If you’re neck (er, mud) deep in training for your next Tough Mudder (or heck, recently crossed the finish line) chances are you’ve experienced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)—that hurts-so-good pain and stiffness that sets in a few days after a tough workout.
“DOMS is the completely normal response your body goes through after working out when it’s recovering,” says Adam Padgett NASM CPT, CES, a certified personal trainer in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Every time you train, little microscopic tears form in the muscle, which the body repairs and builds back stronger, he explains. “The soreness is a product of the inflammation caused by this muscular damage and typically lasts 24 to 72 hours.” And, it’s likely to hit particularly hard if you’re training a new muscle group, at a new intensity, or trying a new activity, he explains.
Still, there are ways to lessen the hurt and help you get back to training tougher and stronger than before. We asked experts to share their best tips on how to relieve sore muscles. Try one (or all) of them—your aching everything will thank you.
Relief for Sore Muscles
Mudder, your MO might be “tough” (and TMHQ has mad respect for you because of it) but when your muscles are feeling it, you gotta dial back the intensity. To the rescue: light stretching.
“When your muscles are tight and sore, gentle stretching can decrease some of that tightness and restore range of motion,” says Dr. John Gallucci, Jr., PT, DPT, the CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Instead of getting into a pose and leaning into it until your muscles feeling it, try dynamic stretches like lunges, air squats, side lunges, or inch worms. This won’t help the muscles repair any faster, he explains, but it will help you feel better while the body heals itself.
2. Foam Roll
To prep for the Gauntlet and Funky Monkey, chances are you’ve begun to pepper more upper-body workouts into your training. So if your shoulders, traps, and triceps—not to mention all those little bleeping muscles you didn’t even know existed—are S-O-R-E, we feel you.
Dr. Gallucci suggests reaching for the foam roller to soothe those achy, sore muscles. “Foam rolling can help to break up tissue adhesions that may form during the heal-and-repair phase of the muscle,” he says. “It will also increase blood flow to the area, which brings nutrients and oxygen to the muscle fibers and speeds up the healing process.” Check out our tips on how to use a foam roller if you’ve never used one before.
We know, it sounds counterintuitive. But exercising when your muscles are sore has actually been shown to alleviate said sore muscles—for reasons that are similar to why foam rolling works. “Exercise increases your body temperature and increases blood flow, which brings nutrients to the damaged muscles,” explains Padgett.
Just don't overdo it. “You want to do something light enough to elevate your heart rate without taxing the already-sore muscle fibers,” he says. Think: a walk around the park, a jog, light yoga class, or a recovery swim. Save those full-blown HIIT workout for when the hurt is less severe.
Just as we don’t skimp on mud ever, you shouldn’t skimp on sleep ever. You know this. Of course it’s not always possible, but when your muscles need to recover, those 8+ hours are extra important. “Good sleep enhances muscle recovery,” says Dr. Gallucci.
5. Apply Heat
You’ve probably heard a lot contradictory information out about whether to applying heat or ice when experiencing muscular aches and pains. Well, according to Dr. Gallucci, there are benefits to both. The argument for heat: “Applying heat via a heating pad or warm bath boosts your muscles' temperature and blood to the muscle, which brings oxygenated blood with healing properties to the painful area,” he says.
Even better, make it an epsom salt bath for a two-for-one special. “The theory is that the epsom breaks down into magnesium and sulfate which enters the skin,” says Kavita Sharma, M.D., of Manhattan Pain & Sports Associates. The research is still pretty new, but epsom salt has been linked to reduced inflammation in the muscle. Just be sure the water isn't too hot.
6. Try Cryotherapy
Cryotherapy is basically a high-tech version of our now-retired Arctic Enema. Basically, it’s cold as sh*t. And experts say it works for relieving muscle soreness. “Research shows cryotherapy and cold therapy is a surefire way to quell that post-exercise muscle inflammation and therefore reduce the amount of soreness you,” says Dr. Thanu Jey, Clinic Director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic.
Go on, Mudder Nation. Try it. You might feel like your ta-tas are freezing off, but they won’t. Promise. And if cryotherapy feels a little too fancy or is too costly, that frozen bag of peas will still help, too.
7. Apply Essential Oils
Woo woo obstacle racers, it’s time to take out the essential oils. “Lavender and peppermint essential oils have great anti-inflammatory properties,” says Padgett. Add a few drops to a carrier oil like coconut oil, then rub the mixture into your body as an aromatic DIY massage.
8. Drink Up
Nope, we’re not talking about the ginger-colored bev waiting for you at the end of the course. We’re talking about H2O. “The body uses water to wash away the toxins and waste the body releases during the muscle healing process,” says Dr. Gallucci. “And research has shown that a dehydrated muscle is more likely to be sore following exercise.” If we remain hydrated before, during, and after exercise we can decrease the intensity of the soreness, he explains.
Soreness is one thing, but if you'd describe your muscle pain as throbbing, shooting, or needling, or if your muscle feels numb, or if the pain lasts longer than a week, then you've potentially got an issue on hand. “These are all signs of a possible injury and not just a sore muscle," says Dr. Jey. "I would recommend getting an assessment by a healthcare professional.”
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based fitness and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 trainer. When she's not lifting heavy sh*t, playing rugby, or getting downright dirty, she can be found reading memoirs and guzzling cold brew. Follow her on Instagram.