Have you ever done an awesome workout, and then two days later you have a hard time getting out of bed? We’ve all been there! The dreaded muscle soreness! Muscle contraction sends a signal to produce more protein (protein synthesis is important for muscle growth), while local cells help repair the damaged tissues. After the soreness passes, the muscles grow stronger, bigger, faster (depending on how they were trained!). But what to do when you are sore?
There are many different strategies on how to combat delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). What does the research support for muscle recovery? I’m glad you asked!
How Does Soreness Even Work?
What causes muscle soreness in the first place? DOMS is a result of muscle damage that occurs during exercise. During strenuous exercise, muscle fibers undergo tiny microtears. They trigger an inflammation response 24-48 hours after the exercise (5). Inflammation is the body’s natural pathway for healing tissue. The stressed area (working muscles) send a signal that results in increased blood flow. And with that, carry cytokines and immune cells with it. Satellite cells (non-specialized cells within the muscle tissue) help repair and grow the temporarily damaged muscle tissue. Repeated exercise and muscle adaptation allows for less damage to occur the next time! (5).
Is Icing Helpful?
What happens when you ice sore muscles? When muscle tissue is inflamed, placing ice on top of the area limits the swelling. The inflammation is necessary for the healing process to occur, so icing frequently or for long periods may not actually enhance recovery. A study tested the influence of a cooling pack after muscle fatigue by looking at inflammation markers in the blood, subjective pain, and muscle strength following the exercise compared to a control. The ice pack group showed higher inflammation levels than the control group 48 -72 hours later and reported higher soreness. Both groups produced decreased levels of strength following the initial exercise test. The study notes that the cooling group had a slower rate of cell turnover and repair, suggesting that icing sore muscles may slow down recovery time (4).
Or Foam Rolling?
What about foam rolling? A meta-analysis gathered results of studies that looked at the effect of self-myofascial release (SMR) aka foam rolling on muscle soreness, range of motion, perceived pain, and muscle performance. These studies reported an increased range of motion used during a warm up that did not impair muscle performance. Briefly incorporating foam rolling into a pre-workout routine may provide short term improvements in range of motion. They also found that subjects reported a decrease in soreness as well as increased muscle performance following an intense exercise session.
These results were found directly after the exercise session up to 72 hours later. It’s important to note the authors also combined the SMR with dynamic movement. However, other studies found that foam rolling before exercising had no significant effect on improving performance compared to the control group. The takeaway here is that adding in foam rolling before a workout (1-2 minutes to large muscle groups) may improve range of motion, and incorporating into a recovery routine may decrease subjective soreness (3).
The myth about lactic acid. Have you ever heard anyone refer to lactic acid as the reason why they’re sore? As we learned earlier, muscle soreness comes from muscle damage during strenuous or new exercise. Lactic acid results from a change in the pH level of the blood during intense exercise (this is where the phrase “feel the burn” comes from!) However, lactate is quickly removed from the blood and is actually used as a fuel source elsewhere in the body. Lactate removal is increased with light exercise compared to no exercise following a workout. In other words, including a light cool down after your workout instead of resting helps to transport lactate from the blood to other tissues where it can be used instead (5).
The Best Recovery Tools
They are also the forgotten recovery tools: diet and sleep
Food gives us fuel for exercise, so it is a necessary part of recovery to refuel! Research suggests eating foods higher in protein and carbohydrate to aid in muscle growth and glycogen replenishment. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates in the body and can be quickly broken down for energy utilization during exercise (5).
Sleep and exercise go hand in hand with training and recovery. Research has shown that exercise improves both the quality and length of sleep. Just like refueling your muscles with food after exercise, your body needs sleep to recover. Sleep regulates hormones such as cortisol, important for controlling stress. Growth hormone is also secreted during sleep which promotes muscle repair and growth (2). Additionally, sleep lets your brain rest and recharge. Getting adequate sleep means you can be ready to take on the day, be alert for your training session, and recover fully after you’re done. Consistency is key for building strength and size, so making sure you fully recover between workouts will keep you healthy and reduce your chance of injury.
A Quick Wrap Up on Muscle Recovery:
1: Brief foam rolling before exercise may improve range of motion
2: Muscle soreness occurs after strenuous exercise and inflammation is part of the healing process
3: Prolonged periods of ice limit swelling but may delay recovery time
4: Cooling down after a workout speeds up short-term recovery
5: Foam rolling following intense exercise may improve muscle soreness and subjective pain 2-3 days after the workout
6: Rest up to recharge your brain and muscles
Marisa is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. And has a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science and continued on for a Master’s in Health, Physical Activity, and Chronic Disease at the University of Pittsburgh.
- Bishop, P., Jones, E., & Woods, A. (2008). Recovery From Training: A Brief Review. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 22(3), 1015-1024. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e31816eb518
- Broughton, Roger, Robert Olgivie(1992). Sleep, arousal and Performance. Birkhauser.
- Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015). THE EFFECTS OF SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International journal of sports physical therapy, 10(6), 827–838.
- Tseng, C., Lee, J., Tsai, Y., Lee, S., Kao, C., & Liu, T. et al. (2013). Topical Cooling (Icing) Delays Recovery From Eccentric Exercise–Induced Muscle Damage. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 27(5), 1354-1361. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e318267a22c
- Powers, S., & Howley, E. (2018). Exercise physiology (10th ed.).