sore muscles, but I just wanted to say re: stretching: Don’t just stretch once or twice and expect everything to be fine.

    I’ve found I recover the quickest when I stop numerous times throughout the day (whenever I begin to feel even slightly sore or stiff) and stretch it out. If the stretch that’s necessary would attract too much attention in my cubicle, I go to the bathroom and stretch out using the walls, the floor, whatever is available.

  7. Great post! I agree with others who’ve said that they actually enjoy a slight feeling of soreness–it means I’ve done something good for myself! And I also like the fact that my body can tell me I took it too far by being overly sore.

    Another thing I use is this stuff from the Body Shop called Uttana Muscle Rub. It was in their yoga supply section for use before and after yoga. I don’t believe they carry it anymore, but I’m sure yoga stores probably have something similar.

    I also want to point out that you mentioned wine, and actually I’ve found that in the case of actually over-stretched muscles (not just that almost-pleasant soreness) alcohol actually makes it worse for me. After drinking my muscles feel more achy and tend to take longer to heal; my hunch is that my body isn’t able to heal itself as well while “under the influence.”

  8. Ahaha!!! Thanks for this. It’s sunny today, and I was thinking “Do I follow the example of my valiant internet friends, and get off the computer for once?”

    (Perhaps a bit of TMI, but I discovered today I had PMS yesterday – a decidedly less advanced case than usual since I *had* been working out, which you’d think would be a decided incentive, but – which is one of the things that made me so dramatically whiny – so I thank you. :D)

  9. I find that taking a low dose of ibuprofen or aspirin beforehand (200 mg ibuprofen or 325 mg aspirin), when I know that I’m going to be really pushing my limits, works wonders. I learned this trick from my dad, who always takes an aspirin before he goes mountain-climbing. Also, stay hydrated between workouts; taxed muscles get grumpy when they don’t get enough water.

  10. Great post! Here are some things that really help me (I’m no stranger to muscle soreness – sometimes it feels good and sometimes you’re out of commission for a week!) Definitely taking days off and ramping up your workouts gradually are really important. I also check how I feel before a workout, and if I’m sore or tired or haven’t eaten well, I consider changing my plans.

    * SLEEP. I’m more tired when I’m sore, and more sore when I get less sleep. Your body needs to finish rebuilding those muscles, so take naps or get to bed early. Also, don’t plan a hard workout if you know you won’t get much sleep that night. An all-nighter after a workout is (for me) pretty much a guarantee of sore muscles.

    * PROTEIN – I get less sore, less often, if I’m eating a lot of protein. Fat too – whenever I ramp up my exercise levels I try to make sure I’m getting enough of both. (If I don’t watch what I eat I often turn into a vegetarian carb junkie, and when I eat like that I get sore at every workout.)

    * TAKE IT EASY – if you’re really hurting, skip the next workout or substitute something easier. Over-working sore muscles can lead to a muscle pull (learned that one the hard way – and a bad pull takes forever to recover from!) The rule of thumb I’ve heard is it’s OK to exercise if you’re sore, but not if you’re really hurting. For me, if the soreness goes away at the beginning of a jog, I’ll keep jogging (but for probably a shorter distance than usual); I’d entirely skip a more strenuous workout, like weightlifting or sprinting. Better to spend that time napping or cooking a good meal.

    Once you’re sore, there’s not a lot to do besides eating and sleeping (in my experience, those nice-sounding things like massage and stretching feel good in the moment but don’t actually lessen the soreness afterwards). BUT you can take ibuprofen or the anti-inflammatory of your choice to help dull the pain.

  11. After being a lady of leisure these last 5 months (layed off) I was asked to return at the end of July. My office is in an old building, no elevator and high ceilings. Of course I’m on the top floor and, though I can walk up those flights of stair without getting winded, my knees are aching again. Plus going back to work, even part time, has skewed my exercise routine. I’m working on getting into a new gym schedule so I can get in my swim. My body is crying out for that dip in the pool. It’s not impossible but far too easy to shrug off the gym trip after a full work day.

  12. Drinking lots of water a few hours before a workout, directly afterwards, and also making sure to get enough in during the evening before sleep.. has all but eliminated muscle soreness for me. I used to get EXTREMELY sore and stiff.

    I drink about 3 liters of water per day.

    Can’t work for everyone but it’s worth a try.

    • Thank you, Bonnie – that’s a great tip, a good reminder, and a good reference point.

      I don’t know who else deals with this, but it’s hard for me to know how much “enough” water is for my body, and given the fact that I don’t drink often close to that much and am often sore, you may well have something there.

      (Long-winded way of saying ‘thanks’ :-) )

  13. Well, now y’all have done it. I’m working out again, on a progressive schedule, and because it’s progressive (always more reps, or more weight, or going longer, b/c all the trainers say that’s the only way to make progress), I am sore all. the. time.
    *whines*

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  15. I found the best solution to soothing. It’s an aloe vera based gel. Aloe helps penetrate through skin layers so it works best. It’s own property is anti-inflammatory. Of course cream is an addition if you aren’t eating right proteins, and vitamin/minerals, and not drinking enough water, that would be bad. I found it my savor after lifting too much for too long on an evening. My arms were soar, very soar. I applied the cream generously on my arms when the pain started. Then applied the cream at night when I woke up in pain. In the morning my arms were fine as if nothing hurt before. I am not sure how effective just rubbing aloe would be but you can try that, just don’t get the junk in the store (that is over processed and has very little of aloe). I use this gel: http://naturopathicshop.blogspot.com/2012/08/when-you-are-in-pain-muscle-or-joints.html

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