10 Do’s and Don’ts When You Have Muscle Soreness

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The Do's and Don'ts When You Have Muscle Soreness
An Asian man clutching a sore trapezius and shoulder muscle on his left side

There are generally two types of people when it comes to post-workout pain and soreness — those who feel elated and those who feel anxious — but neither state helps you know what to do about it. 

If your muscles hurt and you’ve just started working out again, the pain you’re experiencing is most likely something called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which, as its name implies, refers to the pain that comes a day or two after an intense workout. 

Soreness is your body’s way of communicating with you, and while scientists are still trying to decode exactly what it’s saying, there are things like massage and percussion therapy that can help with post-workout discomfort. We’ve put together a list of the do’s and don’ts that will — and won’t — help you recover from muscle soreness. 

Soreness vs. Injury

First, it’s important to ensure the discomfort you feel isn’t actually an injury. 

The way to distinguish muscle soreness from a muscle tear is, first and foremost, at the doctor’s office. If you’re experiencing severe pain and are unable to put any weight on the affected area or have doubts about whether or not you’ve sustained a serious injury, you should see a medical professional.

If you’re still unsure if it’s soreness or injury, here are a few pointers:

  • A muscle strain or pull is immediate. You might even be able to recall the exact moment it happened. DOMS is anything but immediate; it doesn’t show up until 12–48 hours later. 

  • The sensation is also different, according to Bonnie P. Gregory, MD, a University of Texas orthopedic surgeon. “The pain from a pulled muscle is intense, sharp, and localized to where the injury occurred, and can also be associated with swelling, bruising, and difficulty moving the joints nearby,” says Gregory. 

  • How long it takes to feel better can distinguish between strain and soreness. A muscle strain can take up to a month (or longer) to heal, while DOMS should be behind you in four days to a week. 

DOMS can be confused with not just muscle strains but also other conditions that manifest as generalized low-grade pain, such as tendinopathy or joint pathology. If you have any issues with the latter, even if you’re experiencing mild pain, it’s best to consult with your doctor. 

To sum up, four questions to ask yourself are: When did it start hurting? What did I do a day or two before it started? Can I pinpoint the pain? How severe is it? 

Your answers to those questions should prepare you for action. 

The Dos and Don’ts to Cope With Muscle Soreness

Do: Keep Moving 

Active recovery, or moving in some way instead of being sedentary, can help ease the duration of your muscle soreness. The key here is blood flow. Movement will send fresh, nutritive blood to the tissues, which in turn will help you recover faster.

Depending on how sore you are and the type of workout on your to-do list, you may need to dial things back. Instead of that cardio HIIT workout or a heavy weight lifting day, ease off the gas by 50–60% and do some rowing or bodyweight strength session. Listen to your body, but keep moving. 

“Unless you’re in writhing, debilitating DOMS, I would say keep moving,” says Micah Kradin, personal trainer and health coach. “And even if you are, I would still say move, but don’t do things that are super tough or you know you’re not that great at yet.”

DOMS usually shows up when you first start to work out again or you’re training a new set of muscles more intensely. If you’ve been training for a while and consistently experience soreness, you may need to rethink your workout strategy, says Andy Vincent, physical therapist. 

​​”Feeling mild discomfort is to be expected in the first one to two weeks of a new training plan; however, feeling sore for three days suggests bad program design,” says Vincent. “It usually comes from poor load selection, a lack of understanding of volume [total reps and sets], too many similar movement patterns creating stress on tissue, or lack of a correct warm-up.”

Do: Get a Massage

Research supports that massage can ease post-workout soreness, reduce swelling caused by inflammation, and may improve muscle performance. We asked Kradin, who also does mechanical therapy, what kind of massage would be best for muscle soreness. Surprisingly, he says, “It depends.” 

The cause of DOMS can vary, making it hard to know how to treat it.

“If it’s mechanical — like literally you tore some stuff, versus a bunch of gunk getting caught up in nociceptors [pain receptors] — it could respond to Swedish or sports massage, where you’re doing a little bit more flowing strokes but also going into deeper layers,” says Kradin. “But it’s so speculative that I can’t really say, ‘This kind of massage is going to do it.’” 

Kradin recommends partaking in a type of massage that you enjoy, and that makes you feel better afterwards. 

Do: Get a Massage Gun

Researchers have also found percussive therapy helpful. “Massage is effective in restoration of concentric strength… Yet vibration therapy shows clinically early reduction of pain and is effective in decreasing the level of LDH [lactate dehydrogenase, a key enzyme that converts lactate to pyruvate] in 48 hours post exercise periods,” study authors wrote. 

Massage guns use quick bouts of percussive therapy to stimulate sensory cells on the skin. They provide signals to your muscles and tendons that may increase blood flow to the application area and provide short-term relief. One study found that vibration therapy was as effective as massage in preventing DOMS.

Do: Get Good Sleep

Enough good quality sleep remains essential for overall health, wellness, and mental clarity.

It’s critical to the optimal functioning of our bodies and particularly important for muscle recovery. Sleep debt hinders muscle recovery after damage induced by exercise. If you feel sore after a hard effort, hit the hay earlier to give your body plenty of down time. 

Do: Heat Things Up

Some research suggests that heat applied after intense exercise appears effective in reducing soreness. Other research debates the viability of both heat and cold therapies to ease DOMS. When it comes to heat, the trick may be the temperature and duration. 

One small study of 60 participants found that low-temperature heat wraps applied immediately to the legs after lots of squats resulted in the most significant reduction in soreness. A smaller amount of relief was observed in the group that applied heat 24 hours after the squat session. 

Another small study revealed that continuous, low-level heat wrap therapy eased lower back DOMS by 47% in the 24 hours following exercise. 

Do: Try a Foam Roller — Emphasis on Try

The effectiveness of foam rolling is disputed, with the authors of one meta-analysis remarking that: “the widespread use of foam rolling is to date not fully supported by the available empirical data.” However, there do not seem to be any indications that it will make things worse, so if you have one around, try it. If it makes you feel more tight and constricted, stop. 

“I don’t encourage too much static stretching, massage, or foam rolling during DOMS, as the body can actually tense up further,” says David Leonard, a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, nutrition coach, and active isolated stretching practitioner who trains clients for Kickoff, told us.

While most agree it won’t magically roll your DOMS away, some studies indicate it can offer minimal relief

Do: Try Adding These Foods to Your Diet

Small studies have investigated the effectiveness of citrulline (an amino acid found in watermelon), beetroot juice, and tart cherry juice in soothing muscle soreness.  

A review of research that included 206 participants found that citrulline supplementation reduced muscle soreness in the 24 and 48 hours following a workout. 

Another study observed the impact that two weeks of 14 mmol per day of nitrate (from beetroot juice) had on well-trained distance runners. After three weeks of training and observation, researchers concluded that beetroot juice may ease muscle soreness after intense training.

Cherries, a fruit high in anti-inflammatory properties, consumed before and after eccentric exercise (slow, lengthening muscle contractions), eased painful symptoms of DOMS. Researchers hypothesized the phenolic compounds in cherries may decrease tissue damage that can lead to feelings of pain.  

Don’t: Take Ibuprofen

Since there is quite a debate in the scientific community as to whether anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen are ultimately helpful or hurtful for muscle soreness, consider this: Whatever benefits they may offer pale in comparison to the potential side effects of taking them regularly over the long term

Don’t: Do Cryotherapy

We know… all the cool kids are doing it, but there aren’t enough studies on cryotherapy to recommend it, and the published research that exists about its impact on recovery is subjective. Whole body cryotherapy is a treatment that exposes the body to super-low temperatures for a few minutes and is said to help with muscle soreness, among other things. This claim seems to lack robust scientific support. 

“One website offering WBC [whole body cryotherapy] services recommended that customers perform their own search of the medical literature,” Robert H. Shmerling, MD, pointed out in this Harvard Health Blog. “That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.”

Cryotherapy, stretching, homeopathy, ultrasound and electrical current modalities have demonstrated no effect on the alleviation of muscle soreness or other DOMS symptoms, another study concluded. 

More research cautions that exposure to extreme temperature presents a potential hazard

The FDA issued a statement expressing concern that patients who opt for WBC treatment — especially in place of treatment options with established safety and effectiveness — may experience a lack of improvement or a worsening of their medical conditions.

Don’t: Sit In An Ice Bath

At least, don’t do it for DOMS, as some studies show that it won’t do much of anything

The Bottom Line

The takeaway here is don’t jump to conclusions with DOMS. Muscle soreness does not mean that you got a great workout. That belief has been culturally internalized to some extent, so if you need to, put a sticky note near your workout area that says post-workout pain ≠ gain

If you do get DOMS, it’s neither a victory nor cause for anxiety. Simply take care of yourself, try some of the suggestions above, but most importantly, keep your body moving. 

Ultimately, there are two fundamental do’s and don’ts when it comes to fitness: Do listen to your body and Don’t give up!