Ask LH: How Can I Quickly Recover After A Tough Workout?

Dear Lifehacker, I went to the gym on the other day and did a very difficult (brutal) workout and now my whole body is sore. It’s hard to walk and my knees buckle when I go down the stairs. Is there any way to quickly recover from a tough workout? Things I should be eating, stretches to do or anything else? Should I head back to the gym today (please say no) or not? Thanks, Overdid It

Dear OI,

We feel your pain. Seriously, anyone who’s exercised intensely or tried a new workout after inactivity has probably gone through that post-exercise soreness you’re describing, more formally known as delayed onset muscle soreness (from here on referred to as DOMS) or muscle fever. It’s perfectly normal, but thankfully there are a variety of ways to ease that perfectly normal pain too, from eating the right foods to treating your body. Let’s get you some help right away.

Work Out the Knots In Your Muscles

Light movement: If you feel up to it, try a little light exercise like walking or swimming. Keeping your muscles in motion may bring you some relief, according to WebMD. But take it easy — listen to your body and don’t go back to heavy exercise until your damaged muscles are repaired (usually within 72 hours). Alternatively, try massage therapy to help soothe that muscle tightness.

Foam rolling: Two fitness experts I spoke with, Francesca Pucher, a wellness coach in New Jersey, and Todd Cambio, author and sports nutritionist, recommended a foam roller. Pucher calls it the best self massage you can give while Cambio calls it the “Poor Man’s massage therapist”. Running Times offers these directions for “the (almost) magical foam roller” which costs about $US25:

Use the roller against the muscle knots with your own body weight to generate the direct pressure. Imagine using a rolling pin to roll out lumps in bread dough.

Key Points for Specific Foam Roller Exercises

1. Roll back and forth across the painful or stiff area for 60 seconds.
2. Spend extra time directly over the knot or trigger point itself.
3. Roll the injured area two to three time a day. For prevention of injuries, two to three times a week is recommended.
4. Avoid rolling over bony areas.
5. Always stretch the area following foam rolling.

Cambio’s ebook, How to Reduce Everyday Pain and Inflammation, provides foam rolling routines for each area of the body and more guidelines.

What to Eat When Your Muscles Are Sore

Omega-3s: Food is another important factor when your muscles are sore, Pucher says, because it could be a sign of dehydration, lack of sodium, protein, electrolytes or vitamins, and it’s different for everyone. She suggests taking Fish oil omega-3 supplements or eating foods rich in those fatty acids such as salmon, avocados and almonds. (Research studies, one published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine and another in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine seem to support this recommendation. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation, and delayed onset muscle soreness is basically inflammation.)

Water: Don’t forget to drink water — Lots and lots of water to stay hydrated. Coconut water is very hydrating and a natural source of electrolytes (even works as well as sports drinks when enriched with sodium).

Other Strategies for Soothing Muscle Soreness

Contrast bath or ice and heat packs: Alternating cold and heat therapy is an old technique we’ve mentioned before. The contrast bath is, however, a somewhat miserable undertaking that involves submerging yourself in hot water for one minute then ice cold water for a minute and repeat for up to 10 minutes in the shower. Celebrity fitness trainer Terri Walsh says cold is a natural analgesic that soothes the muscles and the warmth then relaxes them. You can use ice and heat packs instead of water to achieve the same results.

Sleep: Finally, but perhaps most importantly, get enough rest. Uncommon Body notes:

During sleep, your body releases growth hormone and repairs the damage that has been done to your muscles during intense workouts. Taking a 20 to 60 minute nap once a day is a great way to see faster results.

If you can, take naps. But at the very least, get at least the recommended eight hours of sleep at night, allowing your muscles to repair.

Postscript: Prevention and Some Misconceptions

Even bodybuilders and elite athletes can get muscle soreness, so don’t let some aching muscles discourage you from trying the workout again. In fact, a little soreness shows that you actually worked those muscles.

The main thing to keep in mind: The “no pain no gain” mantra is a big misconception. You absolutely don’t need to feel sore the next day to have had a good workout.

Next time you exercise, to reduce your chances of DOMS, warm up for at least five minutes with some light movement, e.g. on the treadmill or bike. (Static stretching doesn’t seem to prevent injuries and may actually make your muscles tighter, before running at least.) Then make sure you get a good cool down period at the end of your workout.

And shortly after exercising, grab a snack or light meal with high-quality protein and complex carbs (e.g. egg on whole wheat bagel or tuna and pasta salad). And don’t forget to hydrate!

Have a great recovery.


P.S. Got other tips for speeding up the recovery process? We’re all ears in the comments.

Francesca Pucher ( is a wellness coach, pilates instructor and owner of NJ’s Best Exercise Studio Fitness 1-2-1 in Roseland.

Todd M. Cambio is the owner of Precision Fitness, LLC in Pawcatuck, CT. He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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