By Dr. Mercola
It is highly likely you have experienced the muscle soreness that sometimes follows a new or vigorous workout, which is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
Most people have a routine for managing this discomfort, whether it’s stretching or attending a yoga class, or just soaking in a hot bath. If you ignore it, yes, it will go away on its own — but who wants to suffer in waiting?
A new study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1 set about comparing the effects of massage versus active exercise in relieving delayed onset muscle soreness. The results may surprise you!
The researchers found exercise as effective as massage in relieving those post workout aches and pains. So the next time you think you have to dish out the dollars to see your massage therapist in order to get some relief, you might try a little “hair of the dog” instead.
“Active exercise using elastic resistance provides similar acute relief of muscle soreness as compared with massage.
Coaches, therapists and athletes can use either active warm-up or massage to reduce daily onset muscle soreness acutely, e.g. before competition or strenuous work, but should be aware that the effect is temporary, i.e. the greatest effects occur during the first 20 minutes after treatment and diminish within an hour.”
Why Does Exercise Sometimes Cause Muscle Soreness? (HINT: It’s NOT Lactic Acid!)
For many years, it was commonly believed muscle soreness was from lactic acid buildup, but this has now been thoroughly debunked by science. The burn you feel while exercising is indeed lactic acid, however, your body flushes it out very quickly — within an hour of exercising.
In actuality, lactic acid is a muscle fuel, not a caustic waste product. The myth that lactic acid causes muscle soreness stems from a century-old misinterpreted frog experiment.2
Your muscles produce lactic acid from glucose, which is then taken up by your mitochondria. The more fit you are, the better adapted your muscles are at using it.
The larger your muscles become, the more mitochondria you have, and the more efficient your “lactic acid furnace” will be. Mitochondrial mass (and therefore, athletic performance) is further increased by high-intensity burst type training.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or the muscle soreness you’ve experienced one to two days after exercise, is actually caused by inflammation stemming from microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, or more specifically, microtears between your muscles and their surrounding tissues.
This most often occurs when you start a new exercise program, change it in some way, or resume exercising after a period of inactivity. Eccentric contractions seem to cause the most soreness, meaning movements that cause your muscle to forcefully contract while lengthening, such as the downward motion of squats or pushups.
These damaged muscles release chemical irritants that trigger mild inflammation, which awakens your pain receptors. Other theories about DOMS attribute the phenomenon to changes in osmotic pressure, muscle spasms, or differences in how your muscle cells regulate calcium.
Although science has not yet pinned down the exact process, post-workout soreness is a normal response to exertion and part of an adaptive physiological process that leads to increased strength and stamina.
The ONE Treatment to Absolutely Avoid
Relying on over-the-counter analgesics is not advised, and may not even provide much relief. Taking ibuprofen before a workout in order to reduce muscle soreness has been linked to intestinal leakage and systemic inflammation. When used long-term, it may lead to intestinal permeability, allowing bacteria and digestive enzymes to leak into your bloodstream.
Habitually using ibuprofen before workouts may also reduce your absorption of key nutrients, particularly after exercise, making it harder for your muscles to rebuild. And ibuprofen use has not been shown to reduce muscle damage or soreness. Aspirin fares no better. Research suggests the coating on aspirin, which is there to help protect your stomach, may actually be interfering with its purported benefits. It is a much better approach to treat muscle soreness with a combination of natural measures, which may require a bit of experimentation to see what works best for you.
Five Basic Approaches to Preventing Muscle Soreness
You simply can’t prevent all muscle soreness, but there are some natural ways to decrease its frequency and lessen its severity. Here are my top five approaches, which will be discussed in the remainder of this article:
- Optimizing your diet
- Exercising correctly
- Rest and recovery
- Cryotherapy (ice), heat, or even alternating between the two
- Tools such as EFT, earthing, and acceleration training
The Care and Feeding of Your Muscles
Total Video Length: 0:35:51
Download Interview Transcript
First and foremost, eating a balanced diet rich in fresh, organic nutritionally dense foods will give your body the building blocks it needs to form strong, resilient tissues that resist inflammation. Of course, a good diet will help you in many other ways as well! There is a great deal of excellent dietary information on our website, so please check out our complete nutrition plan. There are three very important factors in fitness nutrition:
- Consuming a diet high in beneficial fats (50 to 70 percent), moderate in protein, low in carbohydrates, and very low in sugar (this means ditching your sports drinks, energy drinks, and most energy bars).
- Getting adequate essential amino acids, especially leucine.
- Appropriate timing of meals, known as intermittent fasting; exercising while in a fasting state can boost muscle growth. The easiest way to accomplish this is to exercise first thing in the morning, and then have a fast-assimilating protein recovery meal 30 minutes after your workout.
Consuming fructose two hours before or after high-intensity interval exercise will decimate your body’s ability to produce human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is central to tissue repair, so if your levels are low, it follows that your muscle soreness will be greater. Carbohydrate loading is not the most beneficial way to gain muscle tone, lose fat, and boost your performance. Proteins, leucine, and other essential amino acids are important for energy and endurance, and timing meals correctly will help assure you’re getting the best results for your efforts.
Amino Acids: The Building Blocks of Muscle
Amino acids are extremely important as they form the building blocks for muscle. Leucine is a powerful muscle builder. However, you should avoid amino acid isolates of leucine because, in its free form, it’s been shown to contribute to insulin resistance and may lead to muscle wasting. It’s far better to get leucine from whole foods, and the best source is a high quality whey protein.
Carnosine (which consists of two amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine) is an antioxidant that helps reduce muscle soreness by buffering acids in your muscle tissue, thereby reducing localized inflammation. Carnosine appears to be important for high-intensity anaerobic muscle performance.
Most studies find that if you want to increase athletic performance with carnosine, your best bet is to take beta-alanine instead, since beta-alanine appears to be the rate-limiting amino acid in the formation of carnosine. As your muscles accumulate hydrogen ions, their pH falls, making them more acidic. The theory is that by improving your carnosine levels, you can counteract the detrimental effect of these hydrogen ions, thereby enabling you to sustain high-intensity muscle contractions for longer periods of time.
Nutritional Support for Exercise Induced Aches and Pains
Several additional nutritional factors have been proven useful by science in preventing and resolving DOMS:
|1. Ginger: A natural pain reliever with a long history of medicinal uses, ginger (both raw and heat-treated) has been shown to reduce muscular pain by about 24 percent.
|2. Curcumin: Studies have shown curcumin (the pigment that gives the spice turmeric its vibrant yellow-orange color) is effective in relieving pain, increasing mobility, and reducing inflammation.
|3. Omega-3 fats: These beneficial fats are highly anti-inflammatory, as well as very beneficial for your heart. My favorite omega-3 fat is krill oil, which has unparalleled ability to quell pain and inflammation.
|4. Sulfur/MSM: MSM, which is 34 percent sulfur, is well known for its joint health benefits, improving metabolism, and reducing inflammation. MSM also appears to improve cell wall permeability, so it is useful in helping deliver other active ingredients. Sulfur also plays a critical role in detoxification and is the primary component in your body’s most important native antioxidant — glutathione.
|5. Astaxanthin: This natural-occurring supernutrient is a powerful antioxidant boasting an encyclopedia of health benefits, including decreased post-exertion soreness and faster recovery time. It even increases your body’s ability to metabolize fat! In a 2007 study, mice given astaxanthin showed heightened body fat reduction when given astaxanthin with exercise, compared to exercise alone.
|6. Cherries: Cherries are a proven anti-inflammatory, as well as reducing your uric acid level. Cherries have been scientifically shown to help with things like arthritis and gout, and may have some usefulness for general muscle soreness. One study3 involving a group of long distance runners found that tart cherry juice significantly reduced post-exertion pain.
|7. Arnica: Homeopathic arnica was demonstrated to reduce muscle soreness among marathon runners in a 2007 study4.
Does Stretching Really Help?
Does stretching improve muscle soreness? In spite of the fact many people think it feels good, science says no — at least, passive static stretching has no benefit, which is the type of stretching most people do. On the other hand, dynamic stretching has been shown to offer benefits when used as a warm-up, which could conceivably help prevent soreness.
Dynamic stretching is an active form (such as what occurs when you perform lunges, squats, or arm circles), and this type of stretching helps improve your power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, and strength. My favorite type of dynamic stretching is Active Isolated Stretching or AIS, in which you hold each stretch for just two seconds. AIS works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints.
Many people, in their zeal for beginning a new exercise regimen, overdo it and become extremely sore. This can destroy enthusiasm in a hurry, not to mention increasing your risk for injury. Don’t jump the gun after a major strength training session. Allow ample time for those muscles to fully recover before training them again — which may be much as 5 to 7 days. I agree with Dr. Jeff Spencer’s strategy of “starting slow and finishing strong.”
Cold Water Immersion and Hot Baths
Cryotherapy, also called cold-water immersion, is a popular practice among amateur and professional athletes alike, because it helps reduce post-exertion muscle pain and inflammation, as well as speeding recovery time. In fact, cold-water baths appear to be significantly more effective than rest for reducing the pain and inflammation of DOMS. Most studies on cold water immersion report no or minimal side effects, but it will shock your body to some degree, so you need to make sure the water is not too cold, and that you do not stay in it for too long.
Alternately, you can use a cold pack, especially during the first 48 hours of soreness. Alternating heat and cold is also a good way to increase circulation and reduce inflammation. Don’t forget the benefits of a nice hot bath! Bathing in a warm tub of water, to which you’ve added 200 to 400 grams of Epsom salt, for 10 to 20 minutes, is an excellent treatment for sore, achy muscles. The Epsom salt is also a great source of supplemental sulfur that you can absorb through your skin.
EFT, Earthing, and Acceleration Training
A simple technique called EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) can be an effective way to reduce pain very quickly, with very high rates of success. And it’s free! This simple technique can be learned by just about anyone, including children. If you’re interested in learning how to do this yourself, please visit my EFT guide.
Download Interview Transcript
And along similar lines, a pilot study5 found that grounding yourself to the earth (also called “Earthing”) might help relieve DOMS. When walking barefoot on the earth, free electrons in the ground transfer into your body through the soles of your feet. These free electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known to man. Experiments have shown Earthing can decrease pain and inflammation, improve sleep, and make your blood less viscous, which is good for your cardiovascular health. Ideal locations for Earthing are on beach sand, close to or in the water, and on dewy grass.
Finally, acceleration training, also called Whole Body Vibrational Training (WBVT) can significantly accelerate tissue healing. Acceleration training essentially involves standing on a vibrating plate that works ALL your muscles and nerves at the same time.
It stimulates your white muscle fibers, which are your fast and super-fast twitch muscle fibers, which kick-starts your pituitary gland into making more HGH. You can exercise while on this vibrating plate, or simply stand on it passively, which means any person of any age or fitness level can benefit.
Vibrational training has been demonstrated to improve circulation, increase range of motion, improve balance, decrease pain, and speed recovery from injuries. Think of acceleration training as “mechanical massage.” In my view the most effective vibrational training device on the market is the Power Plate.
Exercise Smart for Less Pain and More Gain
Remember, post exercise muscle pain is not caused by the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, as was once believed. Rather, it arises from inflammation triggered by microtears around your muscle tissue. This temporary discomfort is a natural part of your body’s natural muscle rebuilding process.
You can successfully manage this pain by making good dietary and lifestyle choices, using a few specific supplements, and by implementing tools such as cryotherapy, EFT, and Earthing — as well as continuing to exercise in moderation, even when you’re sore.