Right after a tough workout, your body and mind feel amazing. You’ve pushed yourself, risen to the challenge, and, as a reward, released some feel-good endorphins, like a runner’s high. But sometimes, vigorous exercise can leave your body feeling not so hot (or mobile) the next day. In fact, in the days following an intense physical effort your muscles may be so sore that it hurts to walk down stairs, reach overhead, or touch your toes.
This perfectly normal post-exercise pain is called Delayed Onset Muscles Soreness (DOMS) and it often strikes between 24 and 48 hours after a hard workout. The culprit behind this aching: Tiny tears in the muscles that form when you’ve pushed your body just past its limit. As these tears heal the soreness goes away and your muscles get stronger. While that sounds promising, this no-pain-no-gain approach isn’t always good for you, especially if you’re feeling too weak, stiff, and sensitive to stick to your fitness routine.
Rather than suffer through it or blow off your workouts, try these six strategies to feel more benefit and less burn the day after a challenging workout.
Before You Exercise
Eat some ginger.
Eating ginger root can actually help make your muscles less susceptible to DOMS. One study from the University of Georgia found that eating 2 grams of the spicy stuff—or around ½ teaspoon—for several days before working out helped reduce soreness in intense exercisers by around 25 percent. Researchers aren’t sure of the exact correlation, but they suspect that ginger’s inherent analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties help temper the soreness. Another study found that eating a single 2 gram dose of ginger one day after exercise can also help cut down on pain.
Add a warm-up.
Jumping straight into intense exercise may be one cause of DOMS, according to a study from Australia. In this study exercises were divided into four groups: one that warmed-up before a workout, one that cooled-down after a workout, one that did both, and one that did neither. All participants did 30 minutes of activity designed to illicit soreness the next day. Those in the groups with a gradual 10-minute warm-up felt less sore the next day than the exercisers who hadn’t eased into the exercise.
During Your Workout
Push a little less.
You can absolutely make fitness gains with experiencing DOMS. Easing up on intensity is one option for ridding this pain from your workout plan. By gradually adding intensity in the form of additional reps, time, weight, etc., over time (as in days and weeks, not the duration of the sweat session), you’ll slowly ramp up your workout, giving your muscles a chance to adapt. If the slowing down isn’t appealing, remember this: Pushing yourself to the pain point may make it hard to consistently exercise, making it harder to reach your goals.
Change your location.
Do you have a beach nearby, or a pool? Studies show that taking your cardio workout off the typical flat road and onto one of these surfaces can make you less likely to suffer from post-exercise soreness. Much of this has to do with the ratio between pushing and pulling in exercise: When this is close to even (such as when working against the resistance of sand or water) the muscles get a balanced workout, making it less likely that you’ll overdo it.
After Your Activity
Smooth out the kinks.
What’s one just reward for a hard workout? TLC for your muscles in the form of a massage or a self-massage. One study from Australia found that exercisers who got a rubdown three hours after working out—and for several days following exercise—experienced 30 percent less DOMS than those who didn’t. These exercises also had less swelling than exercisers who skipped the massage. Researchers are still determining why massage is so effective at alleviating this pain, but they suspect it has to do with the increased blood and lymph flow that follow a massage as well as reductions in swelling.
Put it on the rocks.
Damaged, over-used muscles are often inflamed. Applying cool ice to your muscles right after a hard workout can help reduce this, subsequently limiting the pain you feel the next day too. One study from Loma Linda University in California found that applying a cold pack to the effected muscles directly after exercise and 24 hours later reduced the amount of pain subjects felt. Heat worked too, just not as well. Scientists believe that applying cold right after exercise actually reduces the amount of damage done to the muscles during exercise.