8 Unconventional Ways to Treat Sore Muscles
Muscle Soreness Relief 101
"Soreness after exercise is mainly caused by tiny tears in the muscle fibers," explains Jacque Crockford, exercise physiologist and education specialist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE), based in San Diego, California. "These tears cause an inflammatory response in the body, and as they heal, it can be slightly painful." It's 100-percent normal, but don't think in terms of no pain, no gain. "Soreness isn't a good gauge of the effectiveness of a workout," she adds.
Just like most of us, sore muscles happen when they're asked to work harder than they're accustomed to. "Muscles get sore when they've been stressed," says Kyle Stull, M.S., National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) faculty instructor in Dallas, Texas. "This stress is actually a great thing because it results in adaptation over time." Still, "soreness shouldn't be so severe that it forces you alter your normal activities," he says. (If you're worried it might be an injury, read: 5 Signs Your Muscle Soreness Is a Bad Thing)
What helps sore muscles? Try these proven strategies for sore muscle relief.
As much as you want to, don't sit still! "Most of the time, the first 'ouch' comes after someone has been sedentary for a number of hours, whether that's at the office or sleeping. Contractions of skeletal muscles—like those caused by walking—keep fluids moving and circulating, which can help with repair," says Stull. The moment you sit still, your ticker is only body part pumping' and all that repair is a lot of work for one muscle to handle! "The more you can get up and move in the 24 hours after an intense workout, the better," he says.
You won't need a spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down! Tart cherry juice has rapidly become one of the hottest superfoods, thanks to its high level of antioxidants (even more than pomegranates!) and other benefits—one of which is fewer muscle aches. Try adding a splash to your post-workout smoothie. (Cherries are just one of 10 whole foods WAY better than supplements for muscle soreness relief.)
One of the few supplements to hold up under research scrutiny, creatine has been shown to help lessen the pain and duration of muscle soreness from an intense strength-training session. Creatine is an amino acid whose job in your body is to funnel energy to your cells, particularly your muscle cells. So more creatine in your system means more energy is available for building and repairing those toned biceps you've been working on. Even better, reported side effects like bloating or upset stomach are rare and generally mild. (Take it from a dietitian; here's everything you need to know about creatine supplements.)
Funny story: A bunch of Chinese goat herders noticed that their furry friends appeared much peppier after eating a certain type of mushroom. So they did what any curious goat herder would do; they ate some too. Fast forward through a slew of lab and research experiments and now the cordyceps mushroom is available to all, no goat necessary. The 'shroom works by activating ATP, the energy powerhouses in your cells, to give you "clean" energy without resorting to stimulants for muscle soreness relief. (P.S. This is a type of super-healthy plant compound called adaptogens.)
Magnesium, the primary component of Epsom salts, is essential for healthy muscles and is a gentle natural muscle relaxant. The salts, when added to a warm bath or compress, are absorbed by the skin and are actually more effective for muscle soreness relief this way than when taken as an oral magnesium supplement. But then do you really need a reason to go take a nice, hot bath? (While they do help sore muscles, Epsom salt baths don't have detoxifying properties.)
Your morning latte just got a healthy halo, thanks to University of Georgia researchers who found that taking caffeine, about the equivalent of two cups of coffee, lead to muscle soreness relief in women after a strenuous workout. It works by blocking adenosine, a chemical released by your body in response to injury. Just be careful not to overdo this one, as too much caffeine can cause muscle spasms. (Related: These Tech Products Can Help You Recover From a Workout While You Sleep)
Get a Massage
The upside to super sore muscles? Crockford says this is the perfect excuse to schedule your next massage. "Massage speeds up recovery and improves muscle efficiency post-exercise, since blood flow is increased to the areas in need," Stull adds. However, if you think it could be an injury or are super sore, you may want to go for a lighter rub-down instead of deep-tissue. (See: What experts have to say about whether you should get a massage for muscle soreness relief.)
Cheap, easy to use, and—according to many very enthusiastic adherents—the best muscle soreness relief option since ibuprofen, the foam roller is making huge waves. Foam rolling involves a technique called self-myofascial release, which uses pressure and targeted massage to help prevent scarring of the connective tissue between your muscles (the fascia). Grab one of these best foam rollers for muscle soreness relief to give it a try.
Take it easy your first time, though. While it looks as easy as falling off a log, falling off this particular log can be very painful until you get used to the amount of pressure you need to use. (BTW you shouldn't only
foam roll when your muscles are sore.)