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This Is The Best Way To Treat Your Sore Muscles

Image by Suprijono Suharjoto / Stocksy
March 21, 2019

Soreness is the bane of my existence. There, I said it. I enjoy working out, even love it sometimes, but nothing kills my motivation or ruins my routine quite like being sore. Especially that two-days-later soreness.

I've written a lot about how important recovery is, and what's worked best for me, but there's still a debate out there about the best way to recover. Some folks swear by technologies and treatments like compression devices and Epsom salt baths while others turn to pain-relieving creams and ice baths.

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And while yes, every person and body is different, there's no denying that science-backed recovery techniques should be your go-to if you're feeling sore. What are those, you ask? Allow us to break it down a bit.

Why do we get sore?

The answer is simple: muscle breakdown. When we exercise, we create microscopic tears in our muscles—don't worry, that's supposed to happen—and naturally, our body works to repair those tears. That's why some soreness is OK. "For muscle strengthening to happen, you have to break down your muscle fibers a little bit first," says Sarah Kostyukovsky, P.T., DPT, OCS. "Your body rebuilds your muscles, and they rebuild them stronger."

Kostyukovsky says if you're sore for 24 to 36 hours, that's normal. Anything that lasts longer than that, you've probably overdone it. "In a lot of exercise classes, you're not able to gauge the exercises based on your fitness levels. So if you take a class and you're sore for a week, the class was probably too advanced for you."

To be clear, longer-lasting soreness does not mean you've hurt yourself—it just means you weren't at the fitness level necessary to participate in that class without getting sore. (Which I suppose is my Achilles' heel, because I love challenging classes but loathe being sore. Oops.)

What should you do if you're sore?

Contrary to popular belief, if you're super sore, or sore for an extended period of time, lying in bed is probably the worst thing you can do. Your inflammation is just going to sit there, and your body won't process it.

Instead, Dr. K recommends getting in some gentle cardiovascular exercise in the days following the workout that made you sore. "With muscle breakdown, there's some inflammation happening—which I refer to as the "by-product" of muscle breakdown, and we want to flush out those by-products. Doing some light cardiovascular exercise will do that."

Whether you go for a walk, a gentle jog, or hop on a stationary bike for 20 to 30 minutes, getting your cardiovascular system going will help your body flush out those by-products of muscle soreness—and that's the kind of active rest day I can get behind.

Bonus expert tip: Gentle foam rolling can also bring blood flow to the areas where you're sore. Pair it with a little cardio, and watch your soreness melt away. 

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What about heat and ice?

Another recovery myth busted—ice and heat don't actually speed up the healing process; they're more like short-term feel-better fixes. While Dr. K acknowledges that yes, ice can calm inflammation and heat can bring blood flow to the area, they are beneficial in that they make you feel better at that moment. They're temporary fixes to soreness. "Your body just has to process the muscle breakdown," she says. The same goes for topical creams. "They’re not going to help your body process the by-product of muscle breakdown, but they may make you feel good when you use them!"

The verdict.

Like I said, sometimes being sore simply sucks. There's no getting around that. But you can avoid that weeklong soreness pain by integrating a little cardio and some gentle foam rolling into your recovery routine—even 20 to 30 minutes can make a difference! And if that means I'm less sore for less time, then yes, sweet friend, let's take that class next week—as long as we foam roll after.

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Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Bass searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them). She's debunked myths about protein, posture, and the plant-based diet, and has covered everything from the best yoga poses for chronic pain to the future of fitness, recovery, and America's obsession with the Whole30 diet.