Nothing derails your fitness goals like feeling sore. Yet getting sore is almost unavoidable—it’s a rite of passage, if you will. But it doesn’t have to wipe you out. Follow these tips and, if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) monster altogether.
1. Start SLOooW
It’s very tempting to begin an exercise program with a lot of enthusiasm, but try your best to go at a reasonable pace. If you’ve never exercised, or it’s been a long time since you have, go much easier than you feel you are capable of on Day 1 and ramp things up at a pace that is based on how you feel. If you’re not sore, go a little harder the next day. If you’re a little sore, take it down a notch. If you’re very sore, scroll down to the next section of this article to mitigate the soreness.
If you’ve been exercising, but it’s been more than a week since you last worked out, follow the same pattern but go harder, based—again—on how fit you are. A good example to use here would be to start with about half of the workout scheduled—something like the warm-up, cooldown, and one round of exercises. Because you have a better fitness base, you can advance a little bit further each day than if you were out of shape. In general, take about a week to get back to full-bore 100% effort. This is also the example you want to use if you’ve been training and taken some time off.
If you’ve been exercising, but are starting a new program, base how hard you push yourself on how much advancement there is in your program. Whenever your program makes a big jump, in time, intensity, or style of training (from all cardio to weight training, for instance), you’ll always want to hold a bit back in the beginning.
The reason is that your body has two types of muscle fibers: fast and slow (there are actually increments of these but this is enough for our scope). Fast-twitch fibers are very strong but break down easily and take a long time to repair. This translates into soreness. By easing into a program, you rely on your slow-twitch fibers which aren’t as strong but recovery very quickly. Going full bore on Day 1 activates your fast-twitch fibers, and leads to extensive breakdown and soreness. The harder you go, the sorer you are likely to get because there is something called emergency fibers, the fastest of the fast, which can take two weeks to repair.
2. Minimize Eccentric Motion
Concentric contraction is the shortening of the muscle, while eccentric contraction is the lengthening part of the movement. DOMS is almost entirely related to the eccentric part of the movement. You might be asking yourself, can I do one without the other? Good question.
If you’re doing a biceps curl, the concentric part of the movement is when you move the weight up, while the eccentric part is the way down. In order to avoid the eccentric part, you need to drop your weight. This won’t make you very popular in a gym and might ruin your floor at home, so probably not a very helpful suggestion.
In other cases, avoiding eccentric motion can be impossible. Jumping, for instance, uses concentric force to get you elevated, at which point you need to land, which is eccentric. The only way to do concentric-only jumps is to jump onto a platform and then lightly step down. Again, not too practical.
You can, however, limit the amount of time you’re lengthening your muscles. Slowing down your concentric motions and returning to the start position very quickly, or eliminating the airborne portion of jump training, are good ways to mostly avoid eccentric motion with only slight modifications.
You may have noticed that a lot of very popular exercise programs actually target jumping and eccentric movements. That’s because training them is highly effective, just not until your body is in shape to handle it. Which it never will be unless you proceed slowly and carefully.
Dehydration can also make you sore. In fact, once you’re used to your workout program, nearly all excessive soreness is due to dehydration or nutritional deficiencies.
Most people are chronically dehydrated. In fact, you can actually get sore by simply being dehydrated, even without the exercise. Adding exercise increases your water needs. A lot. Hydration is your body’s first defense against, not only soreness, but also most illnesses and other maladies.
How much water you need varies depending on your activity level, lifestyle, where you live, etc., but an easy gauge to use is to drink half your body weight in ounces each day. That’s before you account for exercise. For each hour you work out, you should add another 32 ounces (on average). This, too, varies based on the individual, heat, humidity, exercise intensity, and so forth, but you probably get the idea. You need a lot of water for optimal performance.
Water isn’t the only factor in hydration. Electrolytes, or body salts, are also sweated out when you exercise and must be replaced. If you’re training an hour per day or less, you probably don’t need to worry about them unless your diet is very low in sodium.
It’s also possible to drink too much water, a condition called hyponatremia. While this is a deadly condition, it’s irrelevant for most of the population for most conditions. Hyponatremia is an imbalance of water and electrolytes. However, it’s very hard for normal humans to get hyponatremia in everyday circumstances because you have to drink a lot of water, have very little salt, and sweat profusely for a long time. So while it’s a very real danger for those doing Ironman triathlons or people stranded in deserts, it’s not a relevant concern for most of us. If you’ve been eating regularly, your foods contain some salt (most do), and you’re not exercising over an hour or two per day, it’s not something to worry about unless you’re drinking multiple gallons of water a day.
4. Get Postworkout Fuel
The hour after you finish exercising is your nutrition sweet spot. The quicker your muscles recover, the less sore you get, so you never want to skip your postworkout snack unless you’ve reached a point when you know you’re not going to get sore.
What this snack should consist of has been debated for ages but countless modern studies show that glycogen depletion (replenished quickest with simple carbohydrates), should be your primary concern. Glycogen is a fuel that your muscles store in limited amounts. When you run out of it during exercise, your workout goes south very quickly. When it’s gone, muscle damage increases until it’s been restored.
Protein, which repairs muscle tissue but is very slow to digest, replenishing body salts, and targeted micronutrients (aka vitamins), all come next.
Left out of this puzzle is fat, but not in all forms. Some studies show promise using medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) postexercise, though it’s probably too techie to bother with in this article because most consumable fat slows digestion of all nutrients, which should also be your first priority when excessive muscle tissue damage has been done.
What is debated, however, is what that ideal carb to protein ratio should be. It basically comes down to how depleted your glycogen stores are. The more depleted, the more important carbohydrates become in your replenishment strategy.
While you will learn to tell when your glycogen is gone (or low) through experience, keep this in mind for now: the body can store enough glycogen for about an hour of hard training. If your workouts are 30 minutes or less, you may not need any carbohydrates. Approach an hour and you probably need at least some.
It also matters what you’ve eaten during the day, prior to the workout. If you’re hungry at the start, it could be an indication that your glycogen is low. If you start low, you may run out quickly.
Glycogen depletion is characterized by feeling empty. If you hit a point in your workout where you feel like you can’t go on, or you’re performing worse than you had been, you’re likely out of glycogen. Known as bonking in sports circles, when this happens you’ll want to shut down a workout and fuel up ASAP.
When you’re out of glycogen, it’s most effectively replaced by a targeted recovery supplement, like Results and Recovery Formula. These are formulated using every nutrient your body can use for recovery. In lieu of that, almost anything carb heavy can be effective. Something like a small bowl of cereal, perhaps with a banana, is a decent substitute. Aim to consume between 100 and 250 calories, depending on your size and how difficult your workout was. More than that probably can’t be digested within an hour.
If your workout was short or didn’t seem to tax you too much, opting for a protein-based snack is a better choice. Whey protein, due to the quickness your body absorbs it, is the best option here, and it’s also where you might consider MCTs if you’re intrigued by them.
To read about what’s the best preworkout meal, check out my What Should You Eat Before Your Workout article.
5. Pick the Correct Workout Program
It’s worth noting that the more you stretch yourself with your choice of workout, program, or even each individual workout, the more you increase your chances of getting sore. The right program—or a trainer/coach—should ease you into exercise at a pace your body can handle, which is always the better choice. But, you know, whatever works for your psyche is probably what you’re going to choose. And that’s okay. Just be honest with yourself, and follow the rules above if you know you’re biting off a little more than you can chew.
What Happens If You Do Get Sore?
No matter how diligent we are, we all seem to mess this up, somehow, sometimes. Depending upon how much you skewed it, you can be back at full strength within a few days.
Occasionally—at least if you’re like me—you’ll go way beyond what you should have done. In such cases, you can be out up to a couple of weeks. Either way, these tips will help you get back on the fast track.
The last thing you want to do, when everything hurts is to move. But that’s exactly what you need to do. While you won’t want to continue with your gung ho workouts, you’ll still want to exercise daily. How much you do depends upon how sore you are.
If you really overcooked it, and things like walking down stairs feel like a torture test (I’ve been there), you won’t want to do much beyond moving as much as you can. All movement promotes blood circulation, and the more blood you circulate around your body, the quicker you’ll heal.
If you have a more sensible soreness, you can do your workout at a modified pace or, better yet, choose a recovery workout. If you’re using a Beachbody program, it probably came with a recovery workout or two. These workouts are designed to help your body work out kinks and soreness better than doing nothing could ever hope to. They can be used anytime you need them, can’t be done too often, and always leave you feeling much better than before you started.
2. Use Circulation Techniques
You can also induce circulation with some other techniques, all of which will help. In extreme cases, physical therapists are loaded with various devices to aid recovery, but here are three you can do at home. While none of these will rid you of soreness alone, each one you can put into practice improves your chances of relief.
Ice and heat – Though ice slows circulation over time, it’s a fantastic circulation tool when used strategically. Your body is almost a hundred degrees. Rubbing ice on (or submerging for short periods of time) affected areas causes blood to rush from that area. Applying a little heat brings it back. It’s a bit like moving, without the movement.
Hot/cold showers – On the same theme, alternately turning your shower on hot, then cold, and pointing it at sore muscles causes a similar effect. The greater contrast between hot and cold you can stand, the greater the recovery effect.
Restoration poses – Also known as taking a load off, yoga restoration poses are a bit more targeted than just kicking it on the couch with your feet up, though some of the poses are very similar. These are movement-free poses designed to circulate blood in and out of targeted areas.
Nutrition – The better you eat, the better your body works, period. When you have excessive breakdown, which you do when you’re sore, every nutrient helps. It’s a common tendency to drown injuries (and soreness is a small injury) with alcohol and desserts. And while that may help your mental state, it will slow down your recovery.
What Not To Do If You’re Sore: Take NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
In the “what doesn’t work” section, see vitamin I (street name for ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin). While they are a common tool for recovery and pain relief, especially for recreational athletes, studies have repeatedly shown that they don’t aid in muscle recovery and, in fact, may exacerbate muscle breakdown. Plus, they come with a slew of other side effects.
Therefore, they should be avoided as much as possible. Understandably, you may want to use them to mask the pain in the most acute stages. Just know that it’s masking, and not solving, the recovery process. There’s too much on this topic to go into here, so I’ve provided some studies (below) for the curious.
- Donnelly AE, Maughan RJ, Whiting PH. Effects of ibuprofen on exercise-induced muscle soreness and indices of muscle damage.
- Gorsline RT1, Kaeding CC. The use of NSAIDs and nutritional supplements in athletes with osteoarthritis: prevalence, benefits, and consequences.Clin Sports Med. 2005 Jan;24(1):71-82.
- Rahnama N, Rahmani-Nia F, Ebrahim K. The isolated and combined effects of selected physical activity and ibuprofen on delayed-onset muscle soreness. Journal of Sports Science. 2005 Aug; 23(8): 843-50.
- Trelle S1, Reichenbach S, Wandel S, Hildebrand P, Tschannen B, Villiger PM, Egger M, Jüni P. Cardiovascular safety of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: network meta-analysis.BMJ. 2011 Jan 11;342:c7086. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c7086.
- Warden SJ. Prophylactic use of NSAIDs by athletes: a risk/benefit assessment. Phys Sportsmed. 2010 Apr;38(1):132-8. doi: 10.3810/psm.2010.04.1770.
- Wharam PC, Speedy DB, Noakes TD, Thompson JM, Reid SA, Holtzhausen LM. NSAID use increases the risk of developing hyponatremia during an Ironman triathlon. Medicine and Science Sports and Exercise. 2006 Apr; 38(4): 618-22.